The Deeply Rewarding Modern Issue of American Quilt Retailer

In June 1987, while on home leave from my job in Tokyo, I walked into The Quilt Patch in Fairfax, Virginia, marking the first of many trips I would make to quilt shops around the world. At that time the shop was filled with navy, dusty rose, pine green, burgundy and brown calicos. Jinny Beyer had a massive line of basics and border prints but the colors were extremely traditional and the prints were primarily just 2-3 color prints in 1″ repeats.The fabrics did not speak to me at the time but I knew I could get some advice on how to make my first quilt (a Modern improvisational one, using traditional Japanese indigoes) and I could buy solids, thread, a rotary cutter (a new device at the time), a mat and batting. At that time I did not know a single person in the US or in Japan who knew anything about quilting so those women were extremely helpful to me, even though they seemed to think I was nuts to be making my first quilt without a pattern and big enough for a full-size bed. I was an investment banker at the time so I didn’t even have any design cred. I just had a vision and was willing to struggle to deal with problems as they came up nearly 7,000 miles away. I remember leaving that shop for the first time with the helpful advice and tools I needed to make my first quilt. I don’t know if I would have been able to make that first quilt had I not had their advice. Japanese shops at the time we focused primarily on small handwork projects like purses and lap quilts. They would answer specific questions but they weren’t like those ladies at the Quilt Patch who took a “let’s figure out a strategy together for your project” approach. It was life-changing for me.

So if you’re a hobby quilter or someone who jumped on the Modern Quilt Movement bandwagon 3-4 years ago you might not realize what a momentous occasion it was for me, 25 years later to be asked to write an article on attracting the modern quilt customer for American Quilt Retailer, the magazine read by every quilt retailer I know. AQR, a refreshingly practical magazine, devoted the entire issue to the Modern Quilt Movement. In the article I wrote I tried to give retailers who are worried about the million(s) they have invested in inventory some advice on how they can buy and merchandize their shops to attract new customers in a volatile economy. We all understand the appeal of getting the best price for a yard of fabric but local quilt shops provide a wealth of expertise and community to the quilters they serve and it’s in everyone’s interest (other than Fabric.com’s I guess) to help them understand and adapt to the needs of a changing clientele. I hope they find my article helpful and that it will be the first of many conversations on this topic that I’ll be able to have with owners of local and online quilt shops around the world.

I hope you’ll join me in creating a helpful dialogue between quilters and their local quilt shops. It’s one thing to walk out of a shop shaking your head complaining that they don’t have the fabric you’re looking for. It’s another to ask if it would be possible to special order a bolt if you commit to buying half the bolt or get a group of people together and request a specific class. Shop owners will benefit from customers who can work with them to meet their needs and customers will benefit from the expertise and convenience of being able to see and touch the fabrics that inspire them.

[Note: I plan, if I can remember, to bring that first quilt to QuiltCon in Austin, Texas in February 2013. More on the schedule for QuiltCon on Monday right here!]

14 Comments

  1. Mary ann
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Well I am not a retailer but nothing turns me off on a shop quicker than staff who don’t say hello and just shrug no when I ask about solids or more contemporary lines. And sadly some of my old favorites are not interested in expanding their niche even the slightest. I am an older quilter who’s style and interests have changed over time, it doesn’t have anything to do with age but in reality the customer base is changing and fairly rapidly!

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      Mary Ann,
      One of the things I was trying to suggest in my post is that there are a variety of reasons why some quilt shops haven’t changed to meet a rapidly changing customer needs. Although you may perceive that they have no interest in expanding, I know for certain that in many cases it’s 100% cash flow. They have millions in inventory that’s now hard to move. Nearby shops go out of business and sell all of their inventory at half price. Others are worried about alienating their core base. Some I’ve talked to want to but are afraid to gamble valuable cash flow on something that they worry might be a short-lived trend or something they don’t understand. When I have shops that ask if they can have 30 days to pay for a $42 pattern order, it’s clear that they do not have the cash to change over their inventory. They are simply stuck between a bad economy, tight credit lines from banks and a new market they didn’t see coming. I think it’s more than “they’re not interested.”

  2. Posted July 7, 2012 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    This is huge. I’ve got 21 years of quilt experience under my belt. It started when I bought a book on quilting for my sister from the American Folk Art Museum (NY), and promptly borrowed it back, as sisters do. I moved into a town that had a fabric shop named Contemporary Quilting. I went there weekly to look at and touch the fabrics. The owner, Florence, was a retired nurse who had an unbelievable sense of color and design. She was open-minded and taught me to trust my instincts. Unfortunately for me, Florence closed her doors and did on-line sales only (c. 1997). The price of commercial retail space seriously overwhelmed what she made in profit. I miss the store tremendously. I cannot underestimate the importance of seeing and touching the fabric in person. I know my purchases would would be considerably different if I had the opportunity to touch and see the fabric before buying, let alone have a person like Florence guide me along the way. If I can give any advice to the modern quilter, it should reflect the time we live in: slow down, take it easy. My advice for the modern quilter retailer: teach your customers to enjoy the process.
    Take care, Byrd.

