Bonnie Shell's Life Stories

What led to the decision to start your own fabric shop?

I always had trouble getting clothes that fit properly. I was tall and thin and my clothes were too baggy and too short. My mom sewed most of our clothes when we were growing up. My mom was very talented in sewing and pattern design. She mostly made our clothes for economic reasons. My Aunt Sophie had an office job and always bought nice clothes. When she got tired of wearing them, she would give them to my mom. Mom would take them apart and make something new for me and my sister. When I was a teenager I wanted to learn to sew, but my mom wanted me to learn by watching rather than doing. I didn't have the patience for that..

When I was seventeen there was an ad in the newspaper that this famous seamstress was offering sewing lessons at the Fair Store in downtown Chicago.

The classes were once a week and I was able to get there on the el-train from where I worked. She taught that the more difficult the project, the more you learn. So my very first sewing project was a fully lined wool suit with bound buttonholes. I got to really like sewing and from that time on, I made all my own clothes. My dad made some sewing tables for us and I bought my own sewing machine.

I liked the fact that no one ever had the same dress that I had. Two girls that I worked with also sewed, so as an experiment, we all made the same dress with different fabrics and wore them to work on the same day. No one noticed, and we were all complimented on our dresses that day. We all had a good laugh.

As time went on several people suggested that the fact I liked to sew, maybe I should buy my own fabric shop. I mulled it over for a while and then decided to do something about it. My dad was very supportive of my decision. He went "shop hunting" with me and gave me advice on locations and financing. I finally found a shop that was for sale in a little town south of Chicago called Wheaton, Illinois.

I really liked working for myself. It certainly was not a 9 to 5 job. I was open from 9 to 5 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Mondays and Thursdays I was open until 9 pm. After hours there was the accounting to do and cleaning. In the beginning, I could not afford to hire help. Eventually, I hired my cousin Debbie to help on Saturdays, and when she got older her sister Susie helped out.

About a year later I hired a woman named Ingrid who gave sewing lessons one evening a week and worked on Tuesdays, so I could have a day off. Then I hired Becky, who worked after school and on Saturdays.

I loved working with the many customers I had. I knew a lot about sewing, so I was able to help them with any questions or problems they had. Most of my customers were very nice, but I had a few "weirdos". I had one lady who was very paranoid. One day when she was in, one of my salesmen came in and brought his son and another little boy with him. The boys were about eight years old, and they had just purchased a little turtle. They went to the back of the store and played with the turtle, and a lot of laughing was going on. The lady left some of the fabrics she planned on buying and left the store. The next day she came back and told me she was never going to shop here again because my customers were laughing and making fun of her. When I realized what she was talking about, I explained what the little boys were laughing about. She eventually came back.

Another woman came in quite often but never bought anything. One evening when it was almost closing time, this lady came in and made herself comfortable at the pattern table. She looked at a lot of patterns and then proceeded to look at and handle a lot of fabrics. By this time, it was getting close to 10 pm. I asked her if I could help her in some way. Her response was, "I wish I knew how to sew. There are so many lovely things here."

About three years later, I met John, and when we decided to get married, I sold the shop so I could devote more time to my marriage.

I continued to sew, and after we had children, I was able to be a stay-at-home mom by sewing for people from my home.

Now I sew clothes and doll clothes for my little granddaughter Piper.