Today I am sharing a particularly exciting edition of the ‘get to know’ interview series. In celebration of Nancy’s Sewing Basket’s 37th anniversary*, I sat down with Nancy (yes, that Nancy!) and her mother Jackie, who owns NSB, to learn more about the store itself and the people who started it.
Tell me a bit about the shop. What inspired you to open a fabric store?
Nancy: My mother and father wanted to open a retail shop on Queen Anne. We talked about an Italian deli but opted for a fabric store. Quite a leap! Both my mother and I loved to sew, but we were tired of being in the middle of a project and having to get dressed up to take the bus to downtown Seattle to purchase notions, patterns, and fabric at Frederick & Nelson. This was at a time when you did not go downtown without looking your best!
Jackie: I remember Nancy really hated having to leave Queen Anne for a spool of thread. Opening a fabric store in our neighborhood was a good solution.
Did you have much experience in retail prior to opening Nancy’s?
Jackie: No. Well, the truth is when I was about 14/15 years old, I ran an ice cream shop in my hometown in North Dakota. I never ate a drop of ice cream the whole time I worked there because the previous shopkeep – a relative of the owner – got fired for eating ice cream. We were open year round, though summer was our busiest season. I did that for about two years.
My husband, John, loved business and was very interested in starting one of his own, which is why we went for it.
Nancy: No retail experience at all. I studied hard in high school taking bookkeeping, business, and economics classes. When living in Arizona, I took some accounting classes at the local community college.
I was very nervous during the first months the shop was open. Since I had very little schooling in sewing techniques/fibers/etc. I was sure everyone who came into the shop knew so much more than me. But, what I learned is that you treat everyone politely and answer their questions the best you can. When I did not know the answer, I got back to the customer with the proper information. My mother and I had so much fun talking with, helping, and building very loyal customers and friends.
Tell me a bit about the early days.
Nancy: The original shop – where Caffé Ladro is today – was so small.
Jackie: We had fabric reps who originally refused to even come into the shop because it was so small! The first storefront was a small, cramped space. We worked in very tight quarters; there was barely room to move behind each other at the cutting counter! We met with reps in a tiny room you could hardly turn around in. But right off the bat, we made decent sales.
Nancy: Yes, we were successful enough to expand into the two north spaces (originally a beauty shop and a real estate office) by our third year.
The first shop was not fancy and was so jam-packed with fabric (everything from quilting cottons to woolens to imported French laces), notions, buttons, yarn, and patterns. Jackie and I loved to buy lovely things. We wanted to carry everything! We wanted to be the local fabric store our customers could count on to find what they needed.
Jackie: Nancy, John, and I spent a lot of time in the shop over the years; it was real work.
How has Nancy’s changed over the years?
Nancy: When we purchased the last space on our block of Queen Anne Avenue and built our permanent location, the shop started looking more organized. Jackie and I worked with an architect to create a space we thought would reflect the character of Queen Anne and work for our purposes. Today, with the ideas and creativity of the Nancy’s staff the shop looks amazingly beautiful. It is like Nancy’s has grown up from our very humble beginning.
My one disappointment is that Nancy’s now has the reputation of being very expensive. Yes, we have some very special fabric and it is expensive. But, we also have the basics!
Jackie: Well, the store has changed in some ways I didn’t originally expect. Like Nancy said, we now carry a lot of special fabric that can be expensive. I always loved notions and the supplies that contribute to making small crafts. While we still offer a lot in the way of notions (Ellen does a great job with our notions department) and we have a nice selection of craft materials, we don’t really carry all those crafting supplies anymore. That isn’t what I anticipated.
What is your current role at Nancy’s?
Nancy: I do the daily bookkeeping and set the budget for all the departments. I keep in touch with the shop management via email and telephone on a daily basis. And, I still participate in the most fun stuff: buying the lovely fabric we offer to our customers.
I must say I miss being at the shop. It was such a huge part of my life for a very long time. It was so special to work with all our customers.
Jackie: I’m on the back burner. I talk to the store every day to keep up on what is happening, what’s selling well, what kinds of projects people are doing. Mostly just supervising from a distance. I still like to participate in buying fabric!
Do you have a favorite memory of running the store?
Jackie: I have a few favorite memories. One time, in the early days, I had a customer who came in looking for Velcro. I hadn’t ever really used it and, in my unfamiliarity, I accidentally sold them only one side! I was so embarrassed. They never did come back for the other half…
Another time, in our first space, a customer came in asking if we carried woolens. I very proudly showed him to the wool section, which at the time contained just three bolts!
