Thursday, May 5, 2016

What Do You Look for in a Local Quilt Shop?

The fabric-buying landscape in my part of Massachusetts is changing. In the past five years, a shop in a neighboring town closed. Another shop, north of me, in New Hampshire, was going to shut down operations and then someone offered to buy it at the eleventh hour. One closer to Boston will be shuttering at the end of May, and the store I frequent the most has revealed that it, too, is considering closing.

I understand that stores come and go, that the popularity of online fabric sites has changed the game for those brick-and-mortar retailers, but I love the quilt shops in my area. I need them to stick around! I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about what we look for in a local quilt shop (LQS).

Big, old disclaimer: I am not an industry expert. I have never worked in retail of any kind, let alone a quilt shop. I’m just a customer who enjoys buying fabric and has a vested interest in keeping the lights on and employees paid at my LQSs. I suspect you’re in the same camp. I’m not sure what this post can accomplish, but it’s a dialogue worth having.

(BTW: The accompanying pictures are from my Park Bench quilt, which was designed by Jaybird Quilts and features Carolyn Friedlander’s Botanics line. It was a block of the month from 2014 that I revisited with vigor at a recent quilting retreat.)

These hexagons measure in at 16 inches. I love making them!

New stock

I’ve confessed in the past that I have a weakness for old stock, and I like knowing that there are places locally where I can purchase out-of-production fabrics. In general, though, I am looking for the newest and coolest fabric. If I saw a particular bolt three years ago when it was initially released and chose not to buy it, I likely don’t want to buy it now, either.

And look at these awesome points. More on how I achieve them in a future post. : )

A store an hour or so north of me—Quilted Threads, in Henniker, NH—does a great job of moving stock. I can always count on them to have new lines from Moda, Cotton and Steel, Free Spirit, and others. It’s not unusual to find fairly new bolts in their sale room, too, because they need to make room on the main shelves for incoming stock.

Another shop—Pintuck and Purl, in Exeter, NH—has a fraction of the floor space that Quilted Threads has, but I’m drawn to it just the same. Every bolt in that store—and the proprietor stocks quilting cottons as well as fabrics for garment making—was chosen with great care. I appreciate the options at Pintuck and Purl, all of it super new and fresh; I feel as if I’m perusing a curated collection and not simply a bit of everything.

Lots of Solids and Blenders

I do buy some of my fabric online, especially when I want a collection or colorway that no one stocks locally, but to buy those solids and blenders that flesh out a fabric pull, I go to an actual store. I want to be able to take a bolt into the natural light and compare it to the fabrics I’m working with.

Hands down, Quilter’s Way, in Acton, MA, has the best solids and near-solids selection. I can find tons of Kona Cotton, Michael Miller Cotton Couture, and Free Spirit Designer Solids there. Their selection is so superior to that of other stores that it isn’t worth my time looking elsewhere for these basics.

Here is some more hexie goodness.

Something Unique

The great thing about my LQSs is that they’re all different, and even the ones with a more traditional bent merit an occasional visit from me.

One shop that has a niche like no one else is Cobblestone Quilts, in Townsend, MA. If I’m in the market for fabrics with a thirties flare, I go to Cobblestone. Sure, the proprietor stocks other stuff I love—Lizzy House, V and Co., Bonnie and Camille, etc.—but it’s her thirties stock that sets her apart. I’m a big Denyse Schmidt fan, and those thirties fabrics tend to play well with Denyse’s modern-traditional aesthetic.

The Big Guns

I’m a self-taught sewer and quilter, and I’ve been honing my skills at the sewing machine for a solid 13 or 14 years. I have much more to learn, but it’s unlikely that I’ll take a class unless it focuses on something that’s truly novel to me (like garment sewing) or it’s taught by a well-known instructor. (This is different from what compels me to take classes through my guild. I’ll take anything my guild offers because I get to spend the day sewing with ladies I love.)

And did you see these points?!

Paying for a big name has got to be difficult for a small quilt shop. I know of one local shop—Daley by the Yard, in Acton, MA—that doesn’t have the space to hold a big event. So when it came to booking Vanessa Christenson, they rented out a ballroom at a nearby hotel. I’m sure the bigger space allowed them to bring in the necessary funds to secure such a popular teacher. (BTW: I was sorry to learn about this event after it had happened—boo!)

All the Other Stuff

Then there’s all the other stuff, the attributes I often take for granted—excellent customer service, knowledgeable staff, evening hours, an array of sewing and quilting notions, etc. Those qualities factor into my shopping decisions, too.

I think this block is my favorite. I love the combination of green, gray, and yellow.

I also like a good gimmick! I can’t be bothered with some trends like a Row by Row Experience or a loyalty program. They’re just not me and don’t make me want to visit a shop more or affect my spending.

The gimmicks I do like are the ones that involve a little chance! If a shop puts my name into a monthly drawing for finishing a bolt, you know that I’m going to buy an extra yard or so just to finish off that bolt and try my luck. And if a shop puts my name into a drawing for using cash instead of credit, I’ll be sure to hit the ATM before swinging by. Ridiculous? Yes. But if the closest I come to having a gambling problem is for gambling for fabric—well, I could have much worse vices!

