Fabric Store Spotlight: The Great American Quilt Factory

Naturally, we quilters love a good fabric store. But a wonderful spot for procuring fabric can be so much more than a place to shop; truly special stores become a home away from home, a place of comfort and creative inspiration. So I’m pleased to introduce a new regular blog feature: a spotlight of a unique and inspiring quilt store. First up is The Great American Quilt Factory in Denver, Colorado, founded and owned by Lynda Milligan (at left in the photo) and Nancy Smith. Packed with gorgeous fabrics, as well as fresh ideas and friendly faces, this spot is a must-visit if you’re in the area.

Let’s start at the beginning: why and when did you decide to open a fabric store?

Nancy: We opened in the store in 1981. Lynda had been part time clerk at another major quilt store. It had started as a summer job, but she loved it so much that she stayed. I had three young kids and found I loved hanging out at the store so we became friends. Then the desire emerged to start our own store. The store was about ½ a mile from where we are now for about six years, then we moved down the street and have been here for 24 years. When we opened the store, I had two young girls in school and a nine-month old baby, and Lynda had been married for many years and trying to get pregnant.  Of course, the week before we opened, she found out she was pregnant! So we opened the store with two little girls, a baby, another baby on the way—and they all grew up in the store with their preschool down the street.

What do you think really sets your store apart from the masses?

Lynda: We’ve been really visible in the quilting community because we started our own pattern line in the early 1980s; we were getting requests for baby quilt patterns so we designed a pattern line called “Dream Spinner,” which eventually grew to over 200 different patterns, from quilts to stuffed teddy bears and all sorts of things. After that, we decided to start writing books. We’ve now published 77 books.

Nancy: In terms of market visibility, when we started doing patterns, we wanted quilting to be more of a household word. Selling our patterns in lots of different locations was great for making quilting more visible as there weren’t that many patterns out there at the time.

You have lots of events and classes. Are these important for building a sense of community around the store?

Nancy: Yes, these are definitely important to the store ethos. Event-driven things are a necessity. It’s entertainment; in order to get people into the store, you need some entertainment. Book stores have signings and even musicians singing, and quilt store owners have to do the same thing. We have blocks of the month, Saturday samples, and a lot of groups that come use our space. This social aspect is really important for brick and mortar stores these days.

Lynda: Another unique thing we do is on two Wednesdays a month, we have a group that comes in that they have guest teachers who teach some embellishment concept, then they come back and actually do a workshop on it. 

Nancy: The group contains 20-30 people and it’s self-led so people just sign up to present on whatever you want. It’s been amazing and really interesting to see the wide range of things people do. I signed up for a journal cover class in December, and I’m going to make a cover that’s really a canvas for embellishing (I’m getting a lot of great inspiration from Quilting Arts). This group is just great fun.

Who comes to your store?

Lynda: We definitely get lots of quilters of all ages, including younger people in their 30s and 40s. Our beginning classes are almost always full, and our technique classes are really popular, too—more so than classes on specific projects.

How do you select your fabrics and other products?

Lynda: There was a time when there wasn’t so much fabric to choose from, so you could have a variety of everything in all different categories. Now there’s so much, we had to give up something to add another new fabric. We had Oriental fabrics but they didn’t sell very well, so we finally had to give them up and started putting the money into embellishments. Nancy took over that department as her project, and brought things in that she liked working with.

Nancy: We’ve done a good job in the embellishment area. Since we travel and teach quilting, we see a lot of quilt stores, and it seems we have a particularly strong collection of embellishments. You just have to have somebody who loves it. We have a lot of sample boards. For instance, a board showing 15 different ways to use Tyvek®: stitched, pleated, heated, etc. We’ve done this for many products; as long as we can generate ideas, we continue to sell.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your store?

Nancy: this is a welcoming place, a refuge. I remember on 9/11, we had people flock here as a place to come for reassurance. As people go through changes in their lives (which happens to a lot of our older costumers), this is a safe place to come. I think that quilt stores are really good for that and we do more than just sell fabric. People know your name and we try really hard to make our customers our friends. That’s very important to us.

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