“We are in Berkeley,” said Maia Discoe, owner of The Black Squirrel, the city’s only yarn store, “so there is definitely a customer base for organic yarns.” The store also has a customer base for vegan yarns — cotton, bamboo, linen and raffia.
Such requests are not unusual in Berkeley, where stores specializing in needlecrafts — sewing, knitting, crocheting, quilting, embroidery, needlepoint, cross stitch and the like — are a niche within a niche.
In the city limits alone, the range of offerings can satisfy the most traditional to the geekiest of crafters.
At Stonemountain & Daughter you can find fabrics used by top New York designers. Ahlishan Collections has hand-embroidered Indian fabrics for drapery or clothing. The Lacis museum’s retail store has vintage patterns some customers use to make costumes for historical re-enactments. There’s also The Black Squirrel, which promotes the work of independent artisans, New Pieces Quilt Shop & Gallery, which can actually put together your quilt, Discount Fabrics, the source for African prints, Tinsel Trading, sought after by Hollywood, and Quilt & Textile Repair for fixing up old handiworks.
Up until recently, Berkeley had another quilt shop, Hello Stitch, which had a retail store and studio at 1708 University Ave. for five years. It lost its lease in 2022 and has since operated without a physical space, doing away with its retail shop, but still offering quilting services, online classes and in-person classes via other organizations.
Unlike the anonymity of craft chain stores, independently owned shops attract a customer base passionate about their craft, community and sustainability. The community is a tightly knit one: When crafters hit a snag, they seek the help of expert staff found in local stores and then share their finished products on social media sites like Instagram. Many shops also provide classes taught by regional and national experts, another way the community is built and comes together.
Store owners, too, are a tightly knit bunch. As a niche group of shopkeepers, they often reference each other and recommend each other’s stores to their customers.
Like all handicrafts, needlecrafts are enjoying a revival that was super-charged by the pandemic, when stay-at-home workers sought meaningful hobbies to fill their free time, and younger crafters inspired by celebrities and sharing projects on Instagram. As Forbes put it, knitting and crocheting “became the cool activity during the Coronavirus.”
Some local shops — like Stonemountain and The Black Squirrel — saw online sales take off during the pandemic, pushing their customer base beyond Berkeley, attracting both a national and international clientele.
Like crafts in general, needlecrafts are seen as an antidote to an increasingly technological world, similar to the 19th century’s Arts & Crafts movement. They also represent a backlash to fast fashion and its ecological repercussions. Hand-crafted items are made to be saved and passed on. People are also drawn to the stress-reducing nature of needlecrafts and view it as an outlet for creative self-expression.
“Fabric and the needle arts are by nature inclusive to all people,” said Suzan Steinberg, co-owner of Stonemountain & Daughter. “It’s amazing to hold space for people to come in and see themselves and dream.”
Here’s a look at Berkeley’s eight craftiest stores:
The Black Squirrel: Inclusivity and indie dyers
The Black Squirrel started as a pop-up six-and-a-half years ago “and never unpopped,” said Maia Discoe, the store’s second owner. She credits the shop’s success to its West Berkeley location, unique offerings and diverse and engaged community.
“The political thinking in knitting and crocheting now is about inclusion, specifically LGBTQ and BIPOC crafters, designers and dyers,” Discoe said. To that end, Discoe works hard to represent diversity by carrying many indie yarn lines made mostly by women and members of those communities.
“Being open and inclusive is very important to us,” Discoe said. “All ages, all genders, all races. Everybody is welcome here.”
The 2,000-square-foot shop is known for its assortment of wool yarns made by indie dyers, usually women artisans who started out in their kitchens or garages. One of those dyers is Kacey Herlihy, who works at the store. Her hand-dyed wool yarns are sold under the brand Kacey Knits (around $32 a skein).
Another artisan featured in the store is Dawn Kathryn of Berkeley, whose silk-screened project bags feature her original artwork. She is also a yarn bomber who crafted the Black Squirrel on the fence bordering the store a couple of years ago.
In addition to hand-dyed yarns, the store carries yarns from places like Japan, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, and luxury yarns like mohair, alpaca and cashmere. Prices range from $3.25 for a skein of vegan yarn to $40 a skein for a cashmere-blend yarn. Also in the mix: a large assortment of notions, from cable needles to buttons, embroidery scissors and “oodles of stitch markers.”
Shoppers at this store skew on the younger side, the median age being 35 to 45, Discoe said, noting that it attracts more knitters than crocheters. More of the younger crowd are crocheters.
Discoe, who started knitting before she was 10, has worked as a structural engineer and said a lot of people in STEM fields are attracted to knitting. “There is a surprising amount of math that can be involved in knitting,” she said.
