My studio. Can you spot the thread rack?
Walk into almost anyone’s sewing room and you’ll likely see a thread rack mounted on the wall, spools of thread in pretty rows waiting to be plucked off their dowels for the next project.
The thread rack is ubiquitous in today’s sewing studio. What you may not realize is that a single company, June Tailor, makes almost every thread rack you see. In fact, June Tailor’s founder, an ambitious female entrepreneur from Hartland, Wisconsin, likely invented the thread rack itself.
The Founding of June Tailor
June Kroenke, the founder of June Tailor.
In the winter of 1960 June Kroenke, an avid garment sewer, was making a red wool vest for her husband Roger for Christmas. While struggling to press the curves she invented the Tailor Board, a specialized pressing tool. She began selling the product, which was first made from cardboard and later from wood, from her basement. By 1962 she established the business as June Tailor, opened a manufacturing facility, and expanded her product line to include other pressing tools.
According to Jill Repp, Vice President of Marketing and Sales, June and Nancy Zieman became friends and close confidants, both building businesses in the sewing industry less than an hour’s drive away from one another in Wisconsin.
Pivoting to Quilting
By the late 1980’s and early 90’s the demand for garment sewing products waned, and June pivoted the company to focus on pressing tools that served the burgeoning quilting industry. She invented a board that was an ironing surface on one side and a cutting mat on the other. Noticing that most people kept their spools of thread in shoeboxes, she also commissioned a local Wisconsin craftsman to make a rack with rows of dowels to hold the spools.
When June died of pancreatic cancer in November of 1994, the thread rack was just a handmade prototype. Her daughter and son-in-law, Meri June and Fran Yogerst, bought the business from her estate. They hired Jill to work on sales and marketing and she’s been with the company now for 25 years.
The thread rack manufacturing machine.
Fran saw the potential of the thread rack as a mass-market product right away. Working with a local machine builder they created a machine to manufacture the thread racks in their Wisconsin factory. It sifts dowels, feeds them into drilled crossbars, and then staples the crossbars to the legs. Soon they began selling thread racks to distributors, independent quilt shops, and chains stores nationwide.
The thread racks come in three sizes: 30 spools, 60 spools, and 120 spools. June Tailor also makes racks that hold cones of thread, and smaller racks for bobbins. All of the thread racks are made from light, natural wood. Over the years the company has experimented with other variations, in the end returning to this classic material and color.
“We thought a little value-added would be to stain them,” Jill says. “So in ’95 we were sending them out to a paint line to be stained and then we realized that people didn’t care that they were stained. They loved that they were wood, but they didn’t care that they were stained.”
A few years later, in an attempt to bring the price down, they began manufacturing thread racks from molded plastic with a wood grain finish. “I hated them and they didn’t do well,” Jill recalls. “The customers wanted wood. They demanded wood.” They pulled those out of the market and returned to the original.
Another variation included a rack in which the thread sat the long way, on a cradle, so that you could see the color of the spool. Those also didn’t sell. For a while, June Tailor sold a plastic dust cover to go over their thread racks, but again this was a dud.
“So what we learned from all these lessons is that the standard dowel and rail system is still the best and is still the most popular,” Jill says.
Today, thread racks are one of June Tailor’s top ten products by volume. To keep prices for the product low about 75% of the manufacturing is now done in China, but overall 90% of June Tailor products are still made in Wisconsin.
“People will look at it and say ‘Well, I could make that,’” Jill says, referring to the simplicity of the rack’s design. “We’re serving a creative community and we know that. What we’re trying to do is make the decision so darn easy. Yeah, you can spend all this time making it, but it’s only $14 so you might as well buy it.”
It turns out that thread racks have other inventive uses besides holding spools of sewing thread. Several years ago June Tailor was approached by Manhattan Toy to use their cone racks as finger puppet displays in retail stores. “We screen-print their little crown logo on the crossbar and then their puppets fit right on them,” Jill explains.” June Tailor also white labels their thread racks for Orvis who sells them as monofilament racks for tying flies for fly-fishing.
In the craft room, extra thread racks get repurposed to hold washi tape or ribbon and sometimes thread racks are used for more unusual purposes. On a family trip to Disney World years ago, Jill noticed a June Tailor thread rack mounted in one of the cafes. “The employees all hung their sunglasses on it!” she says.
It’s been 57 years since June Kroenke founded June Tailor and the company’s product line has evolved significantly in that time. Today, one of June Tailor’s premier products is the fabric cutting kiosk, a machine for fabric and quilt shops that cuts fabric to order for customers. They manufacture over 200 other unique and inventive tools, notions, and kits for quilters, including June’s original product, the Tailor Board, which is still in production 57 years later. But perhaps June Tailor’s most lasting contribution to the lives of sewists everywhere was to organize our thread.
June Tailor has generously offered to give away three prize packages each worth $100 (and each containing a thread rack plus lots of other goodies) on Instagram. To enter, take a picture of your thread rack and post it on your feed with the hashtag #showmeyourthreadrack, tag and follow @junetailor. They’ll draw winners on Friday, October 19, 2018.