Notice that I don’t mention price in this discussion. I expect to pay $10 to $12 a yard for new, quilt-shop-quality fabric. (The fact that fabric is comparably priced at big-box stores like Joann’s is ridiculous because the quality is clearly inferior. I am sick of the coupon game, of stores overpricing because they expect customers to use coupons.) That said, I do appreciate a clearance section—25% is enough for me—that keeps me in less expensive backings.

OK, now it’s your turn. What about your LQS makes your heart sing? I need to know!

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  1. This is an excellent blog post, Michelle! Thank you for writing it. I, too, love my LQS's but don't get there nearly as much as I'd like. Online shopping is often much more convenient for my busy schedule (which pairs with many other things we buy). I totally agree about solids and blenders - I value that variety greatly. I love shops that support their local quilters back (two of the ones near me have hosted Modern Quilt Guilds for years). I appreciate a shop that has a wide selection of thread, too. I recently received an Aurifil color card, but without it, I really need to see the colors in person. I'll keep thinking and pop back on here if I have more to say.

  2. The LQS in my town closed about a year ago but I totally understand why -- it was small and it dabbled in a lot of areas -- wool items, some batiks, some novelties, some civil war, some 30s, a good selection of solids, but not a lot of modern fabrics to speak of. They didn't specialize in any one thing so I didn't got there often. They also RIPPED fabric instead of cutting it which made me furious. There are two shops that are each about a half hour away that are big and have tons of selection and usually have exactly what I am looking for when I am on the search for something. I really don't get to either one often because they are further away which is sad! I think the uber-sales at the big online shops really hurt the LQS business and people don't realize it.

  3. I am fortunate to have several thriving LQS in my area and each one has its own personality from the staff to the fabric. The past 3 years for the Row By Row, I have visited each one and chatted with the staff. Some shops were new to me and others I had been to before. One shop carries unique fabrics such as African and Australian prints. One carries modern prints. One carries a large selection of batkis along with current fabrics. I love the staff in the shops I visit often. One shop I visit regularly to buy remnants that I use in my donation quilts. The staff mentions that they think of me often when they are wrapping the remnants, wondering when I will stop in.

    I do not get to take classes at my LQS (time conflicts) but have been to some of their in store events such as the Windham Fabrics trunk show or hosting Carolyn Friedlander or the Fons duo and the Downtown Abbey final season tea party. I love my LQS and would be lost without them. While I do shop online for fabrics, I certainly frequent my LQS.

  4. I too need my LQS. There are two that are about 25 minutes away - those are closest to me. The larger one focuses on more traditional fabrics and also has a large selection of batiks. They are great to work with (they carry print copies of my patterns), hold lots of classes and an all day sew-cial once a month open to anyone. I particularly love that they bring in HQ instructors twice a year for three day. Those classes have been invaluable to me. They are also a valuable supporter of our local guild and children's quilt group.

    I have asked why they don't carry more modern prints and was told there are only about two quilters -- me being one of them -- that would buy that type of fabric. So I feel a bit bad when I take in a quilt for display and the fabric didn't come from them, but they have forced me to buy it online.

    Our second shop does carry much more modern fabric and I love to go there and see in person all the fabrics I see online. It's a very small shop, there isn't much involvement as far as classes or sewing days - they just don't have the space. If I am in a hurry for a particular fabric I will pick it up from them, but they are soooo overpriced! Seriously, a Kona solid is $11/yard. I just can't bring myself to pay that when I can get it for $6 or less elsewhere. So yes, I love my LQS, but they can't be everything to everybody so there are times when I have to buy online, and I am happy to support those shops as well. It's a happy mix!

  5. I love, love, love my local LQS, Portsmouth Fabric Company in Portsmouth, NH. I'm a tactile person and have found it hard to buy fabric online unless I have seen and touched it first somewhere else. I'll travel for good quilt stores - for classes or the variety of fabric. I went to Quilted Threads on a lark and wish I lived closer. Nido in Burlington VT has a small, but great selection of fabric and yarn. And they have held workshops by some artists/ designers I admire.

  6. This sort of thing is a constant heartbreak. In too many industries, the corporate giants and online shopping opportunities are nudging out the small, personable shops. I live in a small town and we do have a LQS, but I only go there when I'm desperate. They don't carry much modern fabric and they charge full price for old lines. Our Joann's has "quilting fabric," but it's an unbelievable $12.99 a yard and it feels a little like sandpaper. My favorite LQS (well, not so local since it's 1.5 hours away) is Suppose Quilts in Preston, Idaho - home of Napoleon Dynamite. ;) How I wish I could stop in there on a weekly basis! So, yes, my options are severely limited which is why I'm a big online shopper. I prefer seeing, touching, and buying my fabric in person, but it's just not in the cards for me.

