In a Material World: Allison Lince-Bentley opened Bits of Fabric to meet rising demand for raw crafting materials.
In a Material World: Allison Lince-Bentley opened Bits of Fabric to meet rising demand for raw crafting materials. Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

To get to the District’s only fabric store, you must walk through a metal gate, past two buzzers, and up a narrow set of carpeted stairs, into two crammed room above a McDonald’s. The store has a limited selection, with pieces of gently used fabric at prices that match their secondhand nature. Material hangs from posts made of plastic tubing, an odd assortment of textures and patterns. Plastic bags full of thread are sorted by color, and piled on plastic bins. Mismatched glass jars full of buttons sit on a windowsill, and a stack of vintage sewing magazines lays on a folding table near the door. It’s an unorthodox setup.

The Adams Morgan shop is a collaboration between the Bits of Thread sewing studio and Scrap D.C., a local nonprofit that rescues potentially useful arts and craft supplies headed to the dump. It’s an amazing example of creative reuse, but with most of the fabrics cut into lengths too short for a dress, it’s not the ideal resource for an aspiring seamstress. Yet in a city so full of makers and craftsters, this tiny room of off-cuts is pretty much all we’ve got.

Crafting is on the rise, both nationally and in D.C. Locally, crafting culture has two key elements in place: people with the itch and time to create, and people with the money to buy their creations. What it doesn’t have is a third essential ingredient: raw materials. After years of decline during which fabric stores ran for the suburbs, demand is back. The stores aren’t, thanks to high rents and online competition. But that might change.

Allison Lince-Bentley, who owns Bits of Thread, has watched the sewing scene grow quickly over the past five years. When she and a friend started a local sewing lounge in late 2008, there were about six people at the first event. “By the second event it was 30 people, and by the next month there were 30 people on the waiting list,” she says. “There was a huge response.” Lince-Bentley initially offered classes at the Sitar Arts Center in Adams Morgan, then began private lessons. She grew into the studio space on Columbia Road in November 2010. At first, her beginners classes were most popular. Now, she teaches a solid cadre of advanced sewers, and the classes regularly sell out. One upcoming workshop has room for eight students—and there are dozens more waiting for an opening.

Lince-Bentley attributes the growth “partly thanks to the whole DIY movement,” she says. “But also, Project Runway is huge. I think those shows have gotten people inspired and boosted the status of sewing.” All these sewers have one question, Lince-Bentley says. “Three times a day, four times a day people ask me, ‘Where do you buy fabric?’”

Lacking a local supplier, crafty D.C. residents have two choices: the suburbs or the Internet. Joann, Michaels, and A.C. Moore are the big-box outlets that dominate the craft market nationwide, and all have locations in Maryland and Virginia. Hancock Fabrics is another popular national chain, but its local stores are miles from the District. There are stores specializing in African and Indian fabrics in Wheaton, Langley Park, and other suburbs. Without a car, though, they’re not easily accessible.

The scene wasn’t always so bleak for local sewers. There was G Street Fabrics, founded back in 1942 on G Street NW. But the shop, despite its name, bailed on the District in 1983; it now has branches in Rockville, Centreville, and Falls Church. Haute Fabrics, based in Marshall, Va., had a Georgetown location, which is now temporarily closed. Exquisite Fabrics, also once in Georgetown, closed in March. Stitch DC, which sells yarn and quilting fabrics, had locations in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. Both are now closed, and the store has relocated to Tenleytown.

G Street president and CEO Joel Greenzaid, a veteran of the textile business, says the decades-long slump of maker culture prompted the industry’s move out of the city. “There’s less fabric stores in general, because there’s less people sewing. Usually a few great stores in one metro area services a sewing community,” he says. “You have to have the demographics and the density to support a fabric store.”

You’d think the District would have enough demand to lure a fabric store. Interest in making is definitely on the rise, as evidenced by the popularity of the annual Washington City Paper-sponsored Crafty Bastards fair, the rise of the D.C. Craft Mafia (a cohort of makers who promote craftiness in the District), and the profusion of smaller-scale events like the recent Make It Mount Pleasant street market. Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, has more than 15,000 items currently on offer from D.C. craftsters.

So why hasn’t any fabric retailer moved in? It turns out that the fabric-store exodus, like so much else in D.C. these days, is partly due to the rent being too damn high. Average retail rents in the District are around $36 per square foot, according to the CoStar Group Inc., a real estate research firm, down from a high of $42 in 2009. Of course, those rents, being averages, don’t quite reflect reality for local business owners. “You have some areas of town having rents up to $75 per square foot,” says Stacey Price, executive director of Think Local First D.C., a nonprofit group that promotes independent retail in the District.

High rents can translate to high prices. “The Susie Sunshine part of me wants to think that we all enjoy going into stores, but the reality is that we do have the ability to find almost anything online and make a cost comparison,” Price says. Except in D.C., makers don’t have a store to go into.

Amina Ahmad makes hand-dyed shirts, bags, and scarfs under the name Handmade Habitat. She was selling her creations at the Make It Mount Pleasant event on a sweltering Sunday in June. “I stockpile a list of supplies for ten weeks, then make one trip” to Joann, says Ahmad, who lives in Takoma Park—closer to Joann than many makers in the District proper. And for fabric, Ahmad turns to the Internet. It’s not just convenience that pushes Ahmad online. When there were fabric stores in the District, “they were often extremely overpriced.”

But online shopping can be a challenge for crafters who want to handle the fabric and assess its weight and texture. Ahmad only orders simple cotton, she says, because “you know what you’re buying.” Going by pictures alone, Internet purchases can be expensive disappointments.

There’s something about wandering the aisles of a craft store that the Internet can’t beat. Many makers get inspiration from touching the fabric, exploring how two patterns clash or match, talking to the store staff and other patrons. An online shop just isn’t the same.

That’s why Karen Klein started Scrap D.C. The project began with Klein and her co-director Heather Bouley scouring the Freecycle website for craft supplies people were giving away. The effort quickly snowballed. “We had accumulated two and half tons of stuff in our houses before we realized it,” Klein laughs. “Once a quilters group gets wind of you, you’re toast.”

Those tons of stuff find their way to the minishop on Columbia Road and a scrap store on O Street NW that sells a hodge-podge of craft supplies. The randomness of the wares can inspire tremendous creativity, Klein says. Like the guy who scored a small suitcase that once held pastels, now empty. “A man walked in, saw it, and shouted ‘Portable zen garden!’,” Klein says with a smile. “I was like, OK!” But, Klein says, “it’s hit or miss. If you’re looking for Michaels or A.C. Moore, it’s not us.” She says that eccentricity is part of the store’s charm. “They’ve taken arts out of the schools. We really want kids to know you don’t need a fortune to make art. Just imagination and the right funky materials,” she says.

At G Street’s suburban stores, kids are an increasingly common presence, Greenzaid said, walking in and getting a spark of inspiration from the colorful shelves.

“There’s been a little bit of a resurgence with some of the young teens. Thirteen, 14, 15 years old, wanting to learn to sew,” he says. G Street offers week-long classes for teens every summer, and they’re always packed. “It gives them self-esteem: ‘I made this myself.’”

And, he said, with maker culture on the rise, and retail growing in the District, G Street just might return to its roots.

“The last few years, it’s crossed my mind that it could be intriguing to be back down there” in D.C., Greenzaid said. G Street, after all, sells everything from basic cottons to high-grade pure wool, from silks for evening wear to rugged upholstery fabrics. “I wouldn’t be surprised if D.C. could use a store like that.”