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Two San Francisco Quilt Shops (and a bonus)

By Lynn Holland

Having never before visited San Francisco, I really didn't know what to expect. So when I had the opportunity to attend a conference there, I arrived with little more than some stereotypical images and a burning desire to check out at least one quilt store. After a somewhat harried ride from the airport (sharing a shuttle with persons from four different countries but no air-conditioning), I sat in my hotel room with my Quilter's Travel Companion and a MUNI public transit map. Since I am a dreadful map-reader, I was thankful that the persons at the MUNI hotline were used to tourists who have no idea where anything is. They gave me precise instructions on how I could navigate the town.

Because I was there on business, my quilting adventures were necessarily limited to lunch breaks and after-conference hours. Luckily, one of the main stations was a two-minute walk from my fabulously situated hotel. At lunch break on Sunday, I hopped the rapid transit and ten minutes later was at the door of Black Cat Quilts (2608 Ocean Avenue, Phone: (415) 337-1355, http://www.blackcatquilts.com/).

In a pleasant neighborhood, Black Cat puts its emphasis on both cats and quilts, and the resulting mix is most pleasant. Yes, there is a black cat at the shop, and judging from my brief stay, Miss Kitty (her real name) is queen of the store. Among the more unusual items in stock is a sponge that removes pet hair. There are cat mugs, cat wall hooks, cat clocks, cat plates and a "kitty corner" devoted to (of course) strictly cat fabric. As you might expect, there is a nice selection of Oriental fabric, but there is also the surprise of cuts from Amsterdam, which are exclusive to Black Cat quilts in this country.

The store is open and airy, and although there is a good selection of fabric, books and notions, nothing is cluttered. There is a nice nook for children with Discovery-toy type items offered to help them pass the time. The store has a very personal feel, emphasized that afternoon by the presence of two customers, one an experienced quilter and the other embarking upon her second quilt, but her first rotary cutting experience. The novice quilter was trying to decide how long her quilt would take to make, since her hand pieced first effort was completed during the six weeks she was confined to bed after surgery!

Classes at Black Cat include not just the expected hand and machine selections, but fabric fortune cookies, an unusual sweatshirt jacket and classes on how to service your Featherweight. I was really impressed when among the visiting teachers was Doreen Speckmann!

Although after visiting the shop I didn't have time to eat, there is an Ambrosia bakery and deli across the street from Black Cat, just in case you need to refuel.

Since my foray into SF on public transit had been so successful on Sunday, I set off late the next afternoon on the bus to Mendel's, located in Haight- Ashbury (1556 Haight Street. Phone: (415) 621-1287 ). First, let me say that generally I am not a timid person. I work in inner city Atlanta and have an opportunity to interact with all kinds of people every day. I also ride public transportation regularly. But this really did not prepare me for the adventure I was about to experience. Yes, I was in college in the sixties, but have never been into the tie-dye scene, unless you count the socks I made on the stove top with those dye-infused cords about ten years ago. Anyway, I hopped the bus on Market Street, and off I went.

I should have been tipped off when two of my fellow passengers had tattooed everything and matted hair. If not, perhaps the infuriated pedestrian who slammed the bus repeatedly with his skateboard and screamed obscenities at the driver should have given me a clue. Or surely, the four-letter-word war between the riders on two different buses should have convinced me that I should not have tried this alone. But I was too far into the trip to not at least get off the bus at the appointed stop and visit the store I had come to see. Although by this time I was pretty close to creeped out, I picked my way through the folks who seemed permanently camped out on the sidewalk, past the somewhat unconventional retail parlors and found Mendel's.

This little wonderland is loaded with fine art and craft supplies as well as fabric. Although they ask that you leave your bags and backpacks at the door, the well-pierced clerk sweetly let me hold on to my belongings. The hodgepodge fabric area is up a couple of wooden steps, tended that day by someone swathed all in purple, from headdress to beyond her toes. Truly a time-warp place, the selection ranged from mudcloth to velvet, with cloth of all nations and a few places that don't appear on any map in between. I'm sure it is the supply source for many of the theatrical productions in this town, and some other stuff, too. It was quite a show in and of itself, with a huge button and trim selection, stationery and stickers and lots of stuff everywhere, not to mention a varied clientele, from society types to cross-dressers. Even taking my somewhat unsettling ride into consideration, Mendel's is worth the trip, although I would not go there again by myself, and would not recommend doing so unless you are the type of person who is put off by absolutely nothing. And I mean NOTHING.

For those of you into the virtual visit, check out their cool web site at http://www.mendels.com . This is a really nice family business, and I wish I had seen the website before I made my trip into Haight-Ashbury. The family photos and whatnot lead you to expect chicken soup, not the hallucinogens I was imagining on my surrealistic bus ride. But, as is mentioned in the text on the website, this IS San Francisco.

A nice little bit of serendipity came my way in Union Square as I was searching for a Giants shirt at Macy's. Across the street is Britex Fabrics, announced by an old-fashioned neon display. Beneath the sign are five floors of fabric, fabric and fabric. The sales clerks are VERY knowledgeable and obviously used to dealing with people who know nothing about fibers. One patient clerk gently steered a lady with an elaborate period costume pattern away from a heavy busy floral toward something more suitable for the tucks and gathers of this very detailed outfit. Another did not even flinch as a customer inquired if the $55/yd silk upholstery fabric was machine washable!

Britex carries such far out stuff as fabric covered with silk flowers for over $100 a yard, but they also have your basic cottons in all colors of the rainbow. Customers are of all nationalities were there the day of my visit, and Britex appears able to cater to almost any fabric need you can imagine.

For someone who had no particular desire to go to San Francisco, my business trip turned into a multi-faceted and multi-cultural adventure. The quilt shops definitely shared in the local color!

See also our review of quilt shops in Silicon Valley and the East Bay!


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