When the (Quilting) Sky Seems to be Falling Stitch Up a (Patchwork) Balloon 1

the quilting sky isn't falling

Don’t go the way of the operator: Reinvent yourself!

Dear Quilters and Friends in the Industry,

In light of the many changes in the industry and in response to some extremely thoughtful commentary on it (links are at the end of this post), I am compelled to offer my experiences as I was – or would have been – a victim of this turbulence. When I saw that trying to make a living under the old premises wasn’t going to work I reinvented myself, creating my own niche. I’m hoping that my example will cause those who have done similarly to share their experiences, and prod still others into finding new paths when the familiar channels dry up or even shut down. My argument is that the quilting sky isn’t falling.

A little back tracking for those who aren’t familiar with my background. When I was 17 my Mom’s best friend Ann Hanscom made a quilt. The back was a maze with a kitty at the outside and a mouse in the center. (Ann also gave me my first kitty, Fanny.) I was absolutely in love with the quilt and, moreover, the idea of a quilt. Off to the library I went, gathered a few books (there weren’t many then!) and made my first quilt, a nine patch. Or maybe just a patch quilt. Made of the few calicoes that were available back then. Tied no less. A few years later, after realizing engineering school wasn’t for me, a thought popped into mind while looking at a craft book; “I can write a better book than that!” Back to the library I went, learned how to write and submit a book proposal — and that I should expect many rejection letters. ~A few weeks later I received an enthusiastic phone call from a publisher. Last year my 35th book was published.

Opportunities Came from Unlikely Places

My on-camera Career is thanks to rubber duckies.

About 15 years ago I became known for rubber duckies. A&E found me via the internet and a crew appeared in my bathroom to shoot a piece for The Incurable Collector. That gave me the idea of making a one-hour Duckumentary. I found a local producer who liked the idea. Well, not really. We ended up creating a quilting show. Lucky for us, Bernina sent us to Switzerland to shoot an episode of the show in 2006. Before leaving I thought what a waste it would be to go all that way for just one episode. So, since I love cuckoo clocks I asked the owner of a clock shop here in Georgia which manufacturer we should visit. When we arrived at the Anton Schneider Company I popped to question; “Since this is a show for quilters, could the cuckoo clock we see made look like a quilt shop?” The folks back at home had doubted the manager would go for it. He did!

Taking the chance that 124 other quilters would be crazy enough to want one I imported a batch. In the meantime the producer and I had become Quilters News Network. When she was let go the struggling business fell into my lap. And it needed a home. By luck I had met the owner of New Track Media at Quilt Market not long before.  He had just bought Fons & Porter. So, QNNtv.com was reincarnated, (thank you NTM!) the clocks arrived and were put in the shopping section of Love of Quilting magazine. They all sold.

Over the years people bugged me to import another batch. But I had no way to market them myself, and didn’t want to risk such a huge outlay of cash.

My time at QNNtv.com was incredible. I produced and hosted shows and was able to bring so many talented people in front of viewers in the early days of video on the internet. Quilt Out Loud! with QNNtvMark Lipinski was a huge growing experience for us both and an absolute hoot. Accuquilt chose me to represent their GO! On HSN. And Handi Quilter still sponsors Quilt It!: The Longarm Quilting Show which I‘ve been hosting now for seven years.

As you can see I’ve had an amazing career. And made a good salary at QNNtv.com.  Certainly not what all those hats I wore would have garnered me in the “real” world. But even as a single female I was able to live just fine. And do what I loved.

It was common knowledge that QNNtv.com along with the other New Track Media properties would be sold one day. And a forgone conclusion that as with any new technology video on the internet would become a commodity. So it was no surprise when QNNtv.com was sold that there was no place for me in its new home. Well, actually, there was a place for me. If I wanted to work for scraps.

Hold Your Nose and Jump: Reinvention

What the $%*# to do?

I had a hard talk with myself about options.

One was an exhaustingly endless combination of writing more books, get on the road and teach, design patterns… I’d already been down this road. Very few people make it doing this, and even if I did the thought of running on that gerbil wheel to squeeze the few bucks out of each of those hats I’d be constantly switching in and out of… it was depressinging to even think about. Yes, I totally agree with Jake Finch that there’s too much stuff flooding the industry. It’s great for consumers, but not for those in business. So some businesses won’t make it. Economics 101. Nope, going backwards wasn’t an option.

nother option was to sell my magical Butterfly Roof House and move to some far off city to work in marketing at a company in the industry. Nope, worked too hard to find and own my one-of-a-kind place and truck free and clear. Moving wasn’t an option.

Or, I could  get in my truck every morning leaving my horses and dog and kitties and drive into town to a job in the real world.

The latter option to me was my definition of failure. I’d do it if I had to, but I couldn’t bear the thought.

Quilting Rubber DuckieMotivated by the specter of having to get a real job, I threw the horse manure on the stall wall to see what would stick. I had to come up with something new. I looked at what I could do along the lines of writing since that’s my background, I looked at finding on-camera work. What I really wanted was something that is mine. A concrete business of value that would live beyond me, that could reap  more than the hours I put into it.

