Rebecca Macleery is the owner and curator of Kalamazoo Dry Goods, a shop at 833 South St. that sells deadstock fabrics (leftover fabrics not used for their original purpose), natural fibers and yarns, art supplies, and items for the home. But that wasn’t her original plan.
The Kalamazoo native, her husband, Greg, and their four children moved back here from Lexington, Kentucky, in 2013. She had worked for years in the nonprofit sector in Kentucky, most recently as the executive director of a shelter for homeless and runaway youth for seven years.
“I was really burned out,” she says, “and Greg was traveling all the time, so I decided to come back to Kalamazoo,” where her mother and sisters were living.
Macleery took a job as the head of The Montessori School, but she admits it wasn’t a good fit. She left the post in less than a year. “I really felt my skills needed to be used for the people who needed me most,” she says. She then went to work for Head Start and then at the Boys and Girls Club of Kalamazoo, where she stayed for seven years.
When the club’s longtime executive director, Bob Ezell, retired, Macleery decided it was time for her to forge a new path as well. She took a part-time job running the Center for Transformation, a local nonprofit organization that, through mentoring, helps formerly incarcerated individuals rebuild their lives.
Aiming for an art space
At the same time, Macleery, who had been longing for a way to embrace her passion for creative reusing and repurposing of items, bought a former day-care center on South Street with the vision of using her nonprofit experience to create Loose Parts Studio, a membership-based community art space that would offer classes and workshops and provide a physical space for people to be creative.
“I love loose parts, little things for creative reuse that can that spur creativity and inspiration but sometimes get overlooked, like pieces from chandeliers and buttons. I love salvaging those, they’re little treasures to me,” Macleery says.
She renovated the space herself, installing new flooring, hanging drywall and painting, and finally, in February 2020, Loose Parts Studio was ready to open.
Three weeks later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Stores closed and schools shut down. Macleery’s husband, whose job in the service sector was considered essential, still went to work every day. But she didn’t and was now at home full time with two elementary-school-age children who were attending classes virtually. Her part-time income from the Center for Transformation wasn’t enough to cover the mortgage for the dream she had been building on South Street.
Selling fabric online
One day, while perusing Facebook Marketplace, she found a storage unit for sale that was full of bolts of fabric.
“It was kind out of desperation, I guess, because I thought, ‘Well, this is something I can try to sell,'” she says. “Here was something that’s salvage and that fits my idea of creative reuse and all the things I had been envisioning and working toward for the past couple of years.”
She bought it all and spent time learning everything she could about fabric. “It turned out a lot of it was really beautiful wool, and there were some really iconic designs from top designers for the mid-century-modern period,” she says.
Macleery then began an e-commerce business under the Loose Parts Studio name and started selling the fabric online. She found out quickly that she had stumbled onto something.
“It was bringing in a little income and keeping our heads above water, and it was something I could do while my children were at home,” she says. “I started getting good at going out and finding deadstock fabrics — fabrics that are no longer usable by the initial purchaser. Some people call them remnants, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s an upholstery shop that has shut down and they have a whole back room full of inventory. Or sometimes a fabric will have a flaw somewhere within the roll and they would normally throw out the whole roll. It’s things that would otherwise generally end up in a landfill or sitting unused in a back room somewhere.”
Macleery began seeking out large inventories of fabric with good value, focusing on natural fibers such as wool or wool blends and driving as far as Connecticut or North Carolina to buy them. Her online buyers included everyone from avid sewists and people who reupholster mid-century-modern furniture to Renaissance fair enthusiasts and Civil War reenactors who want their costumes to be as authentic as possible.
“It just really took off. I made more income last year selling fabric online than I ever did being an executive director of a nonprofit,” Macleery says, even though only “about 10 percent” of the fabrics she has available are featured on her e-commerce site.
Opening her shop
Even with her e-commerce success, Macleery still longed to have an artistic space for people to connect and create. She landed on opening a store that would sell fabrics and natural fibers as well as items for the home and more. It was such a shift in direction from her original plan to create a community art space that she found herself “right back at the start,” establishing her third new business in six years. She rechristened the shop Kalamazoo Dry Goods, which officially opened for business in February and sells products both in person and online.
“It conveys a simpler existence,” she says of the name. “You know, working with our hands, working with natural fibers, cleaning our homes without chemicals.”
Many of the products sold by Kalamazoo Dry Goods are used for creating — from custom hand-dyed yarns made in Oregon and silk embroidery thread imported from France to indigenous-made, plastic-free watercolor painting kits and natural powdered pigments that can be used to make pastels, watercolors or wax crayons. Macleery says there’s an emphasis on the products she carries being sourced from local makers or small producers. For example, the store features roving (fiber that has been processed but not yet spun into yarn) and yarn from Natural Cycles Farm in Allegan.
“Lorie Evesque raises these rare breeds of sheep and uses the wool to make all her own roving and yarns that are hand-dyed using natural dyes,” Macleery says, running her hand over a fluffy pile of roving in varying hues of burgundy. “You can spin the roving and make your own yarn to knit with, so it’s climate-beneficial because most commercial yarns are made using chlorine, which is really bad for the environment.
“We offer people an alternative to what they’re going to find at Joann’s or Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. My goal is to really inspire people. I want this to be a place of inspiration and connection just as much as I did when I was creating it as a community art space.”
In addition to deadstock fabrics, Kalamazoo Dry Goods also carries fabrics and wallpaper with iconic designs by William Morris, the 19th-century designer, political theorist, environmentalist and poet.
“Those are the only fabrics that I sell that are not deadstock. because I love William Morris and his fabrics so much,” Macleery says.
As the seasons change, Macleery still has a few more ideas to implement. When she was preparing the facility to be Loose Parts Studio, she put in a large garden space with native plants with the intention of it being an outdoor creative space. Now, in keeping with the Kalamazoo Dry Goods focus, she wants to refashion it into a “weavers’ garden.”
“I have this incredible garden that I’d like to incorporate, but I’m seeing a different way of incorporating it now. I’d like to grow plants there that people can harvest and use to dye fabrics. I can even grow flax, and then people can spin it and then dye it. I’ll have space for tables and messy art and classes and things like that to happen out there. A lot of people want to teach or to take fabric dyeing classes, and you need a really big, messy outdoor area.”
Macleery admits that while much of the facility is a store that sells things, her ultimate goal is for Kalamazoo Dry Goods to be “more than just a transactional experience for people.”
“I really want them to see me and my vision and what I’m creating,” she says. “It’s always existed in my head in one form or another, but now it’s out here for the community to see and to embrace or not embrace.”