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Dorothy Hancock's legacy

The first Hancock family fabric store

Written by
Victoria Caldwell
Published on
November 24, 2021 5:00:00 PM PST November 24, 2021 5:00:00 PM PSTth, November 24, 2021 5:00:00 PM PST

While working on the History of Hancock's of Paducah blog post, one of our store owners found this article about his grandmother. This article is reprinted here with permission of The Panolian newspaper. It was originally published on Wednesday, April 12, 1989. The article and photos are credited to Toni Lepeska.

Dorothy Hancock passed away on April 1, 2008 at the age of 86.

Enjoy this glimpse into the history of our store, the Hancocks Fabric chain, and fabric stores in general.

Batesville home to first store in Hancock chain

The Panolian - Wednesday, April 12, 1989

[Dorothy Hancock, photo from The Panolian newspaper April 1989.

Mrs. Dorothy Hancock stands around fabrics she sells at her Hancock Fabrics store on Van Voris in Batesville. She and her late husband, William, established the first store in the now nationwide Hancock Fabrics chain.]

Only a small, black and white sign, “Hancock Fabrics,” sits above Mrs. Dorothy Hancock’s store on Van Voris Avenue.

It’s been that way since the business began.

When Mr. William Hancock lived, he didn’t do much more than place a simple sign and advertise just a little.

And since his death in 1962, Mrs. Hancock has continued to operate the shop with the same low-key approach, selling fabrics to several generations of home seamstresses, many of whom may not realize that the Batesville store was the first in the now nationwide Hancock Fabrics chain.

Before 1952, most people buying fabrics in small towns such as Batesville, ordered them from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, Mrs. Hancock said.

Seamstresses had to rely on sight and on a printed description of the cloth to determine whether a certain fabric was what they were looking for.

If they preferred buying only material they’d handled, residents of small towns had two choices, she said.

They could buy from the small stores that carried a few fabrics and notions, never any drapery or woolens.

Or they could make a long trip to a big city where large selections were available.

In 1952, all this became clear to Mr. Hancock. A fabric store catering to small towns and carrying a large variety of cloths and notions would be successful, he reasoned.

He was right.

He was so right that a wholesale distribution center for Hancock Fabrics began three years later in Tupelo, established by Mr. Hancock’s brother and with William Hancock’s approval.

L.D. Hancock saw the potential fabric stores could have and wanted to expand the business.

Many offspring followed and scattered nationwide to small and big cities.

Now Hancock Fabrics is the second largest fabric chain, Mrs. Hancock estimates. (House of Fabrics is the largest.) There are about 505 stores holding the Hancock name.

And it all started right here in Batesville.

Mrs. Hancock came to United States from England. She was born there in Bristol and still has a little English accent.

[Employees at the original Batesville, MS Hancock Fabrics store, April 1989.

Employees at Hancock Fabrics, Jean Wasylina, Kay Daugherty and Kelle Baker, prepare fabric for customers.]

She worked as a chartered accountant, the equivalent of a certified public accountant here.

Her husband-to-be, a native of Tupelo, was in the military when they met in 1942. He was stationed in England during the war, and met his wife-to-be at a party thrown by her employer.

They married a year later.

In 1952, the couple moved to Batesville and began the fabric business.

They raised two sons in Batesville. Rodney died as a young adult. Rowland now lives in Paducah, Ky., where he is a member of the Hancock Fabrics national board of directors.

“It’s really been a joy in my life that he continued on,” Mrs. Hancock said.

In 1962, plans to go to a larger city and operate a larger store were foiled when Mr. Hancock died in a car accident.

But he was able to see the Hancock name applied to stores across the nation before he died.

Mrs. Hancock has operated the Batesville Hancock Fabrics herself, with employee assistance, since he died.

The store “has been a way of life for me,” she said.

The energetic woman is a 68-year-old who hints that she keeps on her feet more than her doctor advises. (She recently injured her leg.)

Her store is brightly lit and neatly kept.

The white tile floors have no threads or slivers of cloth clinging to them.

Though 30 to 40 types of cloth are sold there (not to mention the accessories), the store doesn’t have a crowded appearance.

Batesville Hancock Fabrics was housed next door to the current location when it began. The business moved in 1960 for more space.

Customers looking for a certain color or texture fabric won’t have to run around the store comparing fabrics. They are organized to limit customer hassle. Like-textured fabrics and colors are grouped together.

There are silks, linens, calicos, cotton prints and vinyls. There are blues, pinks, greens, whites, and stripes.

When the four employees have no one to wait on, they go about making sure the fabrics are hanging in the same direction. They walk around making sure trims aren’t excessively rolled off spools.

Mrs. Hancock demands no more from her employees than she demands from herself.

She is back and forth straightening fabrics and notions too.

The stress is on helpful service, Mrs. Hancock said. All her employees are required to know how to sew, so they will be able to respond to the customer who says, “Help me.”

Fabric stores still give larger variety, Mrs. Hancock said.

Certain department stores should stay out of the fabric business, she said. Though their fabric is often less expensive, it is also of “second run” quality. Many times the employees don’t know enough about sewing to help customers either, Mrs. Hancock said.

Because these stores deal with lesser quality fabrics, they can drive prices down, Mrs. Hancock said. She admits this hurts all fabric businesses, who she says deal in higher quality and so much charge the higher price.

But department stores dealing in fabrics haven’t apparently effected Mrs. Hancock’s business.

She has consistent customers. They are mothers, daughters, crafters and out-of-towners.

She’s seen many little girls grow up because mothers have consistently come in to make first, cute little dresses, then brightly colored shirts, and then long, clean wedding dresses.

The daughters come back, Mrs. Hancock said. Some are seamstresses now, like their mothers were.

Some have gotten married, moved to other towns, gotten fabrics at other Hancock-named stores, made clothes for their little boys and girls.

They’re in town for a holiday and stop by the Batesville Hancock Fabrics to say hello to Mrs. Hancock.

To them, there’s only one Hancock Fabrics, they tell Mrs. Hancock.

It’s the one in Batesville that has clothed them from cute little girl dresses to flowing white wedding dresses.

It’s the one Mrs. Dorothy Hancock runs without bragging to anyone about it.