Gifford Street Fabrics closure marks end of chapter in McLaughlin family’s textile legacy

Staff photo by Jennifer McNally / Gifford Street Fabrics, seen Thursday on Chattanooga's Southside, operated as the retail portion of the McLaughlin family business.
Staff photo by Jennifer McNally / Gifford Street Fabrics, seen Thursday on Chattanooga's Southside, operated as the retail portion of the McLaughlin family business.

Mother and son duo Gwen and Mark McLaughlin are part of a family with deep roots in Chattanooga's furniture manufacturing and fabric distribution history. Together, they've decided it's time for their portion of that story to come to an end.

On Saturday, Gifford Street Fabrics will close its doors for the last time.

The McLaughlins made the decision to close their business at 2310 Gifford St. after a construction accident in June. A crane operator dropped a pallet of metal roofing, damaging the walls and ceiling, breaking the store's sprinkler system, leaving the fabric showroom floor flooded.

Four times they put temporary roofing on the building, and each time, the pieces were blown away during heavy summer storms. Ultimately, Mark McLaughlin said the constant battle against dampness, rot and mildew became too much of a burden.

"Everything changes," he said. "People don't sew like they used to. There used to be dozens of upholstery shops around Chattanooga. Now, there are probably less than 10."

The McLaughlin family legacy in furniture and upholstery began with McLaughlin's grandfather, Harold McLaughlin Sr., who was recruited to Chattanooga from Minneapolis during the 1920s to run a furniture manufacturing company on Central Avenue. During the 1930s, he established McLaughlin Manufacturing on Main Street, across from what was then Chattanooga Paper and Woodenware, and what is now a parking lot across the street from Feed Table and Tavern.

In 1952, McLaughlin's father, Harold McLaughlin Jr., graduated from the University of Chattanooga and established Southland Fabrics wholesale distributors that same year. Southland, which is adjacent to Gifford Street Fabrics and run by Greg McLaughlin, Mark McLaughlin's brother, will remain in business.

"My father grew that business selling tacks to local furniture manufacturers before there were staple guns," McLaughlin said.

  photo  Staff photo by Jennifer McNally / Mother and son duo Gwen and Mark McLaughlin, seen Thursday, established Gifford Street Fabrics in the early 2000s.

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During the 1960s and '70s, McLaughlin said, their family business thrived. Vinyl was in high demand during those years, which they would sell to upholstery shops. By the '70s and '80s, buying trends had shifted to cotton prints.

In keeping up with customer demand, his father would assemble large upholstery sample books. At the time, Southland employed several salespeople, who would travel across five states to distribute the books to potential buyers.

Mark and Gwen McLaughlin established Gifford Street during the early 2000s as trends shifted to customers desiring to see and touch the bolts of fabric rather than sorting through the sample books.

But since those years of the industry's heyday, there has been a continual decline in customers, Mark McLaughlin said.

"Today, furniture has become disposable," he said. "Thinking about the younger generation, they buy from stores like Ikea, use it for three to four years, then throw it away and buy new."

McLaughlin said there is still upholstery work being done, and many of his customers buy the fabrics to make drapery. But there are "fewer and fewer" shops than there were decades ago.

He and his mother considered selling the business rather than closing the doors.

"I think a younger person could make this business grow, but it would take a lot," he said. "But with this tight economy and inflation, it was too much of a gamble."

(READ MORE: Abandoned Chattanooga textile mill rebuilt as urban neighborhood)

Gifford Street Fabrics' last day of operations will be Saturday, with everything reduced by 60% until then.

Contact Jennifer McNally at [email protected] or 423-757-6416.

  photo  Staff photo by Jennifer McNally / The fabric showroom, seen Thursday, will close its doors Saturday.

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