Quilting is a slippery slope. At first, you think, “I don’t need that $1,000 sewing machine—the $200 one will be just fine.” You swear you’ll never start a new quilt before finishing the one you’re already working on. You believe with your whole heart that you, a practical hobbyist, will never buy more fabric than you absolutely need. But then you take a quilting class, and, for an afternoon, your anxious mind is lulled by the meditative hum of a high-end Bernina machine. The next thing you know, you have two dedicated sewing rooms, four separate machines in operation at any given time, and a dream to build a newer, bigger house with more cabinet space for the fabrics you don’t yet have uses for but that were too pretty not to buy.
The busload of women who descended upon Quilt Country one morning this past spring were not newbies. They had long ago cast aside naive notions about low budgets. They had come to the specialty shop in Lewisville, forty miles northeast of Fort Worth, prepared to indulge.
“We’re like ants running to a piece of watermelon,” said Mary Haynie, a 57-year-old grandmother of seven, as she lined up to disembark from the charter bus. Her hair was short and spiky, and she wore a hot-pink fleece pullover with patches of blue gingham, for flair. Mandy Weaver, also 57, is a design engineer who dreams of retirement, mostly so that she can devote herself to quilting full-time; she joked about the local news story that might result from a stampede of quilters. “It could get tight by the sale table,” she warned me.
The ladies had come to Quilt Country in April as members of Land Ahoy!, a “cruise” organized by Stitchin’ Heaven, a massive quilting hub in the East Texas town of Quitman that includes a store, a retreat center, and even lodgings for its customers. The Fort Worth event was the third of five since the coronavirus pandemic began, following meetups in Orlando and Nashville and preceding ones in Las Vegas and San Diego. Though few of the quilters had met before the retreat began, and though they had come from all over the country, just a few days into the trip, there was no indication that participants had known each other for less than a week.
A few of the 36 attendees had stayed behind at the group’s home base, the Fort Worth Embassy Suites. All the quilters were women; the only men present were a Stitchin’ Heaven employee and three tagalong husbands. Most of the seven-day retreat was spent quilting back at the hotel, but the visit to Quilt Country was the crown jewel of what event organizers called “Excursion Day.” The store’s exterior was nondescript—a bleak module in a strip mall on the side of a Metroplex highway. The rainy weather gave the vast, empty parking lot a tepid aura. But Quilt Country’s more than six-thousand-square-foot interior, which held some nine thousand different fabrics, all arranged by designer, style, and color, was a brave new world. To cross the threshold was to be transported to a space as vibrant as a Parisian flower market in springtime.
“Yay!” Mary chirped as soon as her feet hit the pavement. She and the rest of the quilters all but sprinted into the shop, pausing briefly to take the 20-percent-off coupons employees were passing out at the front door. As promised, Mandy headed for the sale section, though she did stop by the blue batik fabrics, where her denim pants and chambray blazer almost camouflaged her. Christina Hollis, an Air Force veteran and one of only two “land cruise” attendees younger than fifty, started to skip toward the first display table she saw, piled with kaleidoscopic bundles of precut fabric.
It was a quilting Supermarket Sweep. The shoppers were calling out jargon no layperson would understand. “Oh, here we go! License plates!” exclaimed Christina, having discovered some collectible patches unique to every quilting shop, with which one can make a quilt commemorating all the places they’ve been. “The fat quarters are over here,” Mandy said, pointing to crates of roughly 18-by-21-inch fabric swatches, which the quilters would use like poker chips during a game later that night.
Things calmed down a bit in the store’s back room, where there were chicken salad croissant sandwiches for lunch. While the women ate, one of the store’s employees gave a demo of a tool that would allow the quilters to create a “mariner’s compass,” a notoriously complicated but popular pattern, with ease. When the presentation was over, the quilters discussed their purchases. Mary told one of the retreat’s instructors about the purple sunflower pattern she knew she had to have as soon as she saw it hanging on the wall in the shop. Mandy and Christina, each carrying multiple full shopping bags, lamented the rising cost of fabric. “You used to be able to get it for ten cents a yard,” joked Mandy, who started quilting in the early aughts. “Now it’s twelve dollars!”
