When did you last hear someone say haberdashery? It is probably a doomed word. Long, convoluted and hard-to-spell, it will soon work its way out of the English language, if it hasn’t already. In fact, I believe that if one were to take a random sampling of English speakers under 40, certainly in North America, the vast majority would have no idea what the word means. And the main reason is that these types of establishments simply do not exist anymore.
A haberdashery usually refers to a shop selling ribbons, pins, thread and other paraphernalia used for sewing. Consequently, a haberdasher is the seller of the above-mentioned items. Together these goods are sometimes referred to as notions, not to be confused with having a notion (as in an idea or impression). However, like the word haberdashery, notions are also a dated term, just like sewing itself is becoming a dated activity in most places.
When we lived in North America, if one were to sew an outfit or make ones own curtains (nobody I knew did…), one would have to go to a type of craft superstore to get supplies. There were fabric stores of course, but they were also dwindling rapidly. I remember a knitting supply store in Vancouver run by two extremely old spinsters, but I never saw a true haberdashery – that is, until we moved to Spain.
In Spanish, the term is mercería. Though the younger generations of españolas are not as apt with the needle as their mothers and grandmothers, there are still several haberdasheries in almost every Spanish town. In Ronda, with a population of under 35.000, there are still at least five mercerías, mostly small, generally stuffed to the gills with any thinkable and unthinkable sewing supplies, and, somewhat surprisingly, always with a line-up.
My first errand to a mercería in Ronda was to buy supplies to make a scarecrow. From the moment I walked in the door, I was enthralled. It was like entering a world I had no idea existed. A Haberdashery Heaven so to speak. The store had every ribbon, string, button and all the other goods for sale located safely behind the shop counter, the majority of which was stored in a cavernous, poorly lit room in the back. This meant that the client (invariably a female, usually older) had to explain to the haberdasher what type of tassel trim she needed for her overstuffed couch, and this of course could take quite some time. Patience-challenged beware!
Consequently, I had ample time to observe the shopping procedure, particularly seeing that I was number five in line. Some clients would bring a bit of cloth, others would have a photo of an outfit they wanted to copy, while others still would bring an entire sewing pattern that they would discuss at length with the expert behind the counter. Then, the haberdasher, which in this particular instance was a very old woman, would shuffle out through the narrow corridor into the back of the store where I could see shelf upon shelf stacked with hundreds of small dusty boxes, some labelled with long hand, others with a button, tassel or ribbon attached to the front.
More often than not, the item in question would be located on the uppermost shelf and the haberdasher would have to push a wooden ladder over and climb up on wobbly ancient knees to get to the box in question. Once she had dug out a couple of more items, she crept back to the front counter, presenting her selection to the client. After much deliberation and humming and hawing, and possibly a secondary trip to the back, a purchase was made – 30 cm of ribbon and half a meter of zipper, which was carefully wrapped into a piece of silk paper. The purchase tallied 85 cents, which was paid in full after some heavy rumbling in the depths of a bottomless coin purse. Finally, greetings were exchanged and a bit more sewing advice solicited, before the client left, and it was turn for number two in line…
And so it went, every client with her sewing project or fabric sample, every purchase including a trip to the back and a few cents exchanging hands. Even with a line-up all day, I could not help but wonder how this could add up to a profit at the end of the day.
Like so many things in Andalucía, I have become enamoured by the mercerías. Some might find it a terrible waste of time, but I enjoy the experience like a piece of theatre, or a slice of life that might cease to exist within a generation or two.
When travelling, I make errands for myself, just to be able to visit another haberdashery, to check out the window display, the old counter, the shelving and the fragile old paper boxes with their fascinating secret contents. I become like a kid in a candy shop, enchanted by the rich colours and shiny pieces. My poor husband has been dragged into haberdasheries from Bilbao in the north to Cádiz in the south, and I don’t even sew a stitch.
Our latest visit was to Almacenes Silvia, a lovely mercería in downtown Córodoba, where the haberdasher had worked for more than five decades. Her selection of buttons where out of this world and she kindly let me come behind the counter (otherwise unheard of, but it was 9 am and nobody else was on the street) to admire her collection up close. Actually, she had probably never had such a keen client in her store before. We finally left with half a dozen special buttons that I probably will never use, promising to return upon our next visit.
