Alexandria, VA – There’s the old saying about a “stitch in time.” And there’s the expression, I was “in stitches,” which originated, I recently learned, from laughing so hard as to be in physical pain. William Shakespeare first used the phrase in Twelfth Night, 1602.
And then there is In Stitches Needlework, a shop at 8800 Pear Tree Village Court, just off Rt. 1 in the Fairfax County section of Alexandria. It has been owned for more than 25 years by Ellen Meyer.
I often wonder how small businesses get started and how owners find the courage to leap from a hobby or in-home business to paying rent, salaries, and taxes. I know how I decided to open mine. I thought I had to be a professional photographer. I quit a job with a reasonably good salary and vacation and sick leave. And I was a single mom. My dad said I had more guts than brains!
But I’m curious about others, so I asked Ellen. She was recommended to me by Holly Hicks Dougherty, the executive director of the Mount Vernon-Lee Chamber of Commerce, in part because she was recognized recently with the Chamber’s Best Small Business Award for 2020 and because, Holly said, “They are a wonderful local, one-of-a-kind woman-owned business.”
“Folks ask me if owning my own business was something I had always dreamed of,” Ellen told me. “In reality, I never thought about it until the opportunity presented itself. I didn’t plan to work full time when I started having children (there are three and now two “adorable” grandchildren), and it was a balancing act for the first few years. I would get the children off to school and then work until it was time to pick them up. My then-business partner would work until we closed. It was a good arrangement.”
Born and raised in rural Nebraska, Ellen worked at many jobs after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a B.S. in Home Economics, including as a Home Economist with Minnesota Fabrics.
But why this particular business? I asked. What brought you through the door of In Stitches to apply for a part-time job in their framing department?
Serendipity or kismet, perhaps. Ellen had done needlework in one form or another since she was active in 4-H. In college, she branched out to cross stitch.
In March 1981, when a newly elected senator offered her husband a job in D.C., they moved to Northern Virginia. Ellen transferred here with Minnesota Fabrics. They planned to stay for two years, but family, careers, and life changed that plan.
Ellen was already stitching a great deal when she worked for Minnesota Fabrics. When she left the company to have children in 1986, she became passionate about thread, fabric, and needles. “I shopped at In Stitches for a few years before I started working part-time in their framing department,” she says.
In the spring of 2005, In Stitches’ owner Carolyn Arnold approached Ellen and Sue Corcoran, another employee, about buying the business. “And we did,” says Ellen. “Sue remained my business partner for 12 years. I made the financial and time commitments when my children were very young. I was not certain I could maintain the schedule that owning a small business would require,” she adds. But it worked.
Ellen later bought her partner’s share of the business and promoted an employee, Patricia Eaton, to shop manager. That gave her freedom to volunteer with Nelly’s Needlers, the volunteer group that raises money for Woodlawn.
In Stitches is just three-quarters of a mile north of the Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House Historic Site. “For years,” says Ellen, “I reaped the benefits of being the closest needlework shop to Woodlawn. After visiting the annual needlework show, folks would come to my shop to browse and buy more needlework. Once my children were grown, I wanted to give back to this beautiful historic home.” Ellen has been involved as an officeholder, currently treasurer, and co-chaired the needlework shows for several years.
Challenges? Yes, many! Being a successful small business is always challenging, but Ellen couldn’t have foreseen that in March 2020, the shop would close for four months. During the closure, she worked alone each day filling mail orders and offering curb service. It brought new meaning to the phrase “self-employed.” The shop reopened in July, with limited hours and only three customers inside at a time. But on the plus side, both men and women picked up old hobbies or started new ones to occupy their time in quarantine.
For Ellen and her staff, and for many of her customers, stitching is more than a hobby. It’s a way of life.
Nina Tisara is the founder of Living Legends of Alexandria.