Get Your Fabrics Here!

By Allison Engel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 4, 2003

After dusk, East Ninth Street in downtown Los Angeles is deserted, many of its storefronts shuttered behind grim corrugated metal facades.

What a difference morning can make. By 10 a.m. the streets are alive with customers and shopkeepers from around the world. The metal shutters rise to reveal hundreds of fabric stores filled with African mud cloths, Italian cashmeres, Indian embroidered organza, Polynesian prints. There are stores that specialize in beaded fabrics, stores for feather boas and angel wings, and stores focused on fine woolens.

Colorful bolts of bright cottons, fake furs, fleece prints and all sorts of notions spill from bins on the sidewalk, where shoppers bargain with Persians, Koreans and the remaining Eastern European Jews who pioneered Los Angeles's fabric district.

If you haven't sewn a stitch since junior high, you still might want to visit this 18-block area that sells the world's yard goods and notions. The fabric district, part of the sprawling and ever-expanding fashion district, is a colorful international bazaar. If you can sew a hem, you might be tempted by unique yard goods that can be turned into a tablecloth or curtains. The area is also a favorite stop for crafters, or those who want to choose their own material for reupholstering furniture. You can also just grab a quick look and keep strolling to nearby commercial districts dedicated to flowers, toys and jewelry.

If you do sew, the 300 or so shops in L.A.'s fabric district are a welcome counterpoint to the look-alike offerings of chain fabric stores. Although some stores in the fabric district cater to wholesalers, the majority welcome retail customers, and clerks do not sneer if you buy only a yard at a time.

Shoppers who buy significant amounts can find their savings over regular prices paying their airfare. Several stores sell everything in their inventory for $2 to $3 a yard. Half-price compared to regular retail outlets is common. For many, though, the dazzling choices are the draw.

"There isn't anyplace in the country that can touch this," says Ann Davis, a textile representative. "Santee Alley [the open-air fashion market] is bigger and better than the Lower East Side or anything New York's got. And from a handful of retail fabric stores in the 1970s, there are hundreds today."

There are really two separate worlds in the East Ninth Street area, says Hal Kaltman, a textile rep who is president of the Textile Association of Los Angeles. "There's the wholesale textile people who have showrooms and are calling on manufacturers all day long and are very involved in the industry. Then there's the street bazaar."

The street bazaar is run mainly by jobbers who buy leftover fabric from manufacturers at the end of a season and resell it. Clothing manufacturers can't count on the street merchants being able to get more of any particular fabric, Kaltman said, "but for the home sewer, it's like a dream world."

It is not unusual for shoppers to fly to Los Angeles simply to shop East Ninth Street.

"It's definitely worth the cost of the trip," says Renee Johnson, who has made five pilgrimages here in the past three years. A dance studio owner in suburban St. Louis, Johnson heard about the district from a dance teacher touting the inexpensive rhinestones and beaded fabric.

Johnson, whose 60 students need costumes, buys glue-on rhinestones by the gross -- as much as $700 worth in one swoop. Then there are feathers, satin, illusion, fake fur, stretch fabrics and elasticized rhinestone trims.

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