Name: Suzan Steinberg
Title: Owner, Stonemountain & Daughter Fabrics
J.: Your family has been in the fabric industry for almost 100 years and you represent the fourth generation. How did it start?
Suzan Steinberg: It began in 1919 with a store in downtown Los Angeles, Steinberg and Sons, which was an automotive fabric and upholstery business. My dad was born in 1933 and grew up in that business, with my great-grandfather Joseph, my grandfather Max and great-uncles. My grandfather Max was very involved in the Jewish community, especially raising money for pre-state Israel, but he was killed in a car accident in 1941, and my dad was orphaned because my grandmother had also been in the car and ended up in the hospital long-term.
Because he had early memories of the fabric business, he went into it, too, but didn’t like sales. It was the ’60s, and after marrying my mom and having me, he left to become a hippie, and he started the first countercultural, all-natural hippie fabric store. It was on Melrose Avenue and was called Bob Steinberg’s Fabric Emporium. In 1976, he moved to Pacific Grove and opened Stonemountain Fabrics there. Stonemountain is the [German] translation of Steinberg. And then he bought our current Berkeley location in 1981 from its prior owner. My dad is retired now, but we are 50-50 partners. He is so proud of me, and we’re closer than ever.
Was it always assumed you would go into the family business?
I grew up in the store from the time I was young, and I love textiles, so I got sucked in. There were two things about it that really appealed to me: It’s all families doing business with families, and I found my place in an industry where I was valued for being me, and where everyone worked with their children and grandparents. It felt really ancient and from within my lineage. And then I got to connect with our customers, many of who are also multigenerational families who sew together.
Your store has been on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley for 36 years, and has expanded three times. To what do you attribute your success, especially in the internet age?
Of course a lot of sales happen online. But with fabric, you want to feel it and use your senses to make the decision. Fabric talks to you and tells you what it wants or doesn’t want to be. What makes us special is that we are a feminine-based fabric store that really connects with our community. We provide a place for people to come and sew together. We’ve been dedicated to holding that flame.
We also moved away from corporate-made patterns toward independent pattern lines that are developed by women for women’s bodies. I see this as part of a feminine model of everyone rising up together. Our store is a destination. People come in from every county and country to shop here, and the internet has only made us more visible.
Is the fabric and garment industry still largely Jewish?
Oh yes! I go to New York for the fabric shows, and there’s just a born trust because we’re all mishpoche. The name Steinberg really means something in this business. All of our vendors back us up when times are tough, and that is all based on trust, faith and family. We are all looking out for each other, and I feel that’s a very Jewish thing.
You blog under the name Fabric Lady. Do you sew a lot of your own clothes?
I like showing people that these one-dimensional patterns really look good on a regular body, and it gives people the courage to buy the pattern and fabric and create something unique and expressive. With Instagram and blogging, we can create community. You’re also supporting a local woman-run business and all these other businesses that work with us. I have a seamstress who I partner with so that 100 percent of the clothes I wear in the store are made by us. I choose many of the items because I think other women will love them and will want to make them. By the way, I can’t tell you how many people have come in buying fabric to make their own tallits.
Tell me about the Brightest Little Star project, which you direct.
Nineteen years ago I was approached by a woman who asked me for a donation of flannel and we ended up in a beautiful community partnership where we supply the fabric and put volunteers together to make blankets and scent dolls for the moms and families in the neo-intensive care unit at Alta Bates Hospital. We’ve done thousands of them. We’re always looking for more volunteer sewers. It’s a really great project for synagogue groups.