It takes a variety of ingredients to perfect the recipe for a successful business, says Sylvia Ratcliffe, the owner of The Cloth Castle, which celebrates 50 years in Langford this year.
“Service, service, service,” explained Ratcliffe in response to what defines The Cloth Castle’s longevity. “And making the customers feel like part of your family. The staff has been a real key to our success. They listen to what the customers want and are always trying new ideas and products based on the feedback from the people who come in. A key to keeping the business going is recognizing the different skills in your staff. They all have special gifts and qualities that have been essential to our success. They all volunteer in the community, and I’m so proud of that.”
Although the majority of the store’s customers are from across the Capital Region, Ratcliffe said it’s not uncommon to serve people from the U.S. and as far away as New Zealand and Australia. “It’s surprising how many people have heard about us through our advertisements in quilting magazines,” she noted.
In addition to sewing machines, yarn, fabric, draperies and notions, The Cloth Castle has offered sewing, knitting, and crochet classes for beginners to advanced many years.
Natasha Cloutier, who started working at the store when she was 19 and has there for 26 years, finds teaching classes especially rewarding.
“I love it,” she said. “Teaching classes allows me to get to know people on a personal level. You get to share a lot of highs and lows and make personal connections with so many people. That’s something you don’t see in many businesses any more. The stories and experiences they share are woven into the quilts we make, and there’s an enormous amount of satisfaction in that.”
Ratcliffe’s daughter, Maria Porter, remembers sitting on her grandmother, Ethel Ratcliffe’s knee when she was a little girl, watching her knit and hook rugs. “It’s what was inspired me to be creative,” said Porter, who started stocking thread and sorting yarn in the store at an early age.
Porter’s grandmother, who opened the first Salvation Army Thrift Store on the West Shore, started the original incarnation of The Cloth Castle, the Yarn Barn, 50 years ago on Goldstream Avenue where the Bank of Montreal is now located. Sylvia and her late husband, Ethel’s son, Pastor Edward Ratcliffe, lived upstairs from the storefront in The Cloth Castle’s current location at 786 Goldstream Ave.
“There’s such a personal connection to people and the community working here,” Porter said. “My mom’s here, my hubby Michael’s here, my sister Bonnie and my nephew Bryan, and Natasha’s like a sister. That’s so special and something you just don’t see much of any more.”
Ratcliffe is full of stories from the early days that hearken back to different chapters in Langford’s history. “We had a bouncer from the Old Westwind pub who came in to take sewing lessons so he could make his own pants,” she recalled with a chuckle. “He was quite a character.”
“It’s hard to believe we’ve hit 50 years. My oldest daughter Bonnie was only seven when we were blessed with three more girls. I’m so happy to have a business they’ve been part of. My son-in-law and grandson work here now, so we’ve gone full circle.”
Another key element that’s woven The Cloth Castle into the fabric of the community and beyond is Ratcliffe’s proclivity for dispensing a hug when it’s needed most. “My background as a Salvation Army officer has always been about caring for people,” said Ratcliffe, whose reputation for generosity and volunteering for worthy causes follows her everywhere. “Hugs have always been a huge part of the way I deal with people.”
Ratcliffe says she has no intentions of slowing down any time soon. “I love being here and I love the friendships I’ve made with so many people, ” the 83-year-old bundle of energy explained. “And there’s always somebody out there who needs a hug.”