One more: for several years, Nancy’s would put on fashion shows, where all the staff would make an ensemble and then wear it in a runway show. One year, one of our staff was a bit behind in her sewing and to complete it on time she used glue to finish her last few seams. It was a workable solution; she got to wear it on the runway!
Nancy: Over the 23 years that I was at the shop daily, there are too many to mention. Okay, here’s one: I am a punctual, on-time person. Even though I was always at the shop on time, my dad often beat me to the shop and that annoyed me at the time. But looking back, it was so fun to see him sweeping the sidewalk, always there to say hello. It was very special. He loved the shop and that is why our building has a memorial plaque in his honor.
Let’s switch gears a little; I want to know more about you. When did you learn to sew and what was your first project?
Nancy: My mother taught me the basics of sewing at a very young age. In high school, I took the required course of home economics. Mrs. Hayes was the home ec teacher at Queen Anne High School and Oh! My! Gosh!! My first project was a hand sewing sampler and you were either lucky or talented if you passed that! I passed, not sure if I was talented or lucky! 😉 Then we moved on to the machines to make an apron with perfect seams. She was like a drill sergeant but, oh my did you learn the proper way to sew.
Jackie: I started with embroidery work when I was 8; that was my first fight with a needle and thread.
When I got older, I learned how to sew clothing because I wanted to go to the school basketball games. You see, it cost money, which I didn’t have, to go to the games. Then I figured out that if I joined the band, I could get in for free. I stabbed at the clarinet, and could really only hit a C note, but they still let me play. But back to learning how to sew: in order to be in the band, you had to have a pair of white pants. Those, like tickets to the game, cost money that I didn’t have. My first sewing project was my pair of white pants for playing in the band. I joined the home economics class and got enough help from the teacher that I completed the pants! I think she must have helped me with all the buttonholes, because I don’t remember putting in a zipper.
Do you still sew much? How do you spend your time now?
Jackie: No, I can’t really do that any more. I work on all sorts of paperwork for another business. I also spend time with my three littlest granddaughters (twins who are two years old and a baby who is one). They are very well-behaved and so fun.
Nancy: I do not sew much anymore, although I have great plans to get up to my sewing room someday soon when my life finally slows down! I joke with friends that my sewing these last years has been repairing horse blankets.
After managing the shop for 13 years and then commuting to Queen Anne from my farm, south of Olympia, for another 13 years, I decided to semi-retire. Since I know the shop is in good hands under the management of Tamara and Kitrina with the help of our amazing staff, I can relax.
These days I spend my time with my horses. I train and have competed the last 19 years at dressage with my amazing Morgan geldings. My husband, Bill, and I have been on many trail rides, rides at the beach and weekends spent riding and camping in the National Forest Wilderness.
Of course, living on a farm, there are the annual garden veggies that need to be processed. So, I am busy, busy.
My husband and I love to travel. We have had some amazing adventures in the last 20 years.
Did you have a special focus in sewing?
Jackie: Well, my sewing was pretty basic. I primarily made simple clothes for my grandchildren: tee shirts, nightgowns, and pajama pants. I didn’t sew much for myself. I made a couple of dresses over the years, and I still have a shirt that I made that turned out very well. I’m not a particularly accomplished seamstress, but I was good with the basics.
Nancy: I did a little of everything – tailoring, sewing for my boys and family, always having a project in the works. I especially liked making Halloween costumes for my boys – fun, creative, and you did not have to have the perfect fit!! And: they loved it.
Jackie: Nancy was a really talented seamstress. All her garments were finished impeccably; she could wear them inside-out!
Do you have a favorite or most memorable sewing project?
Jackie: One year, when my younger son was around 12 years old, I made rain-capes for him and his football team out of a waterproof material. It was a simple silhouette, not much more than a hole for the head and a couple of seams on the sides, but it was a fun project. I must have been the only mom who could – or would – make them!
Nancy: I made the most beautiful hot pink – but not hot pink – wool crepe dress with bias cut matching silk binding from a Vogue pattern, more difficult than I had imagined. It was for an especially fancy New Years Eve event. After 40 hours of constructing this dress I was finishing the hand work until the minute before we left! I felt like a princess in it.
Thank you so much, Jackie and Nancy! This was a really fun interview and I have an even greater appreciation for the shop and its history!
*the Nancy’s Sewing Basket anniversary sale will begin on Monday, September 7th. For more details, please check out our website.
Thanks for reading this special interview! If you have any questions for Nancy or Jackie, please leave them in the comments below!