From the time I designed and brought in my Quilting Rubber Duckie I’d considered rubber duckies a possible future business. So I fooled around and came upon the idea for Dixie Duckies. It took months to refine the idea and come up with the materials, packaging, and messaging. The site is still up and functional.  I might pick up the ball again some day, but my other manure splatter had become quite the black gold compost heap.

Cuckoo For Quilting

Meanwhile, a Kickstarter campaign for something or other came across my radar. Whoa! Quilt Shop Cuckoo Clocks! I contacted the manufacturer to find out if I could have a batch made and when, and for pricing. Then I researched Kickstarter, made my video, etc. Long story short I exceeded my campaign goal and placed my order. I can’t express the appreciation I have for each person who bought a clock. I knew then I had a business!Quilt Shop Cuckoo Clock

It’s been an extremely tough road since but I finally have a second design, my Backyard Birds Cuckoo Clock (1 year 8 months in the making!) coming out next week and my Quilt Barn Cuckoo Clock is hot on its heels. I’ll have another design or two this year and at least four new ones next year.

This month I was able to pay myself a little bit for the first time. I’m literally living on fumes with every cent I have invested in cuckoo clocks. It’s so worth it. With the business growing as it is and three designs to sell for Christmas I’ll be able to pay myself what I made at QNNtv.com next year.

My truck stays put in the garage every morning as Comet and Reid and I walk past it to feed my friends Harley and Delight then it’s back to the house, to my office overlooking the hay munchers. Ah…

Defining Success: It’s Personal

Now back to the industry. From where I sit it appears that the industry is full of extremely talented and capable folks who could support themselves in the real world, but in the quilting world are doing what they love for a pittance. There’s nothing wrong with this. They are immersed in their passion. My definition of success may not be yours. If you absolutely love owning a quilt shop, but it can’t pay you, does that mean you’re not successful? If you have a pattern business or design fabric or have a long arm business, but couldn’t support your family without a spouse, do you feel successful? What matters is your own personal definition of success.

As some wise person said, change is constant in our lives. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the writing on the wall for me in the industry. It changed, so I changed. I saw that change as an opportunity. (Even though I cried for at least a full year while tossing manure at the wall. Facebook friends you have no idea what a comfort you were that I wasn’t alone.) I’m thrilled that in reinventing myself under my terms of success I

1. I got to keep working at least in some way in the world of quilting and

2. that I inadvertently found a way to support quilt shops.

A New Revenue Stream for Quilt Shops

Yes, support quilt shops. (This is a plug but for those who know me it’s really a come-on-folks-let-me-help-you!) There’s a lot of talk about supporting quilt shops versus buying fabric online to save money, etc. And that for shops the solution to the changes such as competition from online is to differentiate oneself:  Emphasize education and service, become a dealer for long arm or sewing machines, offer block of the month programs and the absolutely brilliant Row by Row Experience, etc.  In other words do something different.

Here’s my something different for quilt shops.

People kept saying, “You’re selling your clocks to quilt shops, right?” No. A quilt shop buying a $400 clock, and another to hang, having to bring their staff up to speed on cuckoo clocks… not possible.

I became interested in affiliate programs and read up on them. One day while forking horse manure a light bulb went off: create a super simple affiliate-type program for quilt shops. This simple:

  1. The shop puts the clock in their newsletter or on their web site or blog.
  2. One of the shop’s customers clicks on the hyperlinked clock photo/copy.
  3. They arrive on my site and buy the clock.
  4. The software on my site records the sale.
  5. I ship the clock to the customer.
  6. I send the shop a fat and juicy PayPal payment.

There you have it! A new revenue stream that requires no investment, no stocking a product, no fulfillment, and no customer service.

Before she retired Mary Ellen Von Holt ran the clock in the Little Quilts newsletter. She sold five of them. I don’t know the margin on fabric, but that amounts to hundreds of yards that she would have had to buy, stock, and cut. Instead all it took was her web master dropping a photo and a short blurb in her newsletter. About the same time it would have taken to cut a yard of fabric for a customer.

The Quilting Sky Isn’t Falling

So I stumbled upon a way to market my cuckoo clock and for shops to make some ridiculously easy money while putting smiles on their customers’ faces. This is one of those something different things that shops can do for their bottom line.  What a win! It’s the kind of inventive thinking I’m looking for in the industry.

Nope, the sky isn’t falling. The quilting world is simply changing, and full of opportunities. I was nutty enough to think cuckoo clocks might work.  And crazy enough to take the chance. To those who feel the rug being pulled out from under them, what pieces are you going to patch together to create your balloon that will lift you into the future?

Waving to y’all from the farm in North Georgia,


P.S. Each of the following articles/posts offers a perspective on the state of the industry: (Frankly, with such apt, creative minds what are we worried about?)

Jake Finch on the shrinking of the industry

Abby Gallsenberg on quilting magazines (QNM’s demise)

Weeks Ringle on what quilters can do to keep our industry healthy

And Meg Cox offering her journalistic perspective  to help us make sense of it all.

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