With so much competition between fabric shops these days, it’s hard to stand out. Stitch Simple does it with a completely unique spin on the fabric shop concept: owner Jen Madsen offers prewashed, and (if you want) precut fabric and custom quilt kits (including the new Quilt Kit du Jour, which just launched yesterday). That’s on top of a cool selection of fabric and spectacular customer service. If you missed it the first time around, check out my review earlier this year of Stitch Simple and their Quilt Kit #3 — there you can get a more in-depth idea of what the Stitch Simple experience is like.
I was especially curious to get a peek behind the scenes of Stitch Simple and was excited to get to know Jen better. So everyone, meet Jen. Jen, meet everyone! Stay tuned after the interview for a Stitch Simple Quilt Kit du Jour giveaway.
Where do you live? What is the textile/crafty scene like there?
I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota where the textile/crafty scene is pretty conservative and traditional.
How did you get the idea for prewashed, precut fabric and quilt kits?
I launched the Stitch Simple beta site on June 25th, 2008 and we had our grand opening three months later. It’s kind of a long and convoluted story about how I got the idea for Stitch Simple. I started sewing and quilting when I was 9 and I progressively sewed less and less over time until I stopped completely when I went back to school to get my MBA.
The first thing I wanted to make when I got back to sewing was a quilt and when I started getting everything ready I thought, “This really stinks. I wish you could just buy it already washed, pressed and cut.” I thought for sure someone would be doing that, but they weren’t. There were folks selling precuts of course, but they weren’t washed and I just don’t sew anything without washing the fabric first. Also, all of the kits on the market didn’t let you choose the fabrics and I think that is the best part of sewing.
I understood why retailers weren’t offering it the way Stitch Simple does. It requires a pretty unique setup. I was exposed to some interesting ideas about operational models that allow for both fast service and custom orders in grad school and I thought the textile industry would be a great place for me to try them.
What surprised you most about the business?
I was really surprised at how many people wanted us to choose their fabrics for them. And what’s even more surprising is that I’ll put together three or four ideas for a customer based on what they tell me they want to do (e.g. make a quilt for a grandchild, a nephew or friend) and 9 times out of 10 they take those ideas and switch them around a bit — maybe change the order of the fabrics or take most of one idea and then add one different fabric. Then when they come back to order refills, they’ve really gotten into fabric selection and almost never request help.
That’s where I got the idea for Stitch Simple Quilt Kit du Jour. People want choice, but they also are sometimes overwhelmed by it and need a starting point or a second opinion to get comfortable with all the possibilities.
Is this your full time job? What else do you do to make ends meet?
Stitch Simple is my full time job. I moonlight as a columnist for the Examiner.com and I also teach Beginning Sewing for the Southwest Minneapolis Community Education Program.
How would you characterize your shop?
This is a really hard question for me to answer. I think of the shop like I think of our patterns — a blank canvas where customers can see their ideas come to life. I try to offer a broad fabric selection so there is a little something for everyone to create a quilt to suit their specific tastes. Then we take what they want and do all the boring steps so they can get right to fun part of sewing. I like to imagine that Stitch Simple is everyone’s faithful sewing assistant whose only concern is what you want so I feel like the shop’s character totally changes based on the customer and what fabrics they’re using, if that makes any sense.
What are your hot sellers right now?
Hoffman’s Beep! Beep! Collection that we featured in McCall’s Quick Quilts earlier this summer continues to be incredibly popular. In general, anything for little ones has been hot. I don’t have any data to support this opinion, but my gut tells me that in this economy children are being spared the hardship.
Do you run the shop alone or do you have help?
I handle most day-to-day operations solo. I have an awesome web developer, Steph Lucas, who helps me with large website projects and I also have an amazing saleswoman, Julie Cotton, who heads up our presence at local markets and quilt shows. I’d also be completely remiss to not mention the help of my entire family, my husband Eric and our cat Gabe. They keep me laughing so I can keep moving forward.
How do you deal with the challenges of the current economy, and increasing competition in the online fabric retail market?
