Loss of Mary Jo’s founder tears a hole in the fabric of the Carolinas

Mary Jo Cloninger started her store with a few bits of cloth and a $500 loan from her dad.
Mary Jo Cloninger started her store with a few bits of cloth and a $500 loan from her dad. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Mary Jo Cloninger started with a $500 loan and a few scraps of cloth in the back of a barber shop and spun it into a world-famous destination for fabric and sewing that drew customers to Gastonia from all over the Southeast.

Cloninger, 85, died Thursday at Covenant Village in Gastonia, according to her family.

“If there was any woman put on Earth to run a fabric store, it was my mother,” says Paula Houser, who says she worked alongside her mother at Mary Jo’s on Cox Road “my whole entire life.

“My mother saw her business as a service, as if she was a missionary of fabric. She served people through offering the best fabric at the lowest price she could sell it at.”

Cloninger started the store in 1951 when she was 19 and newly married. She had limited education and had never learned to read above a third-grade level. In her 30s, she learned she had dyslexia. But her knowledge of sewing and what customers needed helped her turn the store into an empire, with a mail-order business that filled orders from around the world.

Her son Thomas, who worked with her for years and took over running the store when his mother stepped down at the age of 80, says her philosophy was always “to God be the glory and to me, the backaches.

“She was never dictated (to) by a balance sheet,” he says. “She did what she wanted and her thrust was to provide a service.”

The business survived the change from a time when some women made all their families’ clothes to an era when sewing was more of a hobby. The location on Cox Road, right off the busy I-85 corridor between Charlotte and Atlanta, helped draw customers from all over who considered a stop at Mary Jo’s a part of any trip through Western North Carolina.

In an Observer story about the store’s 50th anniversary in 2001, she said she never wore anything that she hadn’t sewed herself.

“Every stitch,” she said. “Every piece I have is a remnant of something that didn't get used. I'm a Capricorn. Capricorns recycle everything but toilet paper.”

She also spoke to her peculiar knack for customer service: “I can recall what fabric I sold a woman 20 years ago and what it was for, but I can’t remember her name. Just like a dentist who looks at your teeth, I know their life stories.” And she shared her determination: “I never give out... I’m very good at what I do. I am a woman of the cloth.”

The business was almost destroyed in the early 1980s, when a fire burned the store to the ground. Cloninger could have simply closed it. But she felt an obligation to her employees and customers, Houser says.

“Mother received bags and bags and bags of letters, begging her to open back up,” and some of the letters even had cash donations to help. After using her own money to pay for the lost inventory, Cloninger went to New York and faced down businessmen who didn’t want to give her a loan to reopen.

“The fire really gave her recognition,” Houser says. “My mother’s advertising was her faith in the good Lord and the word of mouth of her customers.”

The store went on to evolve into a cavernous space, with roll after roll of colorful fabrics, sewing notions, buttons and anything else a crafter could need. It’s been featured in Southern Living, and helped to supply costumes for the TV series “Dawson’s Creek” and the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot.”

Keeping the business going as people’s lives changed and sewing became a rarer art has meant adapting, Thomas Cloninger says. The store added sewing machine sales, sewing classes and even kids’ camps.

“We’re in a whole new generation of customers,” he says. “It’s from that mom who stays home with children to that crafter making quilts. We still have tailors that come in and buy fabric. We still have a good bridal department. And we have a real good home (decorating) department.”

In addition to Thomas Cloninger and Paula Houser, Cloninger is survived by another son, Alan Cloninger, sheriff of Gaston County; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

The family plans a private graveside service. At Mary Jo Cloninger’s request, the family also plans to hold a celebration of her life on the one-year anniversary of her death: March 16, 2018. Memorials may be made to Holy Communion Lutheran Church, 103 W. Church St., in Dallas.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis