Opinion: Once folks like me ditched our sewing machines, Joann Fabrics never stood a chance

Editor’s Note: Lynda Gorov is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

I come from a family of Russian-Ukrainian tailors, notion peddlers plus a milliner or two and I am fairly certain my ancestors would hold me at least partially responsible for the bankruptcy filing of a major sewing craft store chain this week.

Lynda Gorov - Courtesy Lynda Gorov
Lynda Gorov - Courtesy Lynda Gorov

Joann Fabrics and Crafts, founded 81 years ago when my seamstress grandmothers still had young children at home, blamed a post-pandemic sales slump for the downturn. The lockdown saw sales of sewing machines soar and stock sell out. But now that we’re not making our own face masks, or working from home in nearly the same numbers, many of our DIY urges are apparently on the wane.

But it’s more than that.

My immigrant great-grandparents taught their children how to make clothes by hand and machine so well that both sets of my grandparents grew up to own and operate small dry cleaning businesses in Chicago, where they also took in dresses, hemmed pants and hung drapes. They had the can-do craftiness of people with practical needs but little money.

Those sorts of crafting skills used to be commonplace. Parents passed them down and when Silent Generation or early Boomer parents could not or did not, home economics teachers did. Most people (OK, most women) who attended public junior high schools in the 1960s, 1970s or even 1980s learned at least basic sewing skills and could advance them with elective classes in high school. Boys were welcome to attend, too, although I don’t recall any wearing aprons or thimbles alongside me.

Unfortunately, those sorts of classes weren’t available to my now college-age kid, who attended public schools from start to finish. She says there was an after-school sewing club but nothing in the curriculum. Ditto shop class, which seems to be history, too.

But if cars are expensive nowadays, what’s known as fast fashion is cheap, not to mention being environmentally unfriendly. Plus it’s cheaply made, which is the whole point: Catwalk trends mass-produced for low prices and not meant to last. There are entire retail chains built on this premise.

The result is that it can be far cheaper and far, far less time consuming to run to the mall and grab something off the rack for yourself or your child than it is to set up the sewing machine and do it yourself. Add up the hours spent knitting a scarf or crocheting a sweater, never mind the cost of materials, and homemade items have become the luxuries and store-bought ones the bargain. Most people I know don’t even mend anymore (and shame on us).

That’s not to say that plenty of Americans still don’t make plenty of stuff. After all, Joann, known as Jo-Ann Fabrics back when home sewing was more in style, is reorganizing its finances, not closing its 800-plus stores nationwide. While sales are also down at craft chain Michaels, it still operates almost 1,200 stores throughout the country. For its part, Hobby Lobby continues to operate 1,000 stores despite controversies and boycotts surrounding the chain.

Personally, I crave this crafting connection to the past, even if I don’t have the time or the energy to pursue it on a regular basis. (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it took me more than a year to notice that the Joann outlet close to my home had closed.) At the same time, I prefer a simpler sewing store. Run in to get thread, run out with just the right shade of blue. I don’t want to be bombarded by construction paper, unpainted picture frames, packages of glitter and glue guns.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, sewing alone can’t sustain a national chain. Not enough of us seem to do it anymore, for fun or necessity. I know less than a handful of people who can do even simple alterations, much less who actually do them, although I also know a dozen cosplayers who regularly create professional-level costumes. Their skills, like their outfits, are other-worldly.

My own mom never learned to sew like that, or really at all. Not certain why, but I suspect her mother was both too busy running the dry cleaners and wanted more for her daughters than to repair other people’s clothes. I’m guessing grandma also believed that real Americans bought ready-made things rather than making them.

Fortunately, my dad’s dad taught him, and he taught me. When I inherited my great grandmother’s Featherweight 221 from the 1930s, one of the early portable electrics that somehow still weighed a ton, he’s the one who showed me how to work the treadle. He also passed on the old wives’ tale that people should chew on thread whenever someone sews a garment (or button) on them in order to make clear to the angel of death that they are very much alive and these are not shrouds. And I do it to this day.

He’d be so happy to see my daughter — his granddaughter — and some of her Gen Z friends putting down their phones and picking up knitting and crochet needles, if not needle and thread. Never mind learning from mom or dad or granddad. The newest generation has the greatest teacher of all time: YouTube, with its tutorials for anything and everything.

They learn online, they shop for materials online, and they sell their homemade wares online. It’s a good thing, however traditions get passed down, even if it’s not so great for business.

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