Thursday, July 12, 2012

Good news and bad news at the fabric shop

I try to avoid fabric stores, especially the big national chains, unless I really have to.  About the only things I've bought much of in the last few years are solids, and I try to buy staples like thread and batting in bulk, often by mail, so my trips to the store are limited.  Thank heaven -- I hate retail establishments and I hate shopping.

But yesterday I was in need.  I just finished quilting Top #1 for my Quilt National entry, and that used up my last big piece of wide drapery-weight cotton that could be used as backing.  To move on to Top #2, I needed some more fabric for a back.  Armed with a 50% coupon I headed off to the Big Fabric Store.

Let's start with the good news.  At least I'm going to regard it as good news.  I found some stripes!!!  Not red and white, which is always in stock, and not even blue and white, which I had bought a yard of at a pre-July 4 sale.

These were browns and dark reds, plus another yard of a yellow-and-red I had gotten a few months ago and used plenty of in my striped quilt, just finished.  I wish I had found these darker stripes three weeks ago when I was making the dark half of Top #2, but at least I'll have them on hand for the next time.

But on to the bad news.  At least I regard it as bad news -- probably the CEO of the Big Fabric Store will break out in smiles when he reads it.

I've watched thousands of yards of fabric being cut during my lifetime, and I have never seen a clerk as ostentatiously stingy as the one who waited on me yesterday.   With each piece of fabric she spent at least 30 seconds lining up the cut edge of the fabric with the line on the left of the yardstick, tugging and pushing the bolt so not a single loose thread protruded beyond.  When she had to cut more than a yard, she fussed and fiddled with her thumbnail to make sure she didn't grab an eighth-inch too much, or place it back on the line an eighth-inch too far.

For one piece of fabric I told her I would take the entire length left on the bolt.  She measured it as one yard, 28 1/2 inches, then converted it with her calculator to 1.792 yards.

One piece of fabric had gotten wrinkled at the cut end, and after she fiddled with it a bit I noticed that she was getting ready to cut two inches off the cut end.  Ordinarily I would probably have watched with curiosity to see what was going on, but I was really getting annoyed by this time.

I asked her why she was going to cut it.  Because it was all wrinkled and this would give her a clean edge to measure from.

Why don't you just cut my yard without trimming off the end?  Because that would cause our inventory to come out wrong.  We have to keep track of the shrinkage.

Were you going to throw the two inches away?  No, it would go into a bin to check against inventory.

Having detected my annoyance, she decided to change course and spent a full minute smoothing out the wrinkled edge and lining it up carefully.  After a great deal of back-and-forth nudging I said, "God forbid you should give me an extra quarter-inch."

At which point she righteously sniffed "well, if we give you a quarter-inch extra and the next person a quarter-inch extra and everybody else a quarter-inch extra it would really mount up.  You have no idea how much we lose from shrinkage."

Well, she's right.  But the policy seems like a good example of penny-wise, pound-foolish.  For one thing, it takes an awful lot of time to push and pull to prevent giving away that extra quarter-inch.  I had previously spent at least ten minutes leafing through some truly awful scrapbooking magazines while waiting for my turn at the cutting table, while the clerks fussed and fiddled to keep from giving other people an extra quarter-inch.  We all know that the customers' time means nothing to the Big Fabric Store accountants, but how about the clerks' time?  How about the time that somebody was going to have to spend to measure that wrinkled two inches and tote it up for inventory?  And I thought retail shrinkage mostly comes from shoplifting or employee theft, not from inaccurate fabric measurement.

More important, this kind of stingy behavior tends to annoy the customers, already testy from ten minutes worth of awful scrapbooking magazines.  There's a concept in retailing called lagniappe, a little bit of extra product that the vendor gives away for customer goodwill.  Whether it's the chips and salsa at the Mexican restaurant or the cheese sample at the grocery store, this makes people happy and, supposedly, willing to keep that wallet open a little more and/or come back again soon.

For most of the thousands of yards of fabric I've purchased in my life, clerks have been fair in their measurements but on the generous side.  An extra half-inch in the grab, rounding the end of the bolt down to the nearest eighth-yard instead of measuring it to three decimal places.  Did that practice send their stores into bankruptcy?  I don't know, but it sure did bring me back to buy another hundred yards of fabric.  By contrast, I'm really looking forward to not patronizing the Big Fabric Store any time soon.


