Stores We Love: Gather Here in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Posted by Christina Loff on

Part sewing studio, part fabric and yarn shop, gather here, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts is a one-of-a-kind stitch lounge, created to cater to all fiber craft goals. We're big fans of this magical place and asked owner and founder Virginia B. Johnson to tell us more behind creating one of the best craft stores in the country.

Tell us about the origins of gather here--when did you open and why?  gather here opened on February 19, 2011. In 2010 I wrote a business plan for a "stitch lounge" inspired by the places I had visited over the years. Whenever I went to a new city for work I always made a point of finding a local yarn or needlework shop to see what sorts of things people were making. Often these places had a little lounge area where people were hanging out or taking a class. I loved how I could find people with a shared interest no matter where I was. I was especially excited about the Home Ec Workshop in Iowa City (my sister and her partner's home base and their local shop) which took all the aspects of creating community through fiber arts to the next level. They had knitting, crochet, embroidery, and sewing all under one roof with supplies and workspace. AND they had a cafe with baked goods! I was so envious that my sister had my dream LYS in her town! It was her that really took my dream business plan and encouraged me to make it a reality. "If there's a need for maker spaces in Iowa City, there has to be a need in Boston." If we hadn't found the space at 370 Broadway in Cambridge, this all may still just be a dream. The owner of the building was also an artist and entrepreneur and he took a chance on renting out his 1,250 square foot space to a small business with no past experience. We spent five years in that space, eventually outgrowing it and moving less than half a mile down the road to Inman Square. None of opening would have been possible without the sweat equity of the film community either. My partner and I are proud IATSE union members and have worked in film and television since 2003. From the carpentry skills to painting and sign-making, we were able to transform the retail spaces creatively and on a budget.

What inspired you most about makers during the pandemic? 

People want to be useful and helpful. Especially in the face of uncertainty. When community leaders asked us if we could make masks, create a pattern and tutorial, and provide materials we knew there would be plenty of people who would want to help. And even though we had no idea what would happen to our small business operations during the State of Emergency, we figured out how we could assist the community in creating thousands of reusable fabric face masks for health care workers and vulnerable community members. A customer and now part-time employee, Stephanie Cave, founded the Boston Area Mask Initiative within the first week of the State of Emergency and we were immediately a partner. As a collection site and distributor, it was a simple way for us to help what became a massive project providing over 60K masks throughout Greater Boston. I'm still in awe of all the people who made and collected face masks. As well as the volunteers who would bike all over the city collecting masks, dropping off materials, and distributing finished masks to non-profit organizations in need. People gave their time and resources when our federal government failed to supply proper PPE to our healthcare workers and that will stick with me always.

How did your shop make it through 2020? 

We couldn't have survived without the outpouring of community support. In the days leading up to the emergency order (Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker closed all nonessential businesses on March 23, 2020.) people came in picking up supplies for what they believed would just be two weeks of intense crafting time. As we all know, those two weeks dragged into months and now we are heading into our second winter of the pandemic. People bought supplies from us first to make face masks then scrub caps and even scrubs. But they also wanted to learn new crafts and we created supply bundles for new knitters, quilters, and crocheters. We also couldn't have survived without our amazing team - everyone learned to work differently. The jobs we had envisioned at gather here were turned on their heads - suddenly we were "picking orders" for hours on end, never seeing people other than each other, and packing and shipping. We became online instructors and video-tutorial creators. We learned how to use delivery apps and delivered orders all over Somerville and Cambridge. As well as how to organize "take out" - offering order pickup at the end of the the alley outside our shop. The heart of our small business is crafting in our space and it's been hard not to get back to doing that but we believe the day will come when we have three workshops happening all at once while people shop and chat in-person about what they are dreaming of making.

What inspires you about your customers? 

Their generosity. Even before the pandemic - our customers were generous with their time and knowledge. One of the things we miss the most from pre-pandemic times is our open community craft sessions. People came together and just worked on their own thing, sharing their progress with one another and just getting to know other people that like to make things. You'd see people connecting in workshops, too. And throughout the last 18 months we've had people reach out to see how their "neighbors" are. Someone they met in a knit-a-long or in a kids workshop. Which is awesome. 

