Sunday, April 26, 2015

High Style in Freedom and beyond
Originally published April 3, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

“It’s never a good idea to start a small business. People see you
 as ‘living your dream,’ but It’s been really hard,” says Carla Goldman.
 But she’s been making it work, and providing Santa Cruz County
with fine fabrics for 18 years.

Carla Goldman makes you want to buy. We wander through her home decor section, hung with heavy rolls of sample fabrics made in Europe for American fashion designers. Goldman buys these bolts in San Francisco—the leftovers after designers have placed their orders for the season. She jumps quickly from one fabric to the next, explaining why each one is so extraordinary. “This guy from Belgium does a lot of samples,” she says. “These fabrics are still in Ralph Lauren’s line. So when he kinda gets extra he’ll call me and that’s cool.”

She moves on. “This is a Belgium linen and this is a Belgium linen. I sell these at $26 [a yard] and these are $105 in the book.” She moves again.  “And then we get something like this that’s just outrageously gorgeous and it’s $18.”

We walk across her shop to the clothing fabrics. “As you can see here, this is a fabric from Germany,” she says, unfurling a roll of fabric sitting upright in a barrel. “So this is a beautiful hybrid—a wood fiber that has been treated to the point of stretching.” 

Elsa Schiaparelli and Andre Perugia,
evening ensemble and shoes, 1933-1935.
“And then this is a rayon that I burn to see what kind of poly and synthetics are in it. And they’ve done it so perfectly, I can’t get any synthetic in the burn. This is very rare to have German fabrics,” she says. When Goldman buys her samples fabrics, the labels are often removed, so she tests it for fiber content. Synthetic fibers like polyester will usually melt. Natural fibers will burn.

I’m caught up in her enthusiasm for fabric content and quality. I’ve browsed in Crossroad Fabrics on and off over the years, but have rarely bought anything. It dawns on me now that I didn’t really know what I was looking at.

Crossroad Fabrics is hard to find in its newest location because it’s not where you’d expect it to be. It shares a corrugated metal building on Airport Blvd. in Freedom with a plumber and a motorcycle repair shop. The ceilings are high and the floors are concrete. Most of the bolts of fabrics are on long rolls which you have to pull out from a stack to really see. Other bolts stand on end in barrels around the store. There are no pattern books and a limited supply of notions.

A seamstress since age 7, Goldman honed her sewing skills at Watsonville High School under the tutelage of Diane Severin and Mary Kay Chapel in the late 70s. “We had a wonderful sewing program at Watsonville. They forced me to clean up my sewing. I still French seam my clothing,” she says, showing me the inside of her sleeve. After graduation, with “starry eyes,” she enrolled in the Fashion Institute in San Francisco, but a career in fashion design never worked out.

At the “High Style” exhibit in San Francisco, I wanted to feel
 the silky textures and weights of these luxurious fabrics.
 Yes, the designs were iconic and highly influential, but it
 seemed to me that the success of many garments depended
 in large part on the fabrics chosen. Memorable examples
 were the soft and shimmering gold lame dress by
 Jeanne Lanvin from 1923, the 1930s emerald green
 silk faille evening ensemble woven with metallics by
 Elsa Schiaparelli, and the 1950 fuschia and gold silk sari
evening dress by the American designer, Mainbocher.
Instead she bought a fabric store, and for the last 18 years has been selling high-quality fabrics to the various sewing demographics of Santa Cruz County, and especially Watsonville: wealthy farm families who collect fashion ideas as they travel; a younger group sewing sportswear and inspired by Pinterest; young Latin-American women who want to make things that fit better and were taught to sew without a pattern; those who like to sew the occasional blouse or want to have something unique to wear to a party; costume-makers for holidays, performances and events like Halloween, Renaissance Faire, cosplay or baile folklorico; a few quilters; and, of course, those who sew just because it’s creative and fun. “Sewing is definitely a spiritual thing to do for yourself,” says Goldman.

I kept my eyes out for unique fabrics when I recently saw “High Style”—the current special exhibit at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor—which traces the evolution of fashion with 125 influential pieces from 1910 to 1980.  I was fascinated by the variety of fabrics used in 20th century women’s clothing—many of which I didn’t even know how to pronounce. There were dresses made from silk faille (/fīl/a soft, light-woven fabric having a ribbed texture), evening ensembles made from silk charmeuse (a soft light-weight fabric woven so that the front is lustrous and reflective) with filet lace (a decorative netting), and hats made from fur felt (apparently rabbits, beaver and nutria are the contributors).

You can’t help but wonder what it must have felt like to be the original wearer of these lovely creations at their debut. I was drawn to the everyday sportswear—a fresh concept born in Depression Era America, created by a pioneering group of American women designers who understood that women wanted greater comfort and adaptability in their clothing, with fewer costume changes. Bless their hearts for setting in motion the concept of unpretentious, functional, yet chic clothing made from washable fabrics.

And then there were the iconic evening ensembles by famous designers like Dior, Chanel, and Givenchy—undoubtedly intended to make a woman feel stylish, sophisticated and sexy, in equal measure.

This 1953 strapless “Four-Leaf Clover” ball gown by Charles James
—a voluminous show-stopper that took up quite of bit of museum
 real estate—wowed the audience with barely a hint of the
 architectural superstructure underneath. By all accounts, James
 was a fine artist who just happened to choose fabric as his medium.
But imagine your entrance in one of those celebrated ball gowns (typically designed by men). Would that have been a Cinderella moment or something else entirely? The strapless “Four-Leaf Clover” ball gown by Charles James—a voluminous show-stopper that took up quite of bit of museum real estate—wowed the audience with barely a hint of the architectural superstructure underneath. James’ shaped his four-leaf clover skirts from layers of nylon mesh, feather-boning, buckram (coarse linen stiffened with paste), and horsehair braid, with each dress weighing 10 pounds or more.


The labels on clothing today with longer fabric-content lists, made me think that fabric has changed a lot since I first learned to sew, combining more types of fibers. All fabrics seem to have been made stretchier with the addition of Spandex. Carla Goldman set me straight. “Are you telling me the ice skaters in the 1950s didn’t wear Spandex? It’s just a brand name, it’s a label. We’ve always had stretchy fabrics. Labeling textiles has only been [required] in the last 15 years. You might have been buying it before.”

She reminds me that fashion (like the fabric it’s made from) is always moving forward, but it’s also tied to the past. “Fashion’s a massive circle; it’s constantly looping around. What goes around comes around.”

Jeanne Lavin, evening dress,
Spring/Summer, 1923.

All photos provided by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, except Carla Goldman portrait by Tina Baine.

High Style: The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection
March 14 – July 19, 2015, Legion of Honor, San Francisco
Visit for more information.
Why see a fashion collection? Clothing is all about popular culture and social history. It tells the story of status and gender distinctions, social mores and behavior patterns, and how and why all of these societal standards change over time. Clothing provides examples of America’s shifting economy and technologies. It’s about American priorities, allegiances, and rebellion. As the curator, Jan Glier Reeder said, “The importance of looking at historic forms is that if you don’t understand what came before, you can’t really understand where you are today.”

The fabulous Maker Faire Bay Area-- a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement—is coming up May 16 and 17, at the San Mateo Event Center. A small group of organizers in Santa Cruz County is putting together a mini Maker Faire for 2016 at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, and is looking for more volunteers. For more information contact Miguel Aznar at Their next meeting is tentatively planned by Sunday, April 12.