When sewing enthusiast Barbara Altwerger and her husband, Nick, moved into a bigger house, her collection of fabric got bigger. “It kept growing,” she said, as if it had a life of its own!

At 73, Altwerger has been collecting fabric for “probably 50 years,” and although she’s given some away over time, her stash, which she keeps in the basement of their Farmington Hills home, remains extremely large. There are storage bins with labels stacked along all four walls of one large room. There’s everything from “good fabrics” — natural fibers, for instance, wool jerseys and silks — to “less expensive” finds, that include nylon and polyester.

Altwerger, a textile instructor in the fashion department at the Art Institute of Michigan in Novi, “rarely” buys fabric these days, although she said her husband might not agree. Occasionally, she’ll purchase something in particular, like the black chiffon crepe she’s had on her mind lately. “If I find it, I’ll probably get a few yards just to have in my stash,” she said.

“The thing with buying fabric is the excitement of what it can be. It appeals to your creativity. We depend on them (textiles) for survival — from the moment you wake up in the morning to when you go to bed at night. (Well — she does have a point!) Think about the textiles that our athletes are wearing, and the men who went into outer space, and to the depths of the ocean.”

The tremendous amount of fabric she’s amassed during her sewing career is the result of shopping at stores in New York, San Francisco, online at Thai Silks, and Haberman Fabrics, formerly in Royal Oak. “I go to Joann’s to buy more inexpensive fabrics and notions where I can get them at half off,” she said.

Altwerger’s passion for textiles and sewing started when she taught herself to sew at age 10. “I saved up my baby-sitting money and bought a Singer Sewing machine. I made myself a navy blue velvet dress trimmed in navy blue satin,” she said. “I taught myself how to sew until I went to college and took fashion design and a sewing class. Then, 20 years later, I wanted to activate my teaching certificate so, I went back and got my master’s in fashion design and merchandising, with a specialty in textiles.

“Most of my life, I made clothing, but then I got into wall hangings. I felt I didn’t need any more clothes. I like to specialize in surface designs. I like creating my own fabric.”

But, lately, she’s been trying to “control” the amount of work she does because of a hand condition she’s developed. “I have a problem from overuse of my hand. Right now, I have a brace on my right hand, and I am not suppose to use it, at all, for a month. I was teaching hand-embroidery and beading, and I get obsessive, like when I had to stop knitting when I was getting severe pain in my neck.”

However, she’s “very carefully” instructing a workshop at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield Township in hand-embroidery and beading appliques.” (The workshop is held every Tuesday, from 1:30-3 p.m., and continues through May with a new topic each month. The fee is $65 for four classes.)

Less stressful on her hand was the recent lecture on textiles she gave before members of the Society of Active Retirees (SOAR), introducing them to actual cotton bolls and silk cocoons as part of her talk.

Asked if she ever imagined she’d have such a huge collection of fabric, Altwerger, who plans to “thin out” her stash, said, “I always had a tendency to collect things I love. It overwhelms me sometimes. I have a similar stash of beads in another room. A furnace repairman (once) asked, ‘Do you have a factory in your basement?’

Her advice to anyone just starting to sew and collect fabric is, “Be excited, persevere, and know, or memorize, what you have, even if you’ve had it for 10 or 15 years. I think creative artist people want everything around them in case they think of a way to use it!” (Now, ain’t that the truth?)

Asked if she had it to do all over again, what, if anything, would she do differently in terms of collecting fabric, Altwerger admitted she’d leave the inexpensive material in the store.

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, or

Contact Barbara Altwerger at

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