In September of 2011 my trusty sewing machine of 23 years, a Bernette 330 I’d bought at G Street Fabrics in Rockville, Maryland when I was 13-years-old, broke for good. When the terrible “grrrr grrrr” noise began every time I turned it on, I set aside $500 to spend on a new machine at a local quilt shop. My book, The Artful Bird, had come out nine months earlier and I brought it along with a basketful of sample birds I’d made in the hopes of showing them to the owner while I was there.
A few months prior I had visited a different local quilt shop in my area to show the staff my book and my birds. At first they weren’t quite sure what to make of the book – soft sculpture birds aren’t a typical thing to make from quilting cottons – but they quickly caught on and became wonderfully enthusiastic. We scheduled a four-hour workshop for a few weeks later, they hung onto the samples to put by the register to advertise for the class, and they placed an order to begin carrying my book in the shop.
The women who own this shop are older than me by 20 years or so. The fabric selection is very traditional (I called recently to ask if they had any Cotton+Steel and nobody there knew what I was talking about). But the class was terrific and I refer my Introduction to Sewing students there all the time.
When it came time to purchase a machine I didn’t go there because they’re a Pfaff dealer and I wanted a Janome. So I went to the other shop. While trying out the machine I would end up buying for just under $500 I showed the staff person my book and my birds and asked if I might show them to the owner. She shrugged. She put my book behind the counter and told me the owner was busy. I said I could wait a bit. I waited for 45 minutes while the owner chatted with regular customers and never acknowledged me. Eventually I told the staffer I needed to leave and handed her my card. They kept the book (I wondered later if maybe they’d thrown it away) and I cried in the car on the way home.
What makes a quilt shop great?
Quilt shops today have a very hard time competing with online shops on both price and selection. I found out recently how surprisingly easy it is to set up a wholesale account with a fabric manufacturer. All that’s required is an EIN number, a credit card, and somewhere between $750-$1,000 for your first order (with a much lower yearly minimum order after that). You pick the bolts and they send them to you, no questions asked.
That’s how a fabric shop like Llama Fabrics and many, many others on Etsy and Facebook can sell premium quilting cottons from Free Spirit, Cotton + Steel, and the other major manufacturers at about $2 below suggested retail price per yard. Although the product is intended for quilt shops only, manufacturers of premium quilting cottons are selling fabric to Etsy shop owners and Facebook group administrators and whomever else without any guarantee of what the retail price will be. Manufacturers who sell to Craftsy sell the fabric at 10-20% below wholesale allowing Craftsy to set their prices lower than local quilt shops, too. Combine this with space limitations and overhead costs and online retail wins out every time.
Being undercut by online shops can make quilt shop owners disheartened, and even angry, at their customers. One shop owner I spoke with recently told me, “I’m 60. I’m tired of fighting every day for next to nothing. Younger, more modern quilters have no loyalty to anyone at all. I have customers who say they support local quilt shops, but all their stuff is bought online.”
I actually still believe there’s a place for local quilt shops in the current retail landscape, but there’s no denying that what that place looks like is shifting quickly and dramatically. We don’t need quilt shops for what we used to need them for. They are no longer the exclusive or best source for a key element in quilt making – premium fabrics.
Then what do we need quilt shops for? What will make a shop survive and thrive through this shift?
I asked my Instagram and Facebook friends to tell me about their local quilt shop. How do they feel when they walk in? What’s awesome about it and what’s not so awesome? Here’s what they said:
I find what brings me back is NOT price, selection or even location, but the attitude and feel of the shop…I walked into a shop in Ohio last week 5 minutes before they closed and they bent over backwards to make me feel welcome and not rushed. I went into another shop 20 minutes before closing for a specific item and left with nothing because the owner made me feel like a huge imposition. I don’t even care that much about help or knowledge. I want to feel welcome and free to browse. If I do, I will almost ALWAYS buy something…I was really floored by my experience in that one shop. Enough so to send them a note, but I never heard back.
I love my local fabric store, but I feel like they don’t love me. I’m a lot younger than most of their customers and I tend to get ignored.
I have a ‘modern’ one local that hosts craft nights which I think is awesome! Haven’t been to any of the traditional ones here.
We have two close shops. One pretty much ignores anyone under 50, so I rarely shop there.
The shop nearest me wants white, well-heeled women of a certain variety as customers – exclusively.
I go to a fabric/quilt store whose staff are wonderful: enthusiastic, knowledgeable, love to share their opinions on their likes.
My biggest pet peeve is that all of the classes and sewing groups that my LQS offers are during the day during the week when I am at work.
I absolutely love my quilting shop. The shop owner is so friendly & very helpful. I’ve learned more from her than my quilting course teacher. I have made many quilts using her fabrics
My favorite shop ever closed some years ago. It had the best feeling and I would drive past other shops to get there. I went there every week. I miss it. I have a local now which is dreadful and I don’t go there. I drive 45 mins to go to a beautiful one. Part of the appeal is the fabric they have, but mostly it is the feeling and the people who work there.
What a local quilt shop has that no online shop can ever have is in-person interactions. No amount of blogging or photo sharing or video making can ever compete with the experience of one-on-one help that a knowledgeable, caring person can give you as a customer, whether that’s through a class held at the shop or just a retail purchase. The feeling you get when you’re in the shop is directly dependent on the people who work there and how they interact with you. Do you feel like you belong?
We should certainly support our local quilt shops, even if it means paying a dollar more per yard for fabric, but local quilt shops are equally responsible for embracing their customer, even if the person who walks in the door is young, or a man, or black, or gay, or has tattoos and is looking for modern fabric. People should be at the center of this kind of commerce. Going to a quilt shop shouldn’t make you feel like crying.