The sitting area in the front of the store is never going away because community is so important, Discoe said. In addition to classes in spinning and beginning knitting and crocheting, the store hosts a purely social night on Thursdays called Stitch & Bitch.
“Just bring in whatever project you are working on and hang out,” she said. “This is a place that should always be filled with joy and helpfulness and fun.”
Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics: Descended from a century-old family business
“I grew up in fabric,” said Suzan Steinberg, who with her father, Bob, represent the third and fourth generation in the family fabric business, Steinberg & Sons, which started in Los Angeles in 1919. Her father opened a retail store selling all-natural fibers in Hollywood, which he moved to Pacific Grove in 1976 and then Berkeley in 1981.
After Steinberg graduated from UC Berkeley, she became a partner with her father in 1983, turning Stone Mountain, the English translation of the family name, into Stonemountain & Daughter. The store has gone from a 1,000-square-foot shop to the 6,000-square-foot facility in Downtown Berkeley with a staff of 28 and an international clientele.
Stonemountain sells fabric for garments and quilting and is best known for its “deadstock,” an industry term for the fabrics leftover from the manufacturing process. Stonemountain has been buying deadstock from Los Angeles, New York and European designers since its founding.
“We have the backing of all these great designers and jobbers in the L.A. and New York markets that we bring to our customer base in Berkeley,” Steinberg said. “We pick it up at a good price and put it out at a good price. You’re getting something that most people can’t find anywhere else.”
Instead of a bargain basement, the store has a bargain attic, where you can find fabrics as low as $3.75 to $5 or $6 a yard. On the high end, fabrics from Europe, like Italian and English wool, are around $25 to $33 a yard.
Stonemountain’s customers include those who don’t fit into standard sizes. To accommodate such customers, the store carries 540 indie patterns created by 30 women-owned cottage businesses from all over the world. That represents a shift in the industry. When chain fabric stores appeared, corporate pattern companies like Vogue and Simplicity dropped the independent fabric stores, Steinberg said.
Unlike corporate patterns, indie versions are size inclusive, from 0 to the plus sizes. (You simply cut the pattern to your size.) One of those pattern makers, Janet Manning of Berkeley, has been selling her Decades of Style patterns at the store since 2005. A sampling of garments made from the store’s pattern offerings dot the store.
From 1996 to 2016, Stonemountain offered sewing classes, teaching more than 20,000 sewers. When Steinberg noticed how Instagram was leading more people to the store’s website, she decided to stop the classes and focus more on the internet. A major website revamping took place in 2019, which may have saved the store when it had to close for in-person shopping for 19 months.
During the pandemic, “people were desperate for cotton and elastic,” Steinberg said. “People got their sewing machines out of their garages. They also had time on their hands and they needed a stress outlet and focus. At the same time community was created in online forums like Instagram. “Our Instagram community and the whole area came to our aid to keep us going and cutting fabric and our team working,” Steinberg said.
When Stonemountain first opened in Berkeley decades ago, residents wondered if the city really needed another fabric store, she said.
“The world changed and so did fabric stores. We’re one of the last and we’ve changed also. You have to change to still be here,” she said. “It’s a little more lonely but we’re still here and trying to keep the flame alive.”
New Pieces Quilt Store & Gallery: Quilters who love community
“Berkeley people like to be together and do communal things,” said Sharona Fischrup, the owner of New Pieces quilt shop since 2004 and a quilter for 40 years. That’s why Berkeley has “many, many” quilting groups. “It’s a community of people who care about each other.”
New Pieces was founded on Solano Avenue in the late 1970s. Fischrup worked at the store during the 1990s and then bought it in 2004, moving it into a larger, more than 3,000-square-foot space in the Tannery in the Gilman District in 2008.
Quilters from all over the country, Canada and the U.K. visit the Gilman District shop due to its reputation and specialty appeal. That’s actually “a thing” within the needlecraft community: to visit such specialty shops when traveling.
“Any quilter visiting the area will find us and come in,” Fischrup said.
The shop carries around 5,000 bolts of fabric, more than 200 book titles and a large variety of quilting supplies, magazines, notions and antique quilts. Cotton is the fiber of choice and you can find it in fabrics ranging from $11.95 for American-made cloth to $21.95 for Japanese indigo. Bolts of sale fabric are as low as $5-$7 a yard, with a one-yard minimum purchase.
Quilting is a three-step process. Once the individual pieces are sewn together, they need to be quilted and bound. So the store provides quilting services using a long-arm machine with 48 quilt patterns and binding services.
New Pieces also holds quilting classes and has drawn nationally renowned quilters like Freddy Moran and Nancy Brown, of Richmond, who have taught classes there.
