ragtime fabrics

On every first Saturday of the month, Ragtime Fabrics offers in-depth sewing shop "Learn to Sew" for all ages and levels of experience.

Upon stepping into Ragtime Fabrics, one sees a variety of colors and patterns to choose from, hundreds of buttons and spools and a hodgepodge of materials to create any project. Located on West Market Street, this fabric shop has everything from bridal lace to professional sewing machines.

“It’s a very accessible, creative outlet and I just really believe that people need that,” Laura “Belle” Stemper, a JMU alumna (‘82) and the owner of Ragtime Fabrics, said. “I think that it’s food for the soul to be able to be creative, whatever the medium is, and sewing is one medium.”

Stemper hadn’t set out to own a fabric store. She originally worked with her husband in a remodeling business, where she learned the owner of The Fabric Shop on Court Square was selling his property.

In 2003, Stemper opened Ragtime Fabrics after purchasing the store. It got its name because she wanted to give it a vintage feel. In 2015, the store moved to its current location.

She began with an enthusiasm for hunting for the best deals on products, starting children’s classes and growing her business. While she admits she doesn’t sew often, she would rather run the store.

“It’s been three years since we’ve moved into this space,” Stemper said. “I’m at a point now like where if you moved into a new home, you’ve got everything in your house and you’re just unpacking your boxes. Then it’s time to arrange the furniture the way you want it and hang your photos. That’s where I am right now with the store. It’s time to hang the pictures.”

On any given day, Stemper spends her time decorating the store, merchandising, helping out with classes, training employees and learning customers’ personal stories. Another aspect of running her business includes managing an employee to send out monthly newsletters and update the website and Facebook page.

“My passion is running a business,” Stemper said. “Those shop owners whose passion is to sew, they struggle with running the business because there’s just so much to do. Especially just with everything going on in this store. If my passion was in sewing, I’d be in trouble.” 

In addition to its regular variety of products, Ragtime Fabrics offers different classes and circles throughout each month to learn any aspect of sewing. Specialized circles, such as quilting circles, are for those who have projects that need extra help.

One instructor will lead the circle and provide guidance through the steps someone may be struggling with. A class teaches something new about sewing that people haven’t previously learned. 

“We’re not a quilt shop, we’re a very eclectic shop,” Sylvia Aamodt, a class instructor, said. “We very much welcome the students and love their creative energy. We’re good support for whatever project they’re trying to do, and we have a staff that has a pretty broad experience.”

The class that may be most helpful to students is “Learn to Sew,” offered the first Saturday of each month from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For $36, an instructor takes participants from not knowing anything to acing the basics of sewing garments. Those taking the class must buy their own fabric and materials, which can all be found in the shop, while instruction and use of their machines is included.

 Haya Adnan, an eighth-grade student at Montevideo Intermediate School, participated in “Learn to Sew” as an after school activity. She decided to take the class to learn sewing so she could make bandanas and other clothing for dogs. One day, she hopes to use her newfound skills to open her own business selling these accessories.

“I just really love animals and I love making crafts for them,” Adnan said. “I would really recommend the class. Before, I didn’t know anything about it at all so I would mess up all the time. But the teacher really helped me.”

Before students in the class begin sewing, the instructor takes them through the different parts of a machine and how to use it properly. Then, they talk about the right thread, needle and tools to use while going through basic stitches. Next, they begin sewing a pair of pajama pants.

What most students may not know about Ragtime Fabrics is they offer JMU-themed fabrics in fleece and cotton and embroidery options for Greek letters. Students usually stop by during Halloween to get materials and advice for making costumes.

Lily Elias, a junior political science major, has enjoyed crafting since she was young. Last year, she shopped for materials to make a tutu costume that she wore to sorority bid day at JMU.

“I got a bunch of tulle in different colors and stretchy elastic to go around my waist,” Elias said. “They have a really good selection. Most of the time it’s more expensive to make something than it is to buy something already made, but you can make it your own.”

Whether it’s a creative costume or long-term sewing project, customers can expect a genuine welcome every time they shop. Even if one doesn’t have a particular project they’re working on, the ladies at Ragtime Fabrics encourage people to come in and enjoy the atmosphere.

“One of the main things that people love is the vibe,” Lisa Arbogast, a class instructor and former JMU police officer, said. “That’s why I came to work here. I have been a customer of Ragtime since it opened. When you come in and somebody says, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ they really want to know how you are.”

Contact Traci Rasdorf at rasdortl@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.