  3. Posted July 8, 2012 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    I would love to read a copy of your article to consider sharing with my LQS. The staff are great and as you say have fantastic expertise and skills and I’m acutely aware that I need to have a use it or lose it mentality there, but I rarely find a fabric I can use (mostly burgundy, pine and navy sprigged things, with the odd concession to something garish or twee)Quilting here seems mainly to be the domain of women over 65.They have wonderful skills and make things really beautifully, but just from a different standpoint. If I had people locally to club together with to share a bolt, even at 3x the cost of buying it online including shipping,(we could start with some Kona solids)that would be great, but quilting in Adelaide seems to be a bit behind, so online shopping, even from the States is terribly
    tempting, not to mention necessary at the moment.

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Camilla,
      I hope that you will find like-minded quilters in your area and pool your resources. The scenario you’re describing is similar to what we encountered here for many years. Some of us didn’t really want to lead but ended up doing so because it was the only way to effect change. I hope that you won’t underestimate ways in which your work and aesthetic might open their eyes to new possibilities.

  4. Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    I’ve just discovered what modern quilting is although I’ve been doing it for a few years. I have to say for me the thing I would love from quilt stores is for quilting classes to be fun and experimental.

    I’ve come across one teacher that does this really well (Jenny Bowker from Australia), and a couple of others that are more like learning from Atilla the Hun. I sew for fun on weekends and the last thing I want after a long week at work is to be hurried or pressured through a class.

    I’m there to relax, unwind, and have some fun and I find the best classes leave me energised and wanting to do more quilting.

    While this may seem like it applies across the board, as a young (under 35) quilter interested in modern styles it’s critical and I won’t go back to a class with a tutor that doesn’t make it fun.

    Thanks for taking a student/customer view of the modern quilting experience.

    Bert

    http://bertcollections.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/pk8-pirate-king-finds-a-new-home/

  5. Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:34 am | Permalink

    I am so lucky. The Melbourne Modern Quilt Guild meet at a great quilting shop, with an amazing collection of solids, and modern fabrics.
    If you are ever in Melbourne, come along to a Friday night sit and sew with us, or check them out if you head over this way.
    And have you been to Quiltaholics in Magill? Last time I was in SA, they had a great collection of solids and modern stuff.
    And Weeks, if you and Bill want to head down under, you will be warmly welcomed. We have a big quilt show in April, and a craft one in July. April is mild to cold, July is just cold.
    And to the general helpfulness in quilt stores, absolutely, even if they do think your ideas are weird and not likely to work, they will help you work out how to make it. They will also point you to other shops that will help out as

    • Posted July 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      Sewnfingers – the topic of doing an Australia tour has come up and if we could get the stars in alignment, we’d love to do it. It will take time to organize but I hope that in the next few years, we can make that happen.

  6. Posted July 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations! At my first quilt market I thought, “oh, i would love to have 10 minutes to talk to all of these shop owners about modern quilting.” I’m glad you got the chance! And I must say, Quilt Patch is my lqs and I wish their fabric had changed more and their demeanor towards younger quilters had changed less.

  7. Imogen
    Posted July 10, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Weeks (and Bill), you guys have been a major inspiration as quilt design innovators and I applaud you. Like you, I embarked on a double quilt as my first project using Japanese indigo fabrics. I learned how to quilt from books — including yours. Like many of us, I find many stores’ inventories to be bland and boring (and in Australia, expensive). One can tell from the stock what the store’s design philosophy is going to be. Yes, please start a dialogue between quilters and their stores. There are thousands of us out here who quilt in a completely different universe from the one occupied by some fabric stores. I now get most of my fabric either online or when I’m travelling overseas and that’s mainly because I can’t find what I’m looking for in my local stores.

    • Posted July 11, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      I recently got several issues of American Quilt Retailer as I am investigating buying a local quilt shop. If I do buy it, I want it to be different from the other shops in a 60 mile radius. None have much in the way of solids or modern fabrics, nor much of a desire to help younger or newer quilters. That is what I can do. As I was trying to find actual figures, I found this issue and your article of course, and it was wonderful. Perfect timing for me!

  8. Karen Scribner
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    You can make “modern” quilts with any fabric. I have seen them in the shows and magazines. The first thing to see at QuiltCon in Austin in February 2013 were “modern” quilts from 100 years ago.

    • Posted December 26, 2013 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      Karen – Everyone has their definition of what makes a quilt “modern.” When I made my first modern quilt in 1987 by interest was in designing a pattern that did NOT resemble designs form 100 yrs ago. So when we opened our business in 1999, our goal was to develop new designs that were totally unlike those associated with traditional quilting. Ten years later the Modern Quilt Guild came along with their own definition of Modern Quilting, which is very different from ours. So while I agree with you that you can make use any fabric to make a modern quilt, I do not consider quilts made with traditional patterns such as Double Wedding Ring and Log Cabin, modern, regardless of the fabric or interpretation. They are contemporary versions of traditional designs, which is very different from modern quilts made with designs that are expressive of the time in which we live. Nothing is wrong with making traditional designs, they just don’t fit our definition of modern and they aren’t what I was referring to in this post. Hope that clarifies things for you.

      Weeks Ringle co-owner and designer

      Modern Quilt Studio 719 Iowa Street Oak Park IL 60302 (708) 445-1817 http://www.modernquiltstudio.com http://www.craftnectar.com


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