Interview with Judi Dougan
Lemon Creek Fabrics
119 West Ferry Street
12-5, Sunday through Thursday
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff
Who are your typical customers?
The average non-commercial customer is a couple with a house in Chicago and one on the lake. My average commercial customer is a textile artist or an interior designer.
What would a commercial person do with your fabrics?
Making pocket books, for instance [pointing to a beautiful handmade pocketbook hanging on the wall]. The pocketbook on top there is made by a woman in Santa Rosa, California, and we shipped her some fabric. The one underneath is done by a lady north of here. There are people who are making making jackets, anything you can make with fabrics and some things you wouldn't think of making with fabrics.
What is something unexpected to make with fabric?You have art quilters, who make a mosaic with very fine, fine, small pieces. They like unusual textures that relate to their subject matter. There are the horse show folks. I have one gentleman who makes Arabian costumes for horse and rider and these things bring about ten grand a set.
Speaking out of ignorance, what's the difference between a store like yours and a chain like Jo-Ann Fabrics?
My sourcing is basically recycling of the higher end of the industry. I cannot reorder anything--when it’s gone it’s gone. We advertise 50 to 90% off because of the way we buy, which is by the pallet, and that’s something that you have to do as an individual with individual contacts. You can’t do it through the internet or through normal channels.
Could you describe these contacts?
A jobber, which is essential to my work, is an individual or company that buys out excess goods. For instance, Ralph Lauren buys his fabrics probably almost two years ahead of time simply because they have to go through all the processing and production and distribution ahead of time so that it can be in the stores a season ahead of time and ordered three seasons ahead of time. Let’s say that he orders a lot of wool from Scotland and he doesn't get as many orders with those items as he is thinking. They generally have to over order because they can't afford to change anything. When he gets done with his manufacturing and distribution and he has leftover goods, he'll have an overflow warehouse and when that fills up they send out notices to “jobbers.” These folks have big warehouses and they'll come take a look at what's there and they'll bid for it and the one who bids the most brings in his trucks and takes it away. So it's all a volume game. I have a close friend, been to all of his kids’ weddings, probably the biggest jobber in the Midwest, and when he bought out a fabric store in Virginia he called me and said he had an interesting load and would I like to look at it. Our operation is also based on volume, so it's not like how much is this roll or how much is that roll? It's how many pallets of this do you want?
The best stuff I have comes from the workshops that are making up designer furniture, the kind that you would get when your personal interior designer shows you pictures and swatches and you say “that's what I want: this frame and this finish and this fabric,” and these items are very pricey. When I get these loads in, it's like a treasure hunt. It's eye candy. I call all my designers and then I can I tell them there's a new load in that has some interesting things on it. Almost everything that you see on rolls in here is one price. There's a pillow behind you from scrap pieces. I didn't know what that price was but one of my designers said “that's a Paul Clay, that's $400 a yard,” and I said “well, Brian, I have 4 ¼ yards and it's $14 a yard. Do you want it?” [laughs] And of course he took it. There's not too many places you can work where somebody thanks you every day for being there.
Because we are a mom and pop shop, and I'm the technical owner because I have the background—my husband takes care of all the business—I can do things that I want. At Lemon Creek, as long as somebody doesn't smoke in the house or burn something (because that goes into fabrics), and they're not cut, everything's refundable. This takes the angst out of decorating. People don't have to worry about what happens when it gets home and they don't like the light in a certain room. You may love this color, but you don't know what happens when you when you get it into a room. Every color is influenced by what it's surrounded by and the type of light that is on it. Colors and fabrics sometimes will cuddle up to each other and sometimes they'll swear at each other.
You were an art major at Andrews?
Yes. I got a BFA in three dimensional art (pottery and sculpture), and later on I taught pottery there as a contract teacher.
How is it running a small town business as opposed to being on a street in Chicago or another big city? This seems like such a niche operation.
It's not something that everybody can do, but everybody has their own personal set of skills and interests and this just happens to fit mine perfectly. I have no desire at 73 to retire, because I'm having a lot of fun, and I just I would encourage anybody to do what they love because it's good for you and you do it well. The other thing of course is sourcing. Whenever you have a niche business you have to have sources. And I just credit the good Lord for that. When I'm low on wool I pray for wools and he comes through. Being in a small town has nothing to do with anything. Lori O'Neill is from Santa Rosa, California. I met her at the Krasl. I told her “your clothing looks like my fabric shop” and she said “fabric!” and she was here 15 minutes after they closed and when she comes in, which is not often now because she's so far away and she's not doing Krasl anymore, she would tear the place apart. I would actually open in the morning for people like her because it's a wonderful source for them and it really helps your bottom line when you can buy a fabric for $30 a yard that to the trade is going to cost you $160 a yard.
A lot of people come in and they say I've been driving by here for 10 years but I just didn't believe anything like this would be here. Most of them don't know what it is. They’re used to Jo-Ann's. You have to have an exposure to really fine things in any genre to know what it is. Most of the places like this are in big centers and all I would have in a big city that would be different would be a big real estate bill.
We own this building, we bought it and fixed it up, we have an apartment in the back and it costs us very little, just maintenance. It's a good solid building—at least now. You could have pushed the back wall out with your hand when we first bought it. And the funniest thing of all is that I didn't want it. About 25 years ago my husband wanted to start a business, and he knew about my expertise and so he decided we should open a fabric shop, and I just dreaded the thought. I did not want to wait on little old ladies who take 20 minutes choosing a color. I'm not a patient person. But the Lord said you need to learn patience. So my husband sent me out to find what was available and everybody told me everything what was available and was going to be available. And I thought, I'm not going to argue with him, I'm going to be a good Christian lady and I'm going to tell him and he'll just say it's too expensive and then it'll all be okay and I won't have to do it and I will not have had to deal with arguing. I was very correct in my analysis and that's just the way it went and I thought “I won that one and I didn't have to fight about it.” Then two weeks later somebody called us and told us about this building. The Journal Era (the local newspaper) was moving, the gentleman said, and he named a price it was so low it wouldn't have been Christian to counter offer him, and the Lord's footprints were all over it. It was 1992, and they were building the bypass, and 3000 trucks a day went through here. The vibration was such you couldn't hear from the front of the store to the middle and the diesel was horrible, the smell, and I thought this is not going to work not for a fabric shop, it's impossible. Three days before we opened the bypass opened. It cut down the traffic by 90 some percent, it was suddenly silent in here, so the Lord pulled one over on me. He knew what was going to happen, so that's how we opened Lemon Creek. We actually started with clothing because that was my area of expertise and we went very quickly to custom bridal, and before five years were up we discovered that the real action and excitement was in materials and the sourcing opened up, and so here we are.