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Friday, February 27, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Her Thread And Butter -- Polarfleece Has Made Nancy Cornwell Sew Successful

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

That rags-to-riches dream really can come true.

For Nancy Cornwell, it was a fabric-to-riches dream - polyester fleece and acrylic plush, to be exact. And she wasn't discovered while sipping a root beer float at a soda fountain, but while teaching sewing seminars at last year's Sewing & Stitchery Expo in Puyallup.

Her new book, "Adventures in Polarfleece . . . A Sewing Expedition" (Krause Publications, $19.95), surpassed projected annual sales within three months.

OK, she wasn't an overnight sensation, but then who is? Cornwell, 50, opened Stretch & Sew Fabrics in Lynnwood with her husband, Jeff, 17 years ago after sewing alterations and consignment for years while living in the Midwest. She began stocking Polarfleece 10 years ago and often instructs the 100 or so in her monthly I Love to Sew classes with creative uses for fleece, plush and Berber fabrics. Son Jeff, 22, and daughter Jackie Cornwell-McInnes, 23, grew up working the family booth at the Sewing & Stitchery Expo.

Nonetheless, for Cornwell, affectionately dubbed the "Polar Princess," this has been a whirlwind 12 months. The book and Cornwell have garnered attention in national sewing circles since it was published in December. She's made the sewing-show rounds, including an upcoming appearance on PBS' "America Sews with Sue Hausmann," aired locally on KCTS-TV.

"Polarfleece has revived home sewing!" Cornwell says elatedly. "In the last three years it's gone from weather beater, mountain climber, outdoors enthusiast to fashion. And you can make the clothes a whole lot cheaper than you can buy them."

Cornwell, a featured speaker at the annual Sewing & Stitchery Expo in Puyallup this weekend, knew she was on to something last year when her four Expo seminars promptly sold out, eventually expanding to nine, standing room only. That added up to 2,000 of the 30,000 people who attended the four-day Western Washington Fairgrounds event, all yearning to sew their own polyester fleece garments.

"Her Polarfleece is just the hottest thing there is," said Joanne Ross, program chair and founder of the Sewing & Stitchery Expo. Presented through Washington State University Cooperative Extension in Pierce County, Expo offers technique and business information to local sewers and the growing number of small or home-based sewing businesses.

The show draws the top names in sewing nationwide, who teach the 70 seminars. Vendors, such as Viking sewing machine representatives, come from as far away as Sweden to hawk their wares. Attendance has increased tenfold since the first year. Sewing predominantly draws women; only one of the 70 seminar instructors is a man.

"Everybody who is anybody in sewing is at this show," Cornwell said.

Cornwell's effervescently down-to-earth personality and folksy, descriptive conversational style translate well both in her writing and her teaching. She's as spunky as she appears; Cornwell and her husband play soccer together Fridays on an adult coed recreational team.

"My friends say, `Everybody else gets divorced, and you two work and live together 24 hours a day,' " Cornwell said in wonderment.

Last year, while zigzagging between her seminars and Expo booth, three publishing scouts separately approached Cornwell with offers to write a book. She cranked it out in three months. Krause Publications had it illustrated and on the market by December - all in all, a rapid-fire turnaround.

Why the avalanche of popularity? Polyester fleece and acrylic plush have trendy and practical markets.

Polarfleece is the grande dame of polyester fleece and is commonly used to refer to all types. However, it is a trademarked type of polyester fleece, manufactured in 1979 by Malden Mills and quickly gaining a following through outdoor-gear stores such as Patagonia, Cornwell explains in the book's first chapter. (Malden is a Massachusetts mill that burned two years ago. The owner paid his idle employees for three months, then restarted makeshift production lines in warehouses during the year the plant was rebuilt.)

Cornwell also lists the best of the other companies and their trademark fleece, including Berber by Glenoit Mills, which resembles lamb fleece.

Outdoors types have worn it for decades for its water repellence and warmth. The fashion- and fun-conscious are wearing it for those reasons as well as the soft texture, colorful and outdoorsy prints and environmental friendliness of the brands of polyester fleece spun from recycled soda bottles.

Aha, a soda connection! Malden is also among the mills that produce some of their polyester fleece from Fortrel Ecospun, a company that spins polyester fibers from plastic soda bottles.

So you say you don't sew. How's your budget? If you could flip through the polyester fleece section in an outdoors fashion catalog and make the stylish jackets, vests, hats and scarves pictured for a half to a fifth of retail, would you? Cornwell says it's easy because there are no darts or shoulders to fit.

The fabric is not cheap; it ranges between $10 and $25 a yard. The bargain comes in sewing it yourself. One morning this week in her Lynnwood shop, Cornwell modeled a reversible maroon solid and plaid hip-length jacket in Berber by Glenoit. She originally saw the look in a popular outdoors fashion catalog for $150. She made it for $60.

Do you feel envy rising? Well, calm down. Her book takes you step by step through it. The 160 pages are packed with instructions, helpful hints, diagrams and glossy photos of fleece galore. She says she wanted it to read chatty and friendly like her twice-monthly newsletter, "#1 Source," which has 2,000 subscribers nationwide and in Canada and promotes her mail-order business.

But if you want tips directly from the Polar Princess herself, well, she's teaching another nine seminars at the Expo this weekend, and once again they're standing-room-only.

Ah, the price of fame. ------------------------------- Some stitches in time

The Sewing & Stitchery Expo is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and tomorrow and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Western Washington Fairgrounds in Puyallup. Admission is $7; seminars are $2 each. Call 253-445-4632 for information.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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