  7. I like my favorite shop because the owner knows me. She doesn't stop talking to other customers because i come in but she does get around to at least saying Hi. I also like touching the fabric but i got burned on the true color of 2 fabrics last weekend so online shopping isn't completely out. (i put the incorrect colored fabrics in my scrappy quilts and no one will know it didn't match what i bought it for)

  8. Great post! I lived in the Boston area for 7 years and moved to Colorado- where i just reached the 2 year mark. I thought that the LQS's would be better out here but I far prefer New England. (I thought they would be better because I've been told quilting is much more popular out West). Well, out here, I have 3 LQS's and they are just so pricey. Everything is at least $11.69 a yard plus almost 10% tax. They don't have evening hours and one store in particular has a very grouchy management/staff where my tastes have been insulted repeatedly. I get that online stores are a threat to their livelihood but we don't live in a bubble: learning how to compete with them seems to be key. The stores near me pretty much never have a sale and they have very old stock at full price sitting there for years. I definitely think the older, traditional market of ladies can afford a lot more than me- once I was in line at one of them and the lady ahead of me bought $230 worth of fabric, my purchase came to $13. I don't think the shops realize that the younger market is more price sensitive because we have young families, one income households, etc. So if they have to charge the higher prices, maybe they could make up for it a little by being more civil, patient with accompanying children (which I try to avoid bringing kids anyhow), and providing classes that interest the modern crowd. the classes often involve precuts, t-shirt quilts, etc.- no thanks!

  9. Interesting post and comments. There are two LQS near me. One has kind of grumpy owner but nice helpers. The closer one has great owner and helpers. Always interested in what I'm making or have made and they have a great sale section. One thing that helps this store is their online business. They started online and moved to a brick and mortar building when their business grew. They added a line of sewing machines to diversify the customer base. They are getting better at stocking blenders.
    I still visit the first shop. They helped me grow as a quilter by offering Saturday Sampler classes years ago. They carry different fabric lines and have sales at different times, so I try to support both.

  10. I am with your statement's 100% regarding JoAnn's. Yuck. However, we are loaded with quilting stores here in Utah so it is easy to avoid JoAnn's. I love the variety that is found in all these stores, each a reflection of the owner's taste. I still order online and recently bought Basic Grey's Grunge color card which has already "paid me back" with it's assistance. I love Grunge. Fabric is my vice and I do my best to support the LQSs. :-)

  11. Really great post Michelle. I really like the experience of shopping at a LQS but the one that is closest to me is strange. They're never very welcoming to me and I feel like I'm inconveniencing them when I'm looking for a particular fabric. The other shops that are further (45-60 minutes away) are all amazing though.

  12. There have been a number of fabric stores in my area closing in the past year as well and it makes me sad. I like being able to touch the bolts and match fabric in person rather than having to rely on color reproduction on a computer screen. I also like when the staff is friendly. I am a lot less likely to buy from a store that feels unwelcoming. I look for a good mix of fun fabrics and blenders; wide backs are always a plus.

  13. Michelle, this is a lot of great food for thought.
    Nowadays I shop for fabric mostly online...mostly on Etsy. This isn't very supportive of our local shops, but does support shops in other locales. I rarely get to shop at a brick and mortar quilt shop anymore. (I can no longer drive and it's not on my husband's list of preferred stops.) What I used to love most was if the people were friendly, helpful and interested. I agree totally about being sick of JoAnn's coupon "deals" and you made me laugh about the fabric gambling.

  14. Great post! Im in Canada and when i read the pricing you have down there in the US..i admit I am a little envious. Our prices here go as high as 19.99 per metre i some of the larger shops. We have about 4 LQS. I love the service and help they provide. Even when you didnt buy fabric from them. However I tend to buy many avid quilters.. and it isnt for a current project..for the one day soon project that is being created in my mind. Ive never shopped online for fabric. Not that I wouldnt but i like the touch and feel. And instant gratification. I also like good pricing. My favorite LQS Buy a Yard or two has great pricing, wonderful helpful service,helps with pinning quilts,putting project ideas together,and they service machines too. They have just become a dealer for brother machines too. I love the social sewing saturdays as well. Bring a UFO and get it done!

  15. On the flip side, I was sad to see that Cia's Palette went offline and moved to brick-and-mortar instead. Thanks for directing us to that shop though. It was a great online resource. Maybe in a future post you can tell us about other online gems? I'm in need of a new one! :)

  16. My two cents: I love seeing samples in shops! In Europe you won't see large quilts displayed in shops but seeing small quilts or small items often makes me want to buy the fabric (or the pattern or both) that was used to make up the samples - ansd somethimes it's something I wouldn't have been drawn to at first.
    I like interacting with staff (but I also like being left alone to browse!) and remember a trip to a "real" shop in the UK where the staff were too busy fulfilling online orders so they hardly spoke to me: it made me feel as if I was bothering them! I'm glad their online shop is thriving but I love brick and mortar shops: I love stroking fabric (and putting two or three bolts together so see how things look)!


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