Store sews a niche for itself

Button, button, who's got the button? In Portland, Josephine's does

Portland is a sewing mecca, says Judith Head, the owner of Josephine's Dry Goods.

The downtown fabric and button store is a destination for locals and out-of-town visitors alike. 'We have so many tourists who come into the store,' she says.

Though in recent decades many women have walked away from their sewing machines and tossed their Butterick patterns, Josephine's has flourished.

The store, under 5,000 square feet in size, is a contrast to the big-box fabric and craft stores found in shopping malls across the country.

'We fill a niche,' Head says, standing amid bolts of beautiful cloth from around the world: wool and cashmere from Italy; linen from Austria, Ireland and Poland; retro cotton prints from the United States; cotton lawn and wool challis from England; and silks from many countries, including China, Japan, Vietnam and Italy.

'The selection is just fantastic,' says Portland designer Kelli Vergotis.

Groups of sewing enthusiasts charter buses to come to Josephine's from other areas. National Public Radio's Linda Wertheimer stopped in on a visit to Portland. 'She very definitely knows her way around a fabric store,' says Head, who sees the variety of visitors as 'one of the perks of being downtown near hotels.'

This week, when Josephine's is holding one of its three-times-a-year sales, she expects to see shoppers from all over the region, including a lot of customers from Seattle.

For someone sighing over the Italian double-faced cashmere that's one of the most costly fabrics at Josephine's, the sale's 20 percent discount is a powerful enticement: $26 subtracted from the regular price of $130 a yard.

Head says more and more people are returning to sewing.

'I think there's an upturn. In the last year, especially, a lot of people in their 50s have remembered how good it made them feel to sew and they want to do that again,' she says. 'I can't think of anything better myself, just to do that.'

The New York-based Home Sewing Association, formed in the 1920s to promote all aspects of the industry, talks up sewing as relaxing and rewarding, a surefire stress reducer that offers 'freedom from the sameness.'

Its Web site,, even offers sewing lessons.

Since mid-September, Josephine's has offered a weekly series of one-hour lecture and demonstration classes, focusing on such topics as loop-and-button closures, hems, seams and piping.

Head says she was fascinated at the large turnout for the session on hand stitching Ñ techniques girls once learned from their mothers or grandmothers. 'People wanted to learn how to do it again, because they had forgotten,' she says. 'Some of the younger women, they never had seen those kind of stitches. You just sort of forget those things, and they're necessary if you want to sew well.'

She's considering offering a beginning sewing class for small groups; students will be invited to bring their own sewing machines. 'You need to know the steps, even with the simplest elastic-waist skirt. I always say if you just make skirts, it's a huge addition to your wardrobe, and it's fun and not too complicated.

'If you're looking at designer- quality clothes, you can definitely sew for a fraction of the cost.'

She quotes a customer, a visitor from Toledo, Ohio: 'Why waste your time if you're not going to sew on something of reasonable quality?'

When the 26-year-old business started, finding sources for fabric was an ongoing struggle that involved at least one trip a year to New York, Head says. Today, she can rely on a variety of suppliers, including one that buys bolt ends of the superfine fabrics used by designers Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Carolina Herrera.

Josephine's also specializes in buttons, in a vast variety of sizes, shapes, colors and materials. 'Even nonsewers need buttons,' Head says, recalling a line of Nordstrom blazers with unpopular gaudy gold buttons.

'The Nordstrom clerks actually would recommend us, and the customers would come here right from Nordstrom and say, 'I hate these buttons, please help me.' '

Josephine's was one of the original tenants at the Galleria when it opened in 1976; the store stayed there until two years ago, at which point it was the last remaining retailer on the building's second floor.

'We were very loyal tenants, and we liked being there,' Head says. 'It was tough to find a new spot Ñ we didn't want to be far from where people were.'

The move to its current location, 521 S.W. 11th Ave., started at 4 p.m. on a Saturday. After hauling store fittings in friends' trucks, pushing bins loaded with fabric and rolling the cutting counter Ñ which was too large to fit in a pickup Ñ up the street, Josephine's was open for business by noon the next day.

'It was grueling,' says Sara Head, who works with her mother.

'It worked out quite smoothly, considering,' Judith Head says. 'I just don't ever want to do it again.'

Contact Jeanie Senior at

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