What surprises you about what sells well at gather here? 

Fat quarter bundles. We resisted making bundles of fat quarters (18" x 22" cuts of fabric mostly used for quilting) because we thought people would want to "choose their own" fabrics but we learned that lots of people just want to "grab and go". And they trust that we'll put together a color palette or collection of prints that work together which we take as a huge compliment.

Your classes are such a special part of gather here, how was adapting to online classes in 2020? 

Cancelling all our March and April 2020 works was heartbreaking. We held out thinking that things would "get back to normal" and it just didn't. We missed connecting with the community and our former team member, Kayla (she moved to the West Coast at the end of Summer 2020) and I (Virginia) went through our classes and figured out what sorts of things we could adapt to an online format. Then we approached our other instructors to see if they were game to give online teaching a go. We have an embarrassing amount of old iphones and ipads so we used them to create camera set ups that could simultaneously capture hands at work as well as the instructor. Kayla and I did tests prior to the first online workshop to make sure the tech side functioned okay and that we were both comfortable operating the various devices AND instructing. The hybrid model of having some students in the space and some online is probably the hardest thing for all of us. But we wanted to make sure that people who weren't comfortable being indoors with others still could access our classes. 

What do you recommend for people who are just getting into making and crafting? What gateway craft do you recommend? 

I say this ALL the time, "Process over perfection." Learning something new can be hard for all of us because we are bombarded with images of "perfection" and think we should "know it all". But that's not possible. Think about learning how to ride a bike. I know I started with training wheels and eventually someone holding onto the seat so I could build up to going it alone. We remind people that mistakes are expected. They are even cool. Because we eventually figure out why we made the mistake and how to fix it. We recommend that if someone is interested in taking up a craft but don't want to invest in a bunch of stuff to take up cross stitch or embroidery! We have lots of kits with everything you need to start exploring handwork and we think it's a great instant gratification craft.  
How did you discover Julie and Subversive Cross Stitch? My friend, Heather, is a huge fan of Subversive Cross Stitch. She has been a long time subscriber to the newsletter and was creating sweary cross stitch samplers when we first met while working on a movie back in 2008. When I told Heather that I was thinking about opening up a fiber craft lounge she told me that I had to reach out to Julie and see if I could stock Subversive Cross Stitch patterns. Heather stitched and framed a "Don't Make Me Cut You" sampler for me and it is one of my favorite gifts in the whole world. It was proudly displayed with Subversive kits until I decided it needed to be in my studio.
Any fun stories to share about working with Julie?
Whenever Julie mentions gather here in a newsletter or shares one of our posts on Facebook or Instagram lots of my friends from film or academia reach out to say, "Oh my gawd, Julie Jackson shared gather here's post/news!" I think it's awesome that Julie's audience goes far beyond the immediate craft world and that people who just love anything subversive or snarky also are tuned into Julie's work. Stocking Julie's products isn't just about supporting contemporary cross stitch, we are also dismantling the patriarchy and archaic notions of "respectability". Which we LOVE.

Your favorite project from 2021? To be honest, I've really struggled to "make something" in 2021. Running a small business throughout this pandemic has been the hardest thing I have ever done. Managing supply chain issues, hustling for grands and funding, and navigating COVID-19 infections/transmissions-rates in the immediate community leaves me pretty drained. When I do sit down to make something it's because I'm meeting a deadline - a birthday or a thank you gift. I've done a lot of mending this year (literal and figural) because I'm not shopping for clothes or embarking on making new clothes for myself (which was something I did voraciously before March 2020). I've extended the life of everything from my favorite jeans to even my "Dream Big Fight Hard" Elizabeth Warren cross stitch campaign t-shirt. Can I highlight something that I love that gather here's team creates? Our giant window cross stitch! We used peg board and have switched out the message over the last couple of years. We even recreated the "Dream Big Fight Hard" cross stitch for the 2020 Massachusetts Democratic Presidential Primary. It is currently in the window with "Don't Panic, Shop Local". And we're always brainstorming more phrases to stitch. 

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