One big benefit of never going anywhere is that when you finally do go somewhere, it’s really cool. I probably would have been happy just to enter an interior space and be surrounded by walls other than my own. And here I was, wandering this incredible brilliant soft world of fabric in Pilsen. And not just cloth: spools of ribbon and thread, buttons and glittery fringe. But mostly fabric, in big log-like bolts, in scraps on the floor, pulled out in dizzying sheets for inspection.
I wish I could say that I went because of my relentless journalistic curiosity, exploring every corner of the city, seeking out the new and fantastic. But you don’t need to go anywhere for that: a firehose of the incredible — mostly incredibly bad news from Washington — hits you in the face every day. Hard.
The reason is ordinary. Many are remodeling the homes they’ve been stuck in for six months and will remain stuck in for God knows how long. My wife and I, despite my pretensions to the contrary, are ordinary suburban folks. We’re remodeling the TV room, which has the same grim white linoleum floor and mournful blue walls it had when we bought the place 20 years ago.
Over the past half year, we finally took a good look at the two sofas the boys spent 15 years jumping on and squirting juice boxes over.One had to go immediately. When I dragged it to the street, and saw its tears and stains in daylight, I was sincerely ashamed, embarrassed to have it sit on the curb, evidence of our unseen interior lives. I worried that the neighbors would think less of us. “Look what the Steinbergs had in their house!” We North Shore types can be so judgmental, and no judgment is more welcome than one confirming superiority over somebody else.
The other sofa had some hope. Bought in our flush, pre-children days, Henredon from Marshall Field’s. The fabric shredded, yes. But good bones. A battleship of a sofa. Maybe we could reupholster.Off to Calico Corners, me trotting after my wife like a dutiful dog. Fabric, it turns out, is expensive — $50, $100, $150 a square yard. Probably more; we weren’t looking for high-end fabric, just something that wouldn’t abrade our skin.
A helpful upholsterer told us we need to go to Textile Discount Outlet, 2121 W. 21st St.
So we went. Stepping inside, my senses almost shut down. A case of mannequins modeling what looked like sequined outfits for circus aerialists, a long table where women were measuring out bolts of canary yellow satin. And the prices: $5.95 a yard. $10. $15.
But that wasn’t why I was so overwhelmed. Maybe I’m used to suburban order, to Target and Costco, wide aisles polished by squads of workers. This was cluttered and dirty, the aisles jammed. Staircases blocked off by boxes.
There was something about the shapes: the round rolls of fabric, viewed from end. They were like living organisms, like sea creatures, ocean bottom anemones with orange and yellow tendrils waving nutrients into their round, popping mouths. Wandering the aisles was like snorkeling a coral reef.
The whole place sang of the diversity of life in Chicago. Most of the fabric couldn’t go on our sofa because it was intended for a sari or sarong, a prom or wedding dress. Brilliant pinks and greens and oranges, gold thread and shimmering silver.
The bright explosion of life and happiness that so freaks out Republicans pursing their lips and trying to decide between white and off-white — do they dare? The place has three floors spread over a half city block and I think I examined every bolt. I was there for hours, so long that I took a break for lunch — Taqueria El Mezquite at 18th and Wood, in a lovely little courtyard — and went back for more.
Yes, it occurred to me that I was risking my life for fabric. But everyone was masked and kept their distance, as best we could in the cramped aisles. I probably also risked getting irretrievably lost and wandering until my strength gave out. My skeleton would be found in some dim, distance corner of Textile Discount Outlet. But it is worth a visit. And no, I didn’t find the exact right fabric. Maybe next time.