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Archive for Sunday, January 6, 1991

QUILTING TIME

January 6, 1991

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— In the old Methodist Church building here, there's a woman who makes magic.

That's what Judith Hopson says of her boss, Virginia Robertson, who with her husband, Lynn, owns the Osage County Quilt Factory in the old church, at 400 Walnut.

Since moving their business from Topeka to Overbrook eight years ago, the Robertsons have transformed the church's sanctuary into a busy retail shop for quilters and other fiber artists, and the rest of the building into an international publishing and wholesale merchandising operation and instructional facility.

Ms. Robertson is the creative force behind the operation, designing quilt and doll patterns, writing how-to books and teaching classes on everything from colors to construction, while her husband handles the business affairs.

"It's a lot like a boulder rolling down a hill," Ms. Robertson said during a phone interview from Colorado, where she is on winter vacation.

INITIALLY, she explained, they intended to turn the sanctuary, with its huge windows, into her studio and live in another part of the church. But when their daughter suffered severe head injuries in a car crash, those plans changed.

Ms. Robertson recalled they decided against refurbishing living quarters in the building and, instead, opened her studio on Saturdays as a retail shop, to get some much-needed cash to pay the girl's medical bills.

The shop proved immensely popular, Ms. Robertson said, noting people seriously interested in fiber arts "don't think a thing" of driving hundreds of miles to get there.

Everyone who comes feels they've made a personal discovery, she added, "because people can't believe there'a anything out there" in such a little town.

THE BUSINESS' growth has been so phenomenal, she said, that two years ago they consciously decided to restrict it.

"We're trying to keep centered," she said, noting they've focused on getting quality control over their publications, which include both books and patterns.

Today, said Ms. Hopson, who describes herself as Ms. Robertson's right-hand person, "we are not a little Mom-and-Pop operation." There are 12 full-time employees and wholesale customers as far away as Australia, Japan, Switzerland and Great Britain.

Among the staff is Eva Hudson of Lawrence, who retired from Kansas University's Museum of Natural History in August 1988 and started at the Quilt Factory the next month.

Ms. Hudson said she's sewn "forever" and helped her mother and grandmother piece quilts, but didn't begin to quilt herself until the late 1970s, when there was a national resurgence of interest in quilting.

TODAY, MS. Hudson is a past president of the Lawrence-area Kaw Valley Quilting Guild, and one of the Quilt Factory's teachers as well.

Although the factory's name implies it produces quilts, that's not the case at all, Ms. Hopson said. The business sells quilting materials, patterns, books, paraphernailia and know-how.

Noting that some customers are hard to convince, Ms. Hopson said she often teases them. "I tell them, `No, we don't have 20 grandmas chained to quilting frames in the basement."

Many quilters who shop at the factory come from Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City and further, and some even fly in, so Ms. Hopson said they try to be as accommodating as possible.

Their current business hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Ms. Hopson added that staff members always know when the snowbirds retired couples who move south for the winter are traveling because of the line of recreational vehicles parked alongside the church.

MS. ROBERTSON added that six tour buses from Texas also stop there at different times of the year, as they wind up Amish country trips for quilters.

In June, two quilt markets at Bartle Hall in Kansas City will bring a deluge of additional quilters from afar, she added.

Shuttle buses are scheduled to transport both quilt shop owners and individual quilters from Bartle to her shop as part of the program, and some also are scheduled to stop in Lawrence at the Elizabeth M. Watkins Community Museum, to see a quilt show there.

A new exterior paint job gives the century-old Overbrook church a Norman Rockwell look, especially this time of year with some snow on the ground. Inside, visitors find a quilters' wonderland.

Brightly colored, prototype quilts fill the walls, and fancy, handmade cloth dolls sit about the shop their purpose, to spark inspiration in the customers.

MS. ROBERTSON'S newest design is among those displayed. Called "Starstruck," it is a pieced quilt that debuted at last fall's Houston trade show and features African fabrics and Kinta cloth.

Bolt after bolt of colorful cottons some 2,000 in all line the floor where pews once stood.

Ms. Hopson said they aim for the most interesting fabrics they can find.

"We got ahold of some African fabric . . . imported from Senegal," she said, showing some of the colorful African prints and pointing to the selvage, where the fabric's point of origin is printed.

Other exotics come from England and Australia.

Among the patterns and books for sale, Ms. Robertson's work predominates. She said she has written six or seven books and designed some 250 patterns.

Other paraphernailia in the shop includes mechanical trappings of modern-day quilters, many aimed at speeding up the traditional process.

MS. HOPSON noted that increasing numbers of working women are interested, and as a consequence, time-saving methods are being developed to satisfy them.

There are rotary cutters, which look like pizza cutters and slice through several layers of fabric at a time, for making pieces, and handy, portable quilting frames made of PVC pipe.

"The more technocratic the society gets, the more handwork people do. . . and women have used quilting as an expressive outlet for years," said Ms. Hopson, who also teaches photography at Washburn University in Topeka.

Particularly during times of recession, she added, the staff notice that interest in handwork seems to pick up. Since the Berlin Wall opened in Germany, they've experienced quite a surge in their European markets.

MS. HOPSON said that for some time, European customers bought mostly quilting books from them, but now they are beginning to purchase patterns too.

Ms. Robertson said her business is poised for the opening of the European Common Market in 1992, and even now is experiencing growth in the expanding international marketplace.

"The whole thing is just snowballing," she said.

The Japanese, Germans and Dutch, in particular, are fascinated by quilting, she said, noting it "is a very, very uniquely American phenomenon." The history of patchwork, she explained, has its roots among the thrifty pioneers.

Selling to overseas customers is another type of "Robertson magic."

Beyond the quilts and sea of colorful fabric bolts in the retail shop, the couple have brought the magic of technology to bear on their efforts.

COMPUTERS, copying and fax machines bring the world market to their rural Kansas door.

In the maze of rooms beyond the sanctuary shop, computers are employed in the development of patterns and books, as well as in tracking payroll and mailing lists.

Showing Ms. Robertson's book "Your First Quilt . . . and More," Ms. Hopson pointed out the concise text and explanatory drawings, and added, "What we pride ourselves on is clear directions."

Every publication, she added, no matter how complicated, reinforces basic quilting information.

Copying machines that "do everything but talk to you" are used to produce some books and patterns, Ms. Hopson explained, while others are sent camera-ready from the factory to a printer.

International orders come into the building on a fax machine, which in turn fires back confirmations.

"It's a very contemporary business," Ms. Hopson said of the creative and wholesale operation.

DOWNSTAIRS, in former Sunday school classrooms, packaged boxes of patterns and books are stockpiled to fill orders, and in the old fellowship hall, long tables accommodate quilting and doll-making students. Those who enroll come from all over the state, Ms. Hopson said, and sometimes, around the country too. She noted that a Colorado woman even got her husband to fly her in for a class.

Ms. Robertson said the business brings in famous quilters four times a year to supplement its own teaching staff. The factory's mailing list, mostly of people within the region, contains 25,000 names, she added.

Quilters from outside this area know of the shop, Ms. Hopson explained, because the product line is widely distributed, and because Ms. Robertson and others connected with the factory present workshops and attend trade shows nationwide.

"Virginia has a following," Ms. Hopson said.

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