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Column: A skill as ancient as we are

Sad? Yes. Surprised? No. Those were my reactions to learning that Richmond’s Fabricana on Garden City Road would close its doors forever next month.

            Sad? Yes. Surprised? No. Those were my reactions to learning that Richmond’s Fabricana on Garden City Road would close its doors forever next month. What will open at that location? Another dollar store? Another Asian restaurant?

            There must still be many people who remember when a significantly smaller Richmond had four department stores – Simpsons-Sears, Hudson’s Bay, Woodward’s and Eaton’s – which sold nearly everything necessary for the home and family, including fabrics and sewing supplies. Today only Hudson’s Bay survives, and it no longer sells fabrics.

            Sewing is one of the most ancient crafts, a form of which was carried already by Stone Age people when they attached pieces of skin or fur using needles made of bone, threaded with sinew or gut. People have always needed clothing and there have always been people to meet the need. In 16th century Italy, the aristocratic class employed nuns in convents to sew their underwear, nightgowns and the shirts for men, while tailors were engaged to fashion the elegant outerwear for both sexes. The most sought-after tailors were French –the couturiers of centuries ago. Moving forward in time, many women, not only nuns in convents, worked as seamstresses (from the Old English “seamestre,” feminine of “seamere,” tailor), sewing by hand before the invention of the sewing machine in the late 18th century, followed by Isaac Singer’s improved design in the mid-19th century.

            We’re still sewing today and this means we still need fabrics, scissors and thread. When I was attending Cambie Junior High (then located at Sexsmith and Cambie), I took Home Economics in grades 7 and 8. I was better at sewing than cooking or baking – if only I could apologize to the teachers who politely nibbled my inedible cookies at the annual tea. In sewing the first item we made was an apron of white cotton broadcloth with our name stitched on the bib. I’ve kept mine and am amazed at my precise handiwork when only 12 years old.

            Today Richmond Secondary School offers Home Economics courses in their Applied Design, Skills and Technologies curriculum. Cooking and baking are now known as Culinary Arts, Food and Nutrition, while sewing has become Textiles and Fashion Design. I heard the courses were so popular that also students from other schools enrolled in them. Thus it’s even sadder that Fabricana, Richmond’s last retail fabric store, is to close, following the departure of Richmond’s food mecca, Galloways, a few years ago.

            The term local resonates with us, especially when referring to food, because local equals fresher. It also means less pollution, since long-distance transportation isn’t involved. In fact, we’re managing to find local sources for much of our food. But it isn’t only food that should be available locally. Although online shopping is growing in popularity, there are still things we have to examine in person before buying – such as fabrics. Isn’t it sad, as well as absurd, that searching even for thread of a particular colour will now mean increasing our carbon footprint?

Sabine Eiche is a writer and art historian