Next up in the Meet the Sponsors series is Deborah Moebes of Whipstitch Fabrics. In addition to running Whipstitch on Etsy, Deborah is a mother of three, a children’s clothing designer, and sewing teacher. As you can tell from her responses, Deborah is whip-smart and funny to boot! Keep up with her adventures, and get plenty of inspiration and detailed tutorials on her blog. (She’s doing a series of tutorials on Charm Pack projects right now.) You can also follow Whipstitch on Twitter.
Whipstitch is offering an exclusive discount to True Up readers to get you through this last gasp of winter — 10% off ANY purchase through March 21, 2009. Just use coupon code code GIMMESPRING! in the buyer’s comments on checkout.
True Up: Where do you live? What is the textile/crafty scene like there?
Deborah Moebes: I live and work in Atlanta, the Jewel of the South. We’ve got a really vibrant crafty scene here, and are fortunate that our location draws talent from all over the Southeast. The South in general tends to be a little more traditional in style than some other parts of the nation, but Atlanta really gets out on the forefront and showcases a lot of modern style mixed in with a sense of history, of time and place. It’s a very cool place to be crafting and watching new design emerge, especially the past few years as the focus locally has moved away from interior design and more into handmade, indie crafts. I’ve seen some of the most inspiring work done right in my neighborhood, and that might be the most exciting thing for me right now.
How and when did you start selling fabric?
It happened accidentally, really, and is a reflection of what a fabric glutton I am! I’ve designed children’s clothing for a little over two years through my company, Pretty Jane. That company began when my husband and I made the decision that I would stay home after the birth of our second child. One evening, on a date, he mentioned that if I’d ever thought of starting a business from home, this might be a good time — by leaving my job anyway there would be virtually no opportunity cost. Pretty Jane started very small and has evolved over time, and as an outgrowth of my work as a designer I began teaching sewing classes at a local independent designers’ co-op. It was really my students there who sparked the desire in me to open a fabric shop — they were so hungry for really great fabric, but around here there are very few places to get fabric other than the box stores. I started by selling the fabric I had as overstock from Pretty Jane, without any initial plans to expand from there. Whipstitch took on a life of its own, though, and I have been so thrilled — what fabric lover WOULDN’T be over the moon at the chance to buy even more fabric?? It’s really only been in the last three months that I’ve begun to sell in a larger market, and I truly love the way my design business, my classes, and the fabric all dovetail so neatly and inform one another so fully.
What surprised you most about the business?
Maybe surprise isn’t the word I’d use, but I’ve been really fascinated at the way my thinking has changed, at the way I’ve begun to view fabric in a new light when I look at it as a teacher and a shopkeeper (as opposed to a designer or a “collector”). I think a lot more now about what I can get out of a different cut of fabric, say, or about how ideas marketed for quilters might be adapted for craft sewers, that kind of thing. I constantly try to come up with new ideas and new products that I think will meet a need I hear from my students and my customers: new ways of bundling fabric; new precuts; basic like ric rac or bias tape adapted in new ways. If you’d told me two years ago that I’d be spending so many hours a day doing that, I would’ve thought you’d lost your noodle.
Is this your full time job? If not, what do you moonlight as?
My real full-time job is having three kids — holy cheese and crackers! Beyond that, my time is more or less equally divided between Whipstitch, teaching sewing classes, and designing children’s clothing. Every once in a while, someone will ask my why I don’t give up the other two and “focus” on a single one of those, and my response is always that each of the three benefits so much from the other two — and vice versa — that I feel they make a very tidy little package. Besides, some days I’m more in the mood to select new fabrics for the shop, and other days I feel like stitching it up, and still others I get a thrill out of introducing someone to sewing for the first time (which leads back to selecting fabric for the shop, and on and on … ).
How would you characterize your shop?
I like to think of it as playful and inviting and inspiring and bright and energetic. I certainly want it to be a place where folks can come and be intrigued or get new ideas or learn a new talent. I really think of Whipstitch less as a fabric shop and more as a virtual stitch lounge, a place to find new fabrics and test out new ideas and get inspired and practice skills. I want to be able to offer a whole range of options to my customers. And I think that Whipstitch appeals to a wide range of sewers, on lots of levels: We get traditional quilters with an eye for less traditional colors and patterns; we get new sewers who need some guidance and instruction; we get experienced sewers who are looking for a good deal on great products; we get a solid number of men who are looking for fabric that appeals to their sensibilities; we get a younger crowd of crafter who want to go far, far beyond what they can find in the box stores. It’s crazy cool for me.
What are your hot sellers right now?