When it was time to climb back into the black pleather seats of the bus, Amy, one of Stitchin’ Heaven’s event coordinators, shouted, “Raise your hand if you spent over a hundred dollars!” Almost everybody shot up a hand. Amy began increasing the sum in increments of $50, and by the time she got to $300, the bus erupted in laughter and cheers for the two quilters who still had their arms in the air.
Before we’d set out for Quilt Country, a button-nosed woman named Phyllis Moynihan had joked that quilting is a dangerous game where “whoever dies with the most fabric wins.” Phyllis did not join us on our excursion. Pam Sawall, 64, bemoaned her cabinets upon cabinets full of fabrics she knew she’d never use—she had signed up for the Fort Worth event after having so much fun on the Orlando land cruise in February. “When I die, it’ll all still be there, I’m sure,” she admitted.
That quilting can get very expensive very quickly bodes well for Stitchin’ Heaven, whose offerings go way beyond fabrics, patterns, and tools. The quilt cruises, which cost between $1,499 and $2,499, are just one arm of the company, whose approach to business Inc. magazine called “a master class in the wooing, winning, and retention of customers.” Founded as a small shop in 1996 by Deb Luttrell, Stitchin’ Heaven has grown into a megabrand, with millions of dollars in annual sales. (Deb originally moved to Quitman from Fort Worth planning to break into emu ranching; quilting was her backup plan.) To draw visitors to a small town in East Texas, Deb has positioned Stitchin’ Heaven to be as much a gateway to a quilting community as a fabric mecca. Besides a thriving online trade and a 17,500-square-foot store, Stitchin’ Heaven boasts a calendar packed with well-attended events. In a town of about 1,900, the business employs 70. In nonpandemic times, Stitchin’ Heaven’s land cruises are cruise-cruises, each attended by up to ninety quilters—the company’s next scheduled voyage, in the Caribbean, is set for late January. (Proof of vaccination will be required for attendees.)
“We were doing fifteen cruises a year before the pandemic,” Deb told me over the phone. The small-statured spitfire, who has a Piney Woods twang and feathery, platinum-blond hair, is a fixture on the sea cruises. (She’d visited Fort Worth’s Land Ahoy! retreat but left the day before I got there.) “Instead of crying into our beers, we pivoted.” With a No Sail Order from the Centers for Disease Control in place for cruise ships, Stitchin’ Heaven swapped conference rooms and cabins on Royal Caribbean ships for space at hotels in quilt-friendly cities across the country. (Deb said they looked for locations that had quilt shops and exhibits or other activities that may be interesting to quilters: in Fort Worth, the quilters also visited the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.)
While Quilt Country is hardly as exciting as a batik factory on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, the quilt cruise regulars seemed ecstatic to be back in the mix. Like me, many attendees were delighted just to be out of their houses after a year of pandemic inactivity. (Stitchin’ Heaven follows the COVID-19 safety protocols of host hotels and encourages social distancing.) By the time I arrived, on the fourth day of the week-long event, the party was in full swing: the women were working diligently on two “quilts of valor,” the patriotic patterns that were the focus of the retreat.
At the hotel, a fifth-floor conference hall dubbed “Synergy I” hummed with the buzz of the quilters’ chitchat and the steady tap of about forty brand-new Bernina sewing machines: there was a machine for each quilter, as well as a few used by the instructors and staff. This wall of sound was occasionally breached by someone’s hearty belly laugh, or a pffft from the top-of-the-line steam iron at the center of the room. The sky outside was dark and stormy, which made the fluorescent lights seem brighter. Fabric covered every surface: the workstations, the cutting table, the ironing areas, and even the mingling zone, where an unfinished jigsaw puzzle lay. The room was scattered with rattan baskets, each filled with chocolate candy and mini bottles of Sutter Home white zinfandel.