Fischrup has been a long time member of the East Bay Heritage Quilters, whose East Bay Children’s Quilt Project provides children with quilts made by its members, who donate them to organizations like UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland. New Pieces distributes the free quilt kits the quilting group provides and then collects the finished quilts. Hundreds of quilts a year are donated through that project.
“That to me is the gift that the store gives to the community,” Fischrup said. “Those quilts make a difference. Any child who gets one of them is going to feel loved.”
Discount Fabrics: Attracting new customers in a new location
“Berkeley likes cotton,” observed Nicholas Blake, the third generation in the Discount Fabrics family business. “It has to be natural fibers, like cottons and linens.”
Berkeley residents might remember the store being a mainstay at the corner of San Pablo and Ashby avenues for about 20 years. That location closed two-and-a-half years ago to make way for a new apartment building. So the store moved into a 15,000-square-foot West Berkeley storefront that has a larger selling floor. Discount Fabrics has long attracted individual sewers and quilters, but the new location also draws interior designers from nearby Fourth Street.
The store’s top selling fabrics are African prints. “We have a ton of people coming in for them,” Blake said. “We put them on sale so often because they just fly out the door.”
The store’s also known for its selection of upholstery fabrics, notions and foams in a wide range of sizes, and it is one of a few places in the East Bay that sells leather.
Discount Fabrics was started by Blake’s grandfather, Ronald, who opened a warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1966. Ronald is still active in the business, along with Blake’s mother, Linda, who both work out of the San Francisco store, now near the Dogpatch neighborhood. At one point, the family owned four stores in San Francisco, which closed as neighborhoods changed.
Sales flagged during the pandemic, but Blake kept things going by scheduling 20-minute shopping appointments for customers. At the time, mask-grade elastics were flying out of the store, Blake said. “They went so fast and we couldn’t source them.” Since then, Blake said business is building up again.
“People like us because we’re more unique than a JoAnn’s or a corporate store,” Blake said. “You’ll find things here you won’t find anywhere else.”
Prices are at least 40% less below the suggested retail, Blake said, with additional discounts for students. The store can do that by buying from fabric brokers and manufacturers, snapping up deadstock from furniture and fashion manufacturers in the Bay Area.
“I always tell people, if you find something you like, grab it now because it probably won’t be there when you come back,” Blake said, “and I probably won’t be able to get it again.”
Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles Museum Shop: Old lace and new trends
Say you’re in the market for busks for the corset you are making. (A busk is a stiff fabric strip that contains the hook-and-eye-like closures at the front of the corset.)
“Busks are an expensive piece of hardware that are also hard to find,” said Christine Krause, assistant manager at Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles Museum Shop.
You could find busks cheaper online (at Lacis they can cost up to $40), but at this brick-and-mortar store you also get to inspect the busks in person, buy the corset’s requisite bone and grommets for the back laces and then use one of the store’s grommet tools to insert the grommets. For corset-makers, it’s one-stop shopping.
Corset-making materials are the kind of the super-niche specialty items Lacis carries, catering to a wildly diverse community of needle crafters.
Lacis, the brick-and-mortar retail shop, was founded in 1965 by Kaethe Kliot to become a haven for the textile community and “all involved in virtually every aspect of the textile arts,” according to a brochure. After Kliot’s death in 2002, her husband, Jules, donated their collection of lace, textiles, costumes, books and tools of the textile arts to create the nonprofit museum, with an emphasis on lace. Sales from the brick-and-mortar shop support the museum. (Lacis also has an online store that is a separate retail business.)
Lacis attracts costume designers in search of period patterns; lacemakers looking for cotton or linen thread or bobbins; florists fond of ribbons; knitters and crocheters needing needles and yarns; embroiderers and cross-stitchers in the market for needles and threads; and miniaturists who turn lace doilies into tablecloths or curtains for dollhouses.
Members of Berkeley’s Art Deco Society shop for period patterns and fabrics to make costumes and vintage linens for their annual Gatsby Summer Picnic. Brides or their dressmakers come for the lace, too, along with satin for dresses and tulle for veils. Artists and home sewers come for the lace and textile fragments they incorporate into new works or garments.
“There are a lot of people doing restoration and conservation,” Krause said. Mending is now also big in Berkeley for ecological reasons. Customers are darning and mending old sweaters and reviving old handkerchiefs and cloth towels to avoid using tissues and paper towels, Krause said.
The store offers classes in topics ranging from mindful mending to tatting and historic costuming, a two-part course. A large swath of the store is devoted to books, where customers sometimes don’t buy but just sit and read. And that’s OK.
“We totally invite that,” Krause said.
Ahlishan Collections: Desi fabrics — and all the trimmings
Ahlishan Collections in West Berkeley has been a source for the Bay Area Indian diaspora for more than 22 years, selling saris and traditional wedding outfits as well as Indian fabric by the yard for saris and turbans.