  1. I have had the exact experience! drives me nuts, thank goodness for online! Why the drapery weight fabric for the back? Does it make it harder to quilt?

  2. I like drapery weight because it's stiffer and thus less likely to pleat and wrinkle on the back side as you stitch. It does make the quilt heavier and thus harder to wrestle around, but that's a tradeoff I'm willing to make. Once you're done, the weight is a plus because it's more substantive hanging on the wall, more likely to stay flat.

  3. I don't buy fabric at JoAnn's - I hate shopping there anymore. I will buy a bolt of batting when they have a 50% off coupon plus a percentage off the total purchase and maybe a notion or zipper for an alteration, but that is about it. A lot of their fabric is of poor quality - I am glad you found some good stuff. And I am with you on the measuring - they are taught a certain way to measure and are tested how they measure. But worried about their shrinkage? Please! When they carried the first quality Kona solids years ago I was buying lots when it was on sale. At one store their inventory said they had X amount of fabric and it wasn't even close to what was acutally on the floor. I swear they haven't got a clue! I buy my fabrics on-line and at two different quilt shops.

  4. Considering how poorly they pay those employees, it doesn't cost them much (in money) to use up their time with annoying details.
    Once, at probably the same store, the clerk at checkout asked, "Did you find what you wanted?" When I replied "No" she just blinked in surprise, and didn't ask for any details, or offer to help.
    Still, I prefer that standard question to the one they always ask at the cutting table, "What are you making with this?" As if they care. . .

  5. Ages ago, I taught a one-session "intro to rotary cutting" class at a JoAnn's store. I chased them for months trying to get paid -- I think it was a whopping $45. About a year later, I got a call from JoAnn's asking if I wanted to teach another class. I said "Are you aware that I haven't been paid for the last class?" And that's what finally got my check processed. It was a vey sour experience. (No I didn't teach there again; once bitten, twice shy and all that.)

  6. I agree with you on measuring, it has happened to me too. And its seems like a newer policy? Whatever happened to when they would give you the last few inches of fabric left on the bolt? Now they are trying so hard to measure, and I always feel I have to watch to make sure I am getting what I asked for! I hate that store! And the whole idea of coupons!

  7. When an edge is misaligned, they'd cut if off before measuring. Gee, I said, the fabric gets stretched out on the bolt; after washing, the edges come out uneven anyway. Didn't get much of an explanation. Just "directions from corporate".

    The employees themselves I don't fault. I feel they're closely monitored and threatened into following orders.

  8. The last time I was there, the fabric cutter spent a long time just trying to find a true edge to cut from, since no one before her had bothered to cut straight across the grain. But maybe I mis-interpreted her frustrations - her alignment may have been an attempt to follow the policy.

  9. I hate that store too. They tend to locate in areas in which they end up as the only fabric game in town though. Otherwise I don't know if they'd have any customers. So many people are fed up with them. I order online but sometimes it's nice to touch the fabric (although theirs is increasing poor quality). Anyway, I'm not sure why they are so persnickety about yardage. Insiders say most of their profit comes from non-fabric items anyway.

  10. Glad to know my last experience at JoAnn's was exceptional. Given the amount of charity quilts I turn out, I do shop there frequently. I usually buy the entire bolt if it's on sale and it's something I can use. Without being prompted the clerk gave me the end of bolt (75% off) price on anything less than a yard left off every bolt, plus I got 20% off my total purchase, for military service which was 10% more than the coupon I had. I know it isn't always the case. Quality varies, and as always it's buyer beware.

  11. It's a shame, as in smaller towns, Joann's may be the only brick-and-morter place some quilters can go for fabric.
    My experience at Joann's has been positive for the most part. Their fabrics are not the greatest, but are ok in a pinch. I have not had a problem with the clerks, either.
    However, I had a similar situation at a LQS here in town! The clerk measured the yard I needed, then, instead of using a mat and cutter, she cut it free-hand, which they all do at this shop. When I got it home, it was one yard at the fold, but a good 4 inches shy up at the selvedge. Grrrrr. I wrote a nasty letter to the owner, and, to her credit, she gave me a $20 GC. But it took me a long time to go back there.
    The offending employee is still there, though...
    BTW--I love your phrase "ostentatiously stingy!" A great choice of words!

  12. Yep. When I worked there, God forbid your thumb width gave away a bit of fabric. And I OFTEN stated that the stupid policy of not signing in 5 minutes early pissed customers off.

    We would arrive at 11:50 lets say, for a 12 noon shift. And come stand at the cutting counter, waiting to sign in, a huge line of 10-15 people waiting to buy fabric; them getting pissed that you weren't helping them, and your hands were tied. I had more than one person leave 10 bolts and walk, and more than one person say, heck I'd pay your 10 minutes of pay if you would just start cutting.
    I also DID ask what they were making, but I wanted to know, and really? If I have to stand facing you for 15 minutes cutting 1/8 yards of fabric, a bit of conversation over WHAT you are making certainly makes the time go by. The simple terse response " A quilt" is discouraging to the cutter, who actually may be interested. And as retail associates are expected to interact with the customer, it does sting when one tries and gets rebuffed...(because I know that those surveys you fill out all get checked off with, no, no greeting, no one offered me help, etc...)

  13. This may sound un-PC, but back in the day when I shopped in the LA garment district, where most of the merchants were Jewish, the clerks measured the fabric with a much freer hand than at the current big box stores, where the actual owner, whether Jewish or Gentile, is not on the premises. I also worked at small local chain,Jewish owned, that had a similar policy of generosity to the customer. When that business was sold to a larger regional chain, things got alot stingier.

    Just sayin',

    Linda Laird

  14. yay, stripes! yes they are hard to find. that's why i mostly use old bed sheets... lots of stripes at thrift stores!

  15. My theory is that the discount coupons actually drive up the cost of everything in their stores. And...why do the fabric stores sell "As seen on t.v. junk?" And what about Hancock, that has turned into a very bad Pier One Imports store. Remember the old days when a fabric store was a fabric store?

  16. I am surprised that given your disdain for anything not up to your standards of "art", that you would use sub par fabrics like those you find in that "Big Fabric Store". I frequent at least five local quilt shops that have tons of stripes. There are also numerous on line shops that carry plenty of good quality stripes. Of course, I pay more for the fabric there, but considering the time and effort I put into my work, I wouldn't consider using low quality fabric.

  17. Anonymous -- you make a good point about the quality of fabric available at the big chain stores. Here's why I don't mind so much:

    First, with the style of piecing I do, the typical bit of fabric is about the size of a postage stamp. I don't think that the difference between high-end and low-end fabric is very important at that scale. Certainly you aren't going to see the difference, and in my experience it's not going to matter in the piecing or quilting.

    Second, I am not going to wash my fabrics, either before or after construction. So if low-end fabric wants to fray or bleed, that's most likely not going to happen in my quilt.

    I'm a snob about certain aspects of fiber art, but not about the fabric. If I were to make different kinds of quilts, such as functional bed quilts, I would apply different standards, but this works for me.

    If you regularly go to five quilt shops with lots of stripes, then I am really, really jealous. Nothing like that in my town, and my online searches have not been very productive either. Maybe I need to come visit you on a shopping mission!

  18. This is the perfect example of why we should support our local fabric stores where the employees are sewers, why I call the store I believe you went to the "J Word" and why my husband calls it the Walmart of the sewing world

  19. Come shop with me! I am super lucky to have a HUGE brick and mortar fabric store nearby. If all of a J-word superstore only sold fabric, that's this store. I also have a locally owned 'chain' of 2 stores that have a ton of fabric. She's a little stingy on the cuts, but good quality and tons of it. Then there's the LQS. Probably 10 of them within a radius of 20 miles. I could keep you and your checkbook busy for days. :) Not to mention there's a Pendleton Woolen Mill outlet. We could drive by the JWord and just laugh! I got a guest room. Just sayin...

  20. I'm obviously a bit late coming to this discussion, but I just had to comment.
    I had a similar and incredibly annoying experience recently at the Big J Fabric Store…after having a similar experience with a very snarky clerk I was tempted to drop my purchases on the floor and walk out. I'm done with that place. I've decided that I will go without rather than step foot inside again. What used to be an enjoyable experience has become something I dread more than traffic jams and Michigan Pot Hole Season.

    1. Sharon -- never too late! I too used to love going to the fabric store; not so much any more. Fortunately I have enough fabric in my stash to last me the rest of my life and then some, so I rarely make the visit. Too bad.