Back in Ronda, I went to my seamstress’ haberdashery to learn a bit more about the profession. Mercería Madroñal proprietors are Salvadora Sánchez Sánchez and her daughter Paqui Atienza Sánchez. Though their mercería is fairly new compared to some of the others I have been to (theirs opened in 1991), it perfectly demonstrates why these types of businesses work, certainly here in Andalucía.
There was just a single client when I arrived (which is rare, but it was just after opening) so Paqui kindly took me to the back to show me their secret stashes. As I snapped endless photos, she taught me the traditional names of some of the chords, such as a coloured satin thread called Colita de raton (mouse tail) and the thinner Tripita de pollo (chicken intestine). I marvelled at the sheer volume of stock. Where did it all come from? (Thankfully, I noted that some were still Hecho en España) I inquired how they keep it all organized. Paqui explained that some items were colour coded or stored by product numbers, while other items such as multi-coloured upholstery trim were stacked a bit more randomly. They simply have to know where everything is, she said, admitting that after her father has been there to help clean up, they cannot find anything…
The Mercerías popularity apparently depends on the town or the area. In the province of Almería almost all haberdasheries have had to close down. There is simply no business for them anymore. Thankfully, here in Ronda the mercerías are more popular than ever. In fact, Paqui told me that they have many younger clients. While the older clientele might bring in embroideries and things that need mending, the young girls want to learn how to make clothes for themselves.
There is also a unique tradition of making baby clothing here in Andalucía, which I have never seen anywhere else. Babies are swaddled in beautiful hand embroidered linen outfits with precious little bonnets, knitted socks and patent leather baby shoes. (Appearance before comfort…)
I was told that the haberdashery did have a few male clients, and as if to prove their point, a gentleman walked in to buy some ribbon. He was a regular, Salvadora informed me, just like a Ronda clothing designer who has established himself in Sevilla. Curiously, many haberdashers are male, such as at the amazing Mercería Fernández Frías in Málaga, where I have only seen men behind the counter. Their clients are of all ages and genders, I was told, and include some of Málaga’s cofradías or religious brotherhoods and many local designers. Many of the travelling notions vendors are also men, though such wandering peddlars are loosing out to online catalogues. However, it is still safe to say that 99% of the clientele in most mercerías are female.
Added to the popularity of Ronda’s mercerías is the fact that the town’s férias and other celebrations include outfits that people habitually make for themselves. Be it Flamenco dresses, Ronda Romántica’s Bandolero outfits, First Communion dresses and sailor outfits, wedding veils, or the various traditional costumes used during the Semana Santa (Easter) processions, there are always things to be sewn. And the more elaborate, richly decorated, the better.
While I kept Paqui busy in the back, showing me all the useful gadgets used by seamstresses, Salvadora was trying to handle the ever-growing line of waiting patrons. I spent some time watching from the sideline as the two of them served their clients. The mother-daughter team was like a dynamic duo, reading each other’s thoughts, taking over a client or passing each other something to be put away, as if it was a relay baton. No pun intended, but they were truly a picture of seamless collaboration.
Not to have too many unnecessary trips to the back and to streamline the selection process, they used a Pantone style colour chart. I soon discovered that these haberdashers had another vital role, as they repaired things, on site while the client was waiting. Almost every second client came in with jackets and bags with broken zippers, which sliders Salvadora would fix, or pulls she would exchange in a jiffy. This type of service was offered for free, which is unthinkable where I came from. A client entered with a pair of children’s boots needing new zippers. Salvadora told her that she only needed to purchase one zipper, as the cobbler up the street could divide it in half and use the second, still working slider for the other boot. I could hardly believe my ears. They were not only reasonable and frugal, but extremely service minded, even if this meant that they sold a few less zippers and other notions.
Reluctantly, I took my leave, thanking my new friends for their hospitality. Walking down the street, I thought that I really should at least try to add a few notions onto my Ronda Romántica outfit, comes spring. At least then I will have another excuse for going snooping through their lovely ribbons again…
To learn more, or to see videos on how to thread a needle or make a ribbon bow, go to Mercería Madroñal’s Facebook page