Fabric Store Spotlight: The Great American Quilt Factory

18 Nov 2010

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.

Related Posts
+ Add a comment


on 18 Nov 2010 1:34 PM

Beautiful!  Love this idea of sharing shops!

jabotquilt wrote
on 18 Nov 2010 9:02 PM

What an absolutely fantastic post.   I just loved it.

TinaEliza wrote
on 19 Nov 2010 8:28 AM

I too think this idea is great.  Love this Denver store and their way of promoting and serving the customers.  Sounds like a store I want to visit and spend time.

mickeynz wrote
on 19 Nov 2010 11:16 PM

Great stuff. I am visiting LA in a couple of weeks.  Any ideas on great quiting shop not to be missed.  I am from NZ where quilting shops are few and far between and on the small side.  Any suggestion anybody?

suemac116 wrote
on 20 Nov 2010 7:16 AM

I love this store.  I always visit the it when I'm in Denver.  I live in Tx.    Sue

jabotquilt wrote
on 20 Nov 2010 2:04 PM

Hi Pippa;

I hope this isn't seen as too forward, but rather someone with initiative.  I write humourous articles about quilting.   I realize that Quilting Arts magazine has Robbi Joy Eklow already writing a column.  I wanted you to see a sample of my work.  My email is jacwhite@amtelecom.net

How To Improve The Juried Process

Have you heard the term, ‘fat envelope’ and skinny envelope’?   If you have, then you  are definitely my group of people.  If you haven’t,  read on and I will enlighten you.  

Let me first explain how to enter a juried show.  You usually are required to submit photos of your quilt, provide an artist’s statement that describes the message the quilt conveys,  the size of it, and a fee.  This information has to arrive  by a specific date,  and a jury looks at all the quilts and decides  who gets accepted.  There is also a date that they will let you know whether your quilt  got in or not.  Typically acceptance letters are sent first, rejection ones second.

After you enter a juried show, you sit and wait to see if you are going to get a skinny envelope, meaning it is just the rejection letter inside.   Or a ‘fat envelope’ meaning you got in, and all the instructions to get your quilt to the show are included.  

I must tell you a story that happened to me over the years of trying to enter juried shows.  

It started when  I received an acceptance email regarding my entry.   I skimmed quickly over it… ‘Dear… Ms. White, your quilt… got in.’   Yahoo, elation!   Now I better read it over more carefully.   ‘Dear Ms. Joyce White’, hmm, that is not my name, oh must be a simple mistake… continuing, ‘your quilt ‘Around the Lake’, hmm, that is not the name of my quilt either.  

Oh dear, what exactly does this mean, I better email the jury coordinator.  Looks like I got this Joyce White’s acceptance email and she got mine.  

Later that afternoon I received an  email from the  jury coordinator, ‘So sorry for the mix-up, but as a courtesy I am attaching your rejection letter even though you will soon receive it in the mail.’   Well, that was thoughtful, now I  will have the pleasure of feeling like a loser twice.   When I opened up the attached letter it said, ‘Thank you for applying, we only accepted excellent quilts this year.’   That does make me feel better!  

They say you are to study the jurors and the quilts they make, so you know how to get your quilt accepted.  Why would I do that?  I am not making them a quilt.  It’s not their birthday.   They are not supposed to be picking quilts that they like for themselves.   If that was the case, they should have their own solo show.  

Then there is this entry fee thing. Can you just charge the ones that got in?   I realize it is to cover costs, but mine didn’t get in, so it’s not like you are paying to ship it back.  

Quilting is so subjective.   I am also a competitive swimmer so my ability  in this area,  is determined by my time.   If I go fast, I win.   Perhaps quilting can take on this attitude.  Instead of asking for the dimensions of the quilt, just ask how long it took to make.   And why not remove  the best workmanship award and put in a  speed award.   What?  You finished your  quilt in four days?   Red ribbon to you!

Who cares if it looks like it should adorn the window on your outhouse.  You won!

I also think there should be a B division like in hockey.  If you don’t get into the big juried show, why not let those rejected quilts  get accepted into the B show?

Many shows often send the comments of the jurors along with the rejection letter.  I know this is the juror’s way of absolving themselves of guilt as to why they didn’t pick my quilt.   Here is an example of a juror’s comments I received, ‘Your quilt does not display symmetry.’  Okay, if I didn’t get in, chances are I don’t know what symmetry is.    Why not just say, ‘your quilt sucks’.  

And another thing, these artist’s statements, how much importance is given to that, versus the actual quilt?  I think if you can write a good story, it doesn’t matter what your quilt looks like.  I wonder if the jurors are so intimidated by the terminology of some of these quilters, that they just select them. Figuring their quilt must be really deep and wonderful, and they would be missing something if they didn’t  let them into the show.   Jurors, here is  a tip… we just make that stuff up to get in.  

Let me give you an  example.  Picture a big piece of black cloth with a red strip running through it.  Here is the attached artist’s statement:  ‘This quilt is a reflection of when I rescued a dog swimming in the ocean with only one leg.  It made me realize that  we as humans are but a small particle on this planet. How  we come to struggle and survive without destroying the balance and harmony of this universe is a quest unknown.’

And you know what?  That quilt would get in.   I have no idea what it means, but neither would anyone else.  

I have tried to explain how I feel about the jury process. Now I would like to offer some suggestions to the jurors.  

If we actually manage to get in one year, can we please get a pass to get in for the next year?   It probably took us 10 years to get in and if we have to wait that long again, we may not be around the next time.  We are an aging bunch.

Instead of advising us to study the quilts made by the jury, why not publish their likes and dislikes so bribes can be sent in?  That is something a little more realistic and helpful.

Don’t mail the rejection letter, email it to us, we want to be able to delete it right away and pretend it didn’t happen. Who needs a paper copy to remind us we are a failure?

How about a free pass?   After 5 rejections, you get a coupon to get into the next juried show.

Why not mix it up a bit and have an ‘opposite juried show’?  All the ones that got rejected get to be hung in the show, and those that were good enough to get accepted, mail them the rejection letters.   Now wouldn’t that be a nice switch.

Can you just find a venue that can host all the entries?  Why do you always have to say, ‘We loved all the quilts, but we could only choose 4 of the 5,000 due to limited space.’   Find a bigger area.   That would be smarter.   Then when you cash all those entry fee cheques, you don’t need to feel guilty that half of them totally wasted their money applying.  

Lastly, can you please post on You Tube  the jurors doing  the  jury selection?  I just want to see that  they are not drawing names out of a hat.  

Now I must go and check my mail for a fat envelope… one can always hope.

Please feel free to remove this post once you have read it.   Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Jackie White