I’m Jewish and I sew. Sometimes these two facts converge and I find myself wanting to sew something Jewish like a challah cover or a kippah or a Hebrew School tote bag. While I’m planning these projects I often look for Jewish fabrics to use. What I’ve found is that unless you want to put dreidels and menorahs on everything the modern Jewish fabric scene is rather bleak with one amazing exception: Fay Nicoll.
A funky aleph bet with a 70’s vibe, a mosaic of Jewish stars in a colorway other than blue – Fay Nicoll fabrics fit today’s aesthetic and best of all they’re not just for Hanukkah. “It’s not Hanukkah,” Nicoll tells me when we talked on the phone last week. “It’s 52 weeks of the year. I try to educate the proprietors of the shops about this.”
Nicoll has designed five prints since she started creating Jewish fabrics in 2010. Each is available in three colorways, although the popular aleph bet has just been released in a fourth – black. “I took the first design to several of the big companies and they all said, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ It won’t sell,” she says. “It’s a niche market, no question, but it’s bigger than you think it is. Create it and they will want it. That’s always been my theory.” Determined to have the fabric made she secured her own manufacturer and funded all of the production herself.
Nicoll is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “My brother was a child survivor,” she tells me and then has to pause as she begins to cry. “I was born in Poland after the war.” Her family immigrated to the United States in 1949 and settled in New York.
In the 1980’s and 90’s Nicoll was a singer. She released four albums and sang in Yiddush theater on Broadway. Sewing was a hobby and she performed wearing costumes and gowns she’d made herself. In 1994 Nicoll relocated to Florida for her husband’s job and went to buy a Janome embroidery machine to embellish her dresses. Finding that her love of sewing matched her love of singing she went back and bought the sewing machine store, launching a new career for herself.
Nicoll wasn’t a quilter at that time, but she figured if she expanded the store’s inventory to include fabric she might entice more customers. “Quilters started coming in,” she recalls, “and I ordered them the things they asked for –the rulers and the rotary cutters.” Then one day in 2000 Nicoll stood up awkwardly from a morning of sewing at the machine and tore her Achilles tendon. “I was wheelchair bound. I couldn’t sew my clothes anymore because I couldn’t get them around the casts.”
Finding herself alone in the shop on a rainy Saturday afternoon Nicoll, still in her wheelchair, picked up a paper piecing pattern and decided to give it a try. “I fell in love. I said to my husband, ‘Lock the doors. I’m hooked.’ When I got better I turned my fabric shop into a quilt shop.”
Within a few months she had 3,000 bolts of fabric and had to move the store to a larger space. Today Nicoll’s store, Sunshine Sewing and Quilting in Margate, is the largest quilt shop in South Florida and the second largest quilt shop in the state. It’s proximity to the port at Fort Lauderdale where many vacation cruises come and go make it a shopping destination for quilters waiting to board or just coming off the ships.
In the fall of 2010 she took her line of self-produced Judaica fabrics to Quilt Market to see if other stores might buy it. A project she’d designed with the fabrics was published in Quilter’s World magazine just before the show which help to build excitement. The line sold out. “I had shop owners come over to me at Quilt Market and say, ‘I wish I could carry your fabric, but I don’t have Jewish quilters as customers.’ I told them, ‘Everyone has a Jewish friend.’” Fay Nicoll Judaica fabrics are now in quilt shops nationwide and are available through all major distributors of quilting cottons.
Nicoll designs Judaica patterns to compliment the fabrics including table runners, quilts, mug rugs, matzah covers, and placemats “Not long ago a non-Jewish woman came into the shop and bought my fabric and my Dove of Peace Table Runner pattern,” she tells me. “She made it for her Jewish son-in-law. That really touched me.”
Nicoll’s natural comfort as a performer comes through in her YouTube videos where she shows her latest patterns and products. “Social media is everything. All the advertising in the world won’t do what social media will do,” she says.
“Four manufacturers have asked me to design Christmas fabrics,” she says. “I told them, ‘100 people are doing that and only one is doing Judaica. I can design flowers all day long, but it’s not what I want to do.’ This is a way to honor my parents. This is my personal legacy. It makes me feel so happy that it’s accepted.”