Fun by the Yard, Multnomah’s Sewing Basket
Submitted by Susan Miller Christensen
Many of your readers who grew up in and around Multnomah during the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s might remember The Sewing Basket, a fabric store that was located in three different locations in what is now “Multnomah Village.” (I canʼt get used to that trendy new name; “back in the day,” it was just plain “Multnomah.”)
The Sewing Basketʼs success reflected the interests of women during the post- war era. At that time, most women were homemakers, which during my early childhood was true of my own mother, Marion Miller. In 1956 when I was nine, however, she did something quite radical for a woman of those times–she bought a business, a yardage store located on Capitol Highway next to the old fire station.
Marion Jennie Croy had grown up on a farm in Cartwright, North Dakota, the fourth of ten children. After high school, she came west to Portland, where she met my father, Frederic William Miller. Fred had been born in Hillsboro, grew up in Maplewood, and was working at the Oregon Journal. After their marriage in May of 1940, Marion found work in a coat factory. While she had learned to sew growing up on the farm, she later told me that she learned most of her sewing skills working in the coat factory.
She was an accomplished seamstress and made virtually all the clothes my sister and I wore. She taught me to sew when I was young, and by the time I took “Home Ec.” (a required course at Multnomah Elementary School for girls at the time), my skills were pretty much on a par with the teacher when it came to sewing. I know that my female contemporaries will remember–fondly or not–the potholder, apron, and gathered skirt projects we had to complete, though itʼs unlikely we actually used or wore them!
When I was born in 1947, Mom and Dad knew their apartment in downtown Portland wasnʼt big enough now that they had a child, so they bought their first house. It was a small two-bedroom home on Falcon Street in Multnomah, now remodeled and still standing.
When my sister Janis came along two and a half years later, our parents moved again, this time to a house on Shattuck Road, not far from the Alpenrose Dairy. Soon after my mother became pregnant with our brother, Donnie, they made another move, this time to a house on the corner of S.W. 27th Avenue and Custer Street, within walking distance of Multnomah.
My brother was still a toddler when my mother became a store owner. At the time, I was too young to realize what an unusual decision this was for a woman of those times. She was 37 years old, and had no business experience whatsoever. But she loved to sew, and running a fabric store was a chance to turn her passion into a money making operation. Alas, the enterprise never made her rich, but she was modestly successful and truly enjoyed virtually every minute she was “down at the shop.” I still remember being given the task of restocking the notions–thread, zippers, bias tape, and the ever-dependable trim staple of the ʻ50s, Rick-Rack!
There were three major pattern companies at the time, Butterick, McCallʼs, and Simplicity. Later, The Sewing Basket also stocked a few Vogue patterns, but they were more expensive than the others and a bit out of reach for most of my motherʼs customers. I remember that when she started the shop (and at home we always referred to it as “the shop”), patterns cost fifty cents. It was a big deal when they rose to sixty-five cents. Now pattern prices are sky high by comparison.
Twice a year, the pattern companies would send retailers a list of patterns that were being discontinued. It was my job to pull the tissue patterns from the envelopes and discard them. Mom would then send the pattern envelopes back to receive a partial refund on the discontinued numbers.
Nothing was more exciting than fabric deliveries! When fabric salesmen came to the store to show her the latest textiles, Mom would choose those she thought would sell well. Sometime later, a delivery truck would double-park on Capitol Highway, and big boxes of fabric were unloaded. Weʼd pull the bolts out of the box, check the look and feel (the “hand”) of the fabric, then decide where to display each one. You knew the season from the fabric deliveries–wools and knits in the winter, cottons and linens in the summer. And naturally my momʼs fabric choices were driven by whatever styles were in fashion at the time.
During the fourth grade at Multnomah School, I would walk down to The Sewing Basket during lunch, and my mom would give me money to go down to Cottonʼs for hamburgers and fries “to go.” Iʼd bring them back to the shop, and weʼd happily have lunch together behind the counter before I headed back to school.
Like most kids in Multnomah, I knew the proprietors and salespeople at each store. Multnomah was a tight-knit community, and store owners with kids knew that their colleagues were well aware of which kid belonged to which parent–it wasnʼt easy to get away with anything if you were inclined to make a little trouble. That old adage, “It takes a (Multnomah?) Village” wasnʼt too far off the mark in those days.
A few years after buying The Sewing Basket, my mom moved to her second location in Multnomah, right in the middle of the center block next door to what was then Edʼs Camera Shop. The store itself was smaller, and I donʼt recall what the reason was for the move, but she did well in this location, too.
In addition to selling sewing supplies like fabric, notions, and the like, my mother did alterations and dressmaking. She worked six days a week at the shop, from 9 until 6, then piled a load of sewing projects into a shopping bag and often walked home, no matter the weather. Her nights were spent doing alterations and dressmaking, though she had a sewing machine at the shop and sewed there, too, between customers.
It wasnʼt until after our parents divorced in 1961 that my mother learned to drive.
She bought a Plymouth Valiant because it had push-button gears, and for a nervous new driver, that was a plus. Having a car made it much easier to bring her work home, especially during the winter months, and bring it home she did! Her Sundays were rarely a day of rest, in that she spent much of that time sewing, in addition to catching up on household chores. She would agree with what we so often hear from small business owners everywhere–running your own operation is a 24/7 commitment.
Mom was a member of the Multnomah Chamber of Commerce, and she even served as its secretary one year, though it was difficult for her to find the time to do that, given her schedule. She also participated actively in Multnomah Days, including dressing up like a Native American to march in the annual parade.
The Sewing Basketʼs final location in Multnomah was in the storefront where you will now find Nectar Frozen Yogurt. This was the largest of the shopʼs three sites, and I still remember helping my mom choose which fabric bolts to display in the windows.
She often made dresses using patterns and fabric available in the shop to encourage sales and displayed them in the windows and elsewhere in the store.
In addition to helping behind the counter after school and during summer vacations, I also did alterations and some dressmaking to earn money for college. My sister Janis helped out, too, and Mom had a few employees at different times. Three Multnomah locals who worked at The Sewing Basket were Blanche Dodge, Muriel Schultz, and Beverly Fisher.
And then there were the customers! Mom knew most of them very well, and itʼs safe to say that in addition to shopping there, a lot of those customers came in just to visit. Often theyʼd ask her for advice on a particular sewing project, but much of the conversation was what weʼd call “gossip,” and in a small community like Multnomah, there was enough of that to go around!
Speaking of which, there was more than a little gossip when two Multnomah business people began seeing each other socially. The Multnomah Bakery (remember the maple bars and chess pies?), owned and operated by Emanuel Bentz, a widower, was right across the street from that last Sewing Basket location. In August of 1968, “Benny” Bentz and Marion Miller were married.
Mom sold The Sewing Basket and began working at the bakery instead. She later said that the time was right to sell, as the industry was changing such that small operations like hers were being squeezed into extinction. Women were entering the workforce in greater numbers, leaving them with less time to sew. The prices on retail clothing were dropping, making it less necessary to “make your own” in order to save money. And larger fabric chain stores were evolving, creating more competition for small shops like hers.
The Sewing Basket was a product of the times, an example of small town life before the turmoil of the ʻ60s changed virtually everything. Having lived in California for over 40 years now, I donʼt know if the camaraderie of the Multnomah business community is the same now as it was then, but I do know that growing up in the Capitol Highway/Multnomah corridor was a true neighborhood experience for kids of my generation who were lucky enough to live there.