“We have all kinds of customers,” said Raj Bhullar, who owns the store with her friend Kulwinder Pamar, a teacher in Union City. Most American shoppers from Berkeley and beyond come for the unusual fabrics they use to make women’s clothing, decorative pillow coverings and curtains, Bhullar said.
The partners have been friends for 30 years and hail from India’s Punjabi region. They decided to buy the store after its longtime owner became ill and couldn’t handle the business anymore, Bhullar said. Both women had been regular customers and were familiar with its offerings.
“Because it’s a big store, one person can’t handle it,” Bhullar said. “So we decided to partner. We tried something new.”
Prices range from $3.99 for a simple cotton fabric used to make turbans to $69.99 for a silk brocade whose pattern is woven, not printed. “That is why it’s expensive,” Bhullar said. Silk brocades also happen to be the store’s biggest seller.
The store stocks other luxurious fabrics like silk Georgette and heavily beaded fabrics, along with elaborate Indian trimmings that include hard-to-find combinations of neon yellow, blue and pink, which Diana Vreeland once described as “the navy blue of India.”
“Indian people like bright colors,” Bhullar said. “I don’t know why, but it’s true.”
Tinsel Trading: On the fringe for 90 years
“A long time ago, on the small island known as Manhattan, there was a man who was attracted to shiny and bright gold and silver threads. He grew up to own the most extraordinary inventory from all over the world, having never traveled outside the United States.”
That’s the start of Tinsel Trading’s origin story, found on its website. Tinsel’s founder, Arch J. Bergoffen, had worked at The French Tinsel Company in Manhattan after World War I and purchased the company in 1933, changing its name.
During WWII, Tinsel’s biggest client was the U.S. government, which was unable to import metal threads for uniforms. Bergoffen had been warehousing thousands of metal thread spools for years. To this day the store maintains a lot of that inventory, still on the manufacturer’s original wooden spools, paper wrapped with gold labels. Like fine wines, some are still in the wooden crates they arrived in from France.
Tinsel Trading was a wholesaler before it became a retail store in New York’s garment district in 1969. Bergoffen’s granddaughter, Marcia Ceppos, the third generation in the family biz, started out working in the store when she was 11. Now in charge, she moved the store to Berkeley in 2017 due to skyrocketing rents.
Tinsel Trading specializes in specialty trims. Given its name and founding story, it’s not surprising that many are sparkly and bright. There is metallic thread (fine metal wrapped around a core), and bullion (a hollow coiled metal wire), glitter ornaments and letters, metallic fabric, silver and gold metallic trim, sequins and militaria.
Such items have been long sought after by theater and film designers for their luxurious and/or light-reflecting qualities. In the Steven Spielberg production of West Side Story, the store’s silver glitter stars can be found on a poster during the gym dance scene. Locally, the shop has attracted clients like the American Conservatory Theatre, San Francisco Ballet and opera, Disney “and all the historical reenactment designers,” said Ceppos. The store has also maintained its international clientele.
Like their professional counterparts, everyday crafters are also drawn to the shop’s offbeat offerings. Among the one-of-a-kind antique items is a French multi-colored chenille flower applique ($275). In the intriguing category called “Doodads,” you can find more crafty items, like vintage 5-inch plastic skeletons ($10 for 10), cameos ($7 for six), and miniature paper blossoms (20 for $6).
“Since relocating to Berkeley we’ve found a whole new customer base in the Bay Area creative community who have developed brand new ways of incorporating our beautiful trim in their artwork,” Ceppos said.
Quilt & Textile Repair: Helping customers pass it on
Quilt & Textile Repair was at 1625 Shattuck Ave. for 20 years until owner Karen Stern lost her lease after the building was sold three years ago. Since then she’s been collaborating with Bhairabi Thapaliya, a seamstress and co-owner of Himalayan Tribes, across the street from Stern’s former shop. Both do repairs in that store, which is also where local customers drop off and pick up their quilts.
An occupational hazard of such work is seeing customers burst into tears. “It’s like taking a sick dog to the vet,” Stern said. “They become emotionally attached to quilts. They contain lots of memories and nostalgia.”
As one of a handful of quilt repairers left in the country, Stern gets quilts from all over the U.S. and Canada through her website. Since founding her business, she has repaired about 1,000 quilts.
Just like going to the dentist, Stern cannot estimate what the repair will cost until she and Thapaliya do a thorough examination. Most repairs are in the $500 range and often require hand sewing.
Typically, those who bring in quilts are thinking about legacy.
“It’s basically generational,” Stern said. “People get older and they want to fix up the quilts they had when they were younger and give them to their kids or grandkids.”
This story was updated after publication to include Tinsel Trading.