Sewing from A to Z Fabrics

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Z Fabrics is posted on a purple and gray sign in its new location in Portland’s Time and Temperature Building on 477 Congress Street. “Naming the shop was one of the most difficult parts about opening the shop!” said Mary Zarate, owner. She knew she wanted the word “fabric” in the title, as it is the shop’s identifying product, but further inspiration escaped her. “We decided with ‘Z’ because my last name is Zarate—I’ve always been ‘Z.’” The end result is a name that is crisp, to the point, with a touch of intrigue given by the alphabet’s last (but disproportionately popular) letter.

Z Fabrics offers a boutique-like setting for fabric lovers, both connoisseurs and rookies, alike. Unlike major craft or department store conglomerates, Zarate’s warmly chic shop provides an exclusive collection of quality fabrics that she hand-picks herself. A lack of resources, she said, was the reason that she stopped sewing for several years after high school. But when she spotted an 80 dollar A-line skirt through a boutique window and realized that she could make one herself, if she only had the right material, an idea bloomed. The endeavor, it seems, was meant to be.

There is a real strong, conscious decision by people in the community to support local businesses. I don’t think something like this could work really anywhere else

“From the point when I decided that I was going to open a fabric store, I had the loan and I had my suppliers within two weeks. It was one of those moments where there were no barriers,” said Zarate of her business venture. She went on to explain a series of fateful successes, from obtaining the business loan to stumbling upon the shop’s original space at 316 Congress Street. “I was taking a walk down Congress Street and I went into what was the Ubu Gallery to check out the exhibit there. I knew the gallery owner and I overheard him telling somebody that he was going to be moving out of that space and if he knew of anybody that wanted it to let him know and he’d hook him up with the landlord. I was like, ‘I want it!’”

The new business owner also made smart choices, starting small and allowing the business to grow.  Since its opening day six year ago, the shop expanded three times beyond its original 420 square footage, to the current location in the Time and Temperature building, where business has increased. Zarate, in part, credits the rich art scene in Portland for allowing her shop to flourish. “There is a real strong, conscious decision by people in the community to support local businesses. And I don’t think something like this could work really anywhere else,” she said.

Z Fabrics is grabbing the attention of more than Maine locals. On one of his annual trips to Portland, Jay McCarroll, winner of the debut season of Project Runway (a fashion designing reality show) took notice. Zarate’s little shop, still in its former location, caught his eye and he stopped in to see if she was carrying any of the fabrics that he designs (which she was). They began chatting, and by the end of the conversation, McCarroll had offered to be a guest sewing teacher for the shop. But there was a problem: the space was too small. While Zarate has always offered classes, she’d have to close the shop and rent out a separate space. But when Z Fabrics moved, Zarate was quick to jump on McCarroll’s offer. “He was the first person I contacted when we moved here,” she said of the new location. Now, McCarroll plans to conduct classes there every year.

In the meantime, Zarate continues to teach beginner and intermediate workshops and classes on a regular basis. An expert sewer herself, she got her first machine at the age of seven. In the Zarate genealogy, the art of sewing is a family tradition.“I’ve always sewn. My dad could sew, he worked with leather. And his sisters–they’re all from South America–and they are avid semstresses, wedding dress makers….so when they came to the States, they taught me to fine-tuned my skill, but I’m primarily self-taught,” she said.

Despite being an accomplished seamstress for so many years, Zarate hasn’t lost sight of the frustrations that sewing can cause. She knows that, for sewing rookies, one bombed project of wasted time and money can turn them off the sewing scene forever. She is cautious to avoid such explosions by focusing on helping her beginner students to achieve little successes, instead. “I have this low-stress approach to sewing, and for me, it’s just teaching people how to use their machine so that they’re not intimidated by it. Most of the people that take my classes are incredibly creative anyway and they already know what they’re want to do, they just need to know how to use the tools,” said Zarate. When her students complete their projects, she says the pride that they feel is the inspiration that keeps them going. “Even the wonkiest stuff!” said Zarate. “People are so psyched! They’re like ‘Yes, my bag is so wonky but I made it!’”

Zarate’s main goal is to keep people inspired, something that she’s been able to witness as her shop-goers grow into the art of sewing. “They’ll come in, showing me projects that they’ve completed, when this was a person who I had to teach where the ‘on’ switch was on the machine,” she said. In return, Zarate said she is constantly being inspired herself, deriving ideas from online sewing sites, her fabrics—and of course, her creative, fanatical customers.

Feeling creative? Here are some of Zarate’s favorite inspirational spots:

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