Some of the quilters worked barefoot; others wore shoes with thick, cushy soles and pants with soft waistbands. They sported T-shirts with motivational messages like “Pray about it, girl!” and “I make pretty things.” The dress code was simply “get ’er done.”
And they did. By day five, both Mandy and Mary had finished the first quilt pattern, the “wave,” an intricate design of meandering strips of red, white, and blue fabric that used a centuries-old method of blocking called the “drunkard’s path.” They had begun working on the second quilt, a “hollow star,” an equally ambitious, contemporary pattern involving multiple six-pointed stars. Some women had moved on to passion projects they had brought with them from home. The quilters were committed, many arriving at Synergy I as soon as it opened, at 8 a.m., and staying until almost midnight.
They occasionally stepped away from their work to admire each other’s progress and help those who might be stuck. Karen Tapking, an experienced 72-year-old quilter from Utah, gently informed Pam that her pieces were slightly misaligned. “I wanted you to know before you started sewing,” Karen told a thankful Pam. At the other end of the workroom, Christina got down on the floor with Lonnie Carver, a 67-year-old Louisianan, as the latter pieced together her quilt.
During the pandemic, when many Americans turned to crafts as a distraction and for a practical application of their idle hands, the quilters were in their element. So was Stitchin’ Heaven, whose profits shot up 60 percent last year. Douglas Tapking, who had tagged along with his wife, proudly bragged that Karen had made 55 quilts since the lockdowns began. And though quilt-making is on the surface a solitary activity—one person working with one needle and one thread at a time—it is historically a deeply social art form. The skill is passed down from mothers to daughters (there were two mother-daughter pairs on the Fort Worth land cruise), and the quilts are passed down too—my family still has a quilt that was made by my great-grandmother. Karen didn’t make 55 quilts for herself, after all.
Lois Harak, a retiree who was wearing a crimson Stitchin’ Heaven T-shirt that read “Quilting is not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” has been on nine quilt cruises. She was on her way back from a cruise in the Western Caribbean in early 2020 when the world began to unravel. “We came back on March 14,” she said. “We didn’t know if we would be able to get off the ship.” Lois and a friend had planned to stay for two weeks in Florida, where they were docked, before boarding another cruise, but they’d had to cancel. The rest of the year was a doozie: Lois, who was then recovering from her second hip replacement, generally felt isolated in her home in Mustang, Oklahoma, where she lives alone. When she was able to travel again, she didn’t hesitate to book a spot on the closest land cruise. When we met, she was working on one of the two quilts featured on the retreat, or, if she felt like it, a forest-green project she was hand-quilting, just for kicks. I often saw her sitting at the puzzle table, chatting.
“It’s about relationships, more than just the quilting. The camaraderie is just so important to these ladies,” Deb Luttrell said. “And they love it. They love to sew, and they love to be with people who have a shared interest.” For many of the quilters I met, Land Ahoy! was just one of the quilt-centered social activities on their calendars. Some, like Mandy Weaver, were members of local “quilt guilds,” volunteer organizations that provide handmade quilts for those in need, while others find community in Facebook groups or go on annual quilting trips.
Even to a nonquilter like me, the conviviality was appealing. The quilters welcomed me into the fold, inviting me to join them on walks around downtown Fort Worth and to eat with them at breakfast. They tried hard to get me hooked on their shared hobby, and by my second night, I was well on my way. Soon, I was oohing and aahing over the beautiful fabric swatches we were using as currency during game night.
I wasn’t the only newcomer having a blast. Christina, who was on her first quilting retreat, was surprised by how motivated she was by the group. “I wouldn’t be doing this at home,” she said of the quilt of valor, which was slightly above her skill level. “At home I would be struggling and cursing. Here, I have support.”
She didn’t want to miss out on any more retreats, either. She was already joking about how to break it to her husband, who she suspected would be less than thrilled when she returned from one expensive quilt vacation with plans for many more. But that’s quilting for you.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “We Quilt This City.” Subscribe today.