Patience is key for a concept like Stitch Simple. We don’t have huge sales and coupons every second — because I feel like our pricing is incredibly fair for the unique service being offered. It’s certainly true that you can pay less for the fabrics you see at Stitch Simple, but no one else offers it like we do — so it’s not an apples to apples comparison. Also, our kits are refillable, and that saves customers money because we don’t make them purchase another instruction manual if they want to make the same kit pattern again.
Most importantly, I pay extra special attention to our email subscribers and they get exclusive deals like the free fat quarter on Tuesday. My philosophy is that if someone provides us their email address so we can contact them when something new is available, I don’t have to spend as much money on advertising. I like to say that I like my customers better than I like Google — so I’d rather give them my advertising dollars in the form of a coupon than pay to run a bunch of ads.
This approach has been really successful for us. We have very few customers who’ve ordered a kit and not gotten at least one refill (our record is 7 refills from one customer) and we get referral business all the time. Focusing on our email subscribers lets us give really good deals that are worth mentioning to friends and family — so every time we announce an exclusive sale for our subscribers, we get lots of new subscribers.
What are the (other!) biggest challenges — and biggest rewards — of being a fabric merchant?
The biggest challenge is getting the word out about Stitch Simple. Since it’s not something anyone else does, no one knows to go looking for us until someone else tells them that this kind of service is available.
The biggest reward is preparing fabric for customers who otherwise would not be able to make a quilt. We have a number of customers who have lost strength in their hands for one reason or another. They can push it through the machine, but it takes a considerable amount of strength and dexterity to cut your own fabric. We also have lots of customers who are just so busy that they wouldn’t get the quilt done if they had to do all the prep work. I personally fall into that second category and when I’m making demos for new kits, I like to wait a day between prepping the fabric and sewing just so I can pretend for a moment that I’m a Stitch Simple customer and it came to me in all those neat little squares. I really enjoy the experience in pretend mode, so I hope that all of our customers like the real deal just as much!
What’s your personal stash like?
Old. I love a lot of the contemporary fabric designers, but I’ve got a real soft spot for vintage fabric reclaimed from curtains, scarves, men’s dress shirts and whatever (especially if there’s gingham involved). My favorite fabric from my stash right now is the green and khaki butterflies with ferns below. This fabric has such a story. It was first a bedspread, then a set of curtains at my husband’s family cabin and last year for Christmas I made it into headbands for his cousin’s daughters. I’ve got enough left for a small quilt, but I can’t quite bring myself to use the last of it just yet.
Who are your favorite designers, from the past and/or from the present?
I adore fellow Minnesotan Darlene Zimmerman. Especially Hints of Prints. I personally like to use almost solids and solids quite a bit, even though that doesn’t seem to be the way of today’s quilter. I do like some prints but I notice that I prefer ones that don’t have a large number of different colors in them. I particularly love Harmony Susalla’s Field of Honey We’re waiting for it and Garden to arrive late September/October and I can’t wait to get into it as soon as it’s here.
Thank you so much, Jen!
Giveaway Time! Leave a comment on this post to be eligible to win the inaugural Quilt Kit du Jour. The kit design is by Jennifer Madsen, and the fabrics are from P&B Textiles’ Bliss Collection, which I can’t believe I missed! These kits are great for first-time or experienced quilters — even if you’re experienced, it’s a treat to work with the perfectly cut prewashed fabric. Two runners up will receive prewashed fat quarter packs of the Bliss fabrics.
Details: The winner will get to choose the 35″x35″ size (great for a baby quilt or wall hanging) or the 52.5″x 60″ (lap quilt size). And if you already happen to own this kit, you will get the fabrics in the refill and a credit for the price difference to spend on something else.
Please note that the 35″x35″ version of Kit Number 7 includes a fourth color choice for an extra border around the whole thing. We can make that choice for you our let you pick it out! It also includes backing, while
the 52.5″x60″ does not.
The giveaway is open to readers worldwide. Comments will close and winners drawn randomly next Wednesday, 9/9/09, around 9am Central U.S. time.