Anna Maria‘s Good Folks collection is doing very well, no surprises there — she does such gorgeous work, and the cool person she is really comes through in her designs. The few Erin Michael Lush prints I have remaining are going quickly, since they’ve been pretty tough to find. I’m also burning through some of my more whimsical prints: Michael Miller’s Tweet Tweet and Robert Kaufman’s Sweet Tooth spring to mind. And I’m sending out a lot of patterns, especially from Sew Liberated and Pink Fig.
Are you online only, or do you have a brick & mortar shop? If you don’t have one, are you planning to open one?
Currently, I’m online only, although I frequently sell to the students in my sewing classes at Beehive Co-op. I’ve got some other really exciting plans in the works, and am itching to talk AT LENGTH about those, but am waiting to hammer out the final details before spilling too many beans. Once more of the foundation is laid, I’ll have a lot to say on the blog as everything develops more fully.
Do you run the shop alone or do you have help?
I’m a solo act, although my husband does the occasional cameo (See Episode 6: John Goes to the Post Office). The children are all functioning as stagehands, though their comedy often comes close to tragedy (See Episode 18: Mommy Falls Over Jimmy’s Tonka Truck and Gets a Black Eye from the End of a Fabric Bolt).
How do you deal with the challenges of the current economy, and increasing competition on the online fabric retail market?
Gosh, this is such a tough question. Since I came at this originally as someone who just really loves fabric, I’m thankful every day to have had two years of manufacturing and retail under my belt first. Maintaining a reasonable profit margin is very, very difficult in the face of the level of competition out there. My goal is always to maintain a consistent philosophy as a shopkeeper in that I offer fair, competitive pricing and always make it my aim to serve the customer. I think of what I do much less as a retail shop than as a service — I love, love, love sewing and am very aware that good fabric and supplies makes ALL the difference between falling in love with the craft and crying over a tangled, frustrating mess. I’m working as hard as I know how to bridge the gap and lead folks through all that, plus give them beautiful fabric to work with.
What are the (other!) biggest challenges — and biggest rewards — of being a fabric merchant?
Biggest challenge: Needing more hours in the day! How on earth does Amy Butler do it??
Biggest rewards: Besides having access to all this amazing fabric?? I really love the excitement of seeing someone discover a new designer or a new pattern they haven’t seen before; that never, never gets old for me. It reminds me so completely of being 5, 6, 7 years old and going with my mom downtown to buy fabric, and getting to pick out my own dress pattern and my own colors, and help her choose the matching thread. There was such joy and anticipation in those moments, and that sensation has never dulled as I’ve gotten older. It’s taken me a very long time to wrap my head around what a childhood would look like WITHOUT that experience, and I find myself surprisingly passionate and driven to offer it now — better late than never!! — to as many people as I can. It means a lot of long hours and a lot of irons in the fire at any given time, but the payoff is huge.
What’s your personal stash like?
Eclectic: I have hand-me-down fabrics that my mother had in HER stash in the late 80s/early 90s; some are so bad they’re good, and might never get cut into.
Overwhelming: I’ve been using two Ikea Antonius units to keep it all organized (by color, ROYGBIV, one basket each), but the baskets are crammed and overflowing. I need to go on a major stash diet.
Gluttonous: I tell my students that when I first started buying fabric for myself, as a freshman in college, I would buy a little of this, a little of that — half a yard at a time, maybe. But there are precious few projects for a single half yard, and since I mainly sew clothing, fewer still of those. So I began buying full yards. But no pants or blouse pattern that I have yet met uses a mere yard, so I moved up to two. Then three. By 2001, I was routinely saying, “I’ll take whatever you’ve got left. And may I please have the bolt, too?” It’s addictive, and my stash is a reflection of that. Like taking a drinking problem to beerfest, my mother says.
Inspiring: I have fabrics that I selected and set aside 8 or 10 years ago for specific projects for myself that never got done. Now, I look at those ideas and am either amazed at how well they stood the test of time, and inspired to start them all over again, or horrified that I ever would’ve wanted to make such-and-such and inspired to start from scratch. But I’m always inspired. Problem is, when to find the time??
Who are your favorite designers, from the past and/or from the present?
Hmmm … I find myself drawn to some of the newer designers in part because the internet allows us to know THEM on top of and in addition to their work. Anna Maria Horner and Heather Bailey both have excellent blogs that allow me to see so much beyond just the design, and I love that experience. In terms of long-term love affairs, though, I have to say both Alexander Henry and many of the Japanese designers have prints that never get old for me. Some day I dream of filling my swimming pool with yummy Japanese prints and swimming around in it. Please don’t think I’m joking. I’m SO for real.
OK, that part about childhood memories of fabric shopping with mom made me tear up a litte. I’m old enough to remember when department stores like JC Penney had fabric sections, and I have good memories of fabric shopping with my mom too. How about you?