I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen two things: quilters talking sheepishly about the size of their stash and quilters green with envy looking at someone else’s stash. I have a lot of thoughts about this, but it boils down to something simple: sheepishness and envy are not confidence, and I want quilters to experience joy and satisfaction with their hobby and work, not embarrassment and jealousy.
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Some of you are already mad at me.
“HollyAnne!” you insist, “I’m proud of my stash! it brings me joy! I don’t want to NOT have my stash!”
(and this is what those of you that are mad but also nice are thinking— I know some of y’all are PISSED).
I know I know. And not all y’all are going to agree with me on this. (Spoiler: That is 100% okay. You don’t have to agree with me!) But I want to get our quilty community talking about what the future holds and whether stash culture really serves us and our industry. Also, I promise I will not come to your house and be judgy about your stash. Rather, I think most quilters end up with stashes larger than their needs because we’ve been over-sold on scarcity, and I want you to live in abundance instead.
I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time— since Summer 2018 in fact, when I kicked off our first Summer Stash Busting. I’m going to do my best to organize all my thoughts about stash and stash culture into coherent themes, but forgive me if some of this is isolated observations that I’m still mulling over. These thoughts are also influenced by the fact that I’m a millennial. I’d love to see more millennials sewing and quilting, but, in general, my generation is more minimalistic, and I think the industry needs to find new ways to market to customers who aren’t interested in a huge stash.
What Is Stash Culture?
When I say “stash culture” I’m referring to the habit of owning substantially more fabric that we need at any given time. I’m referring to the idea that collecting fabric and sewing with it are two separate hobbies. Jokes about “STABLE” (STash Accumulated Beyond Life Expectancy) and hiding fabric from spouses. Pretending that buying fabric is an investment that will somehow mature to be worth much much more (I’m sorry, loves, but the ROI on that is awful. Please invest in a Roth IRA instead). Filling our sewing spaces so full that its overwhelming to go in to quilt. Etcetera, Etcetera, Etcetera.
Please note that all of the examples I give above discuss excess. I think it’s great to have some fabric on hand to play around, make something on the fly, etc. But I’ve been seeing more and more themes of excess, and I find it very troubling. Also note: what I consider to be excess and what you consider to be excess may not be the same thing.
Why Stash Culture Hurts Quilters
The harmful theme of excess stashing that just JUMPS out at me is that stash culture creates shame. Shame about how much fabric we own, how much money we spend on fabric, how we shop more than we sew, what our husbands would say if they really knew what we bought or what we spend... We try to cover up that shame with humor, but I’ve had too many quilters tell me how overwhelmed they feel by their stashes. Even more heartbreaking, is the number of quilters I’ve met who have a hard time actually sewing because it is so stressful to be around the giant stash they know they’ll never finish sewing. They feel stuck— they’re often out of love with the fabric they already have, but the thought of buying more of what they do like when they already have so much leaves them feeling vaguely iill.
My “wake up moment” was when we were working on Baby Step Two of the Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey (visit this post for a whole lot more about our debt free journey), and I realized that every dime I spent on fabric (which I didn’t need— I had plenty to go on for awhile) was money NOT going to our family’s financial success. For that season, buying more fabric wasn’t just problematic; it would have been straight up selfish. There’s a time and a place to treat yo’ self, but it’s not every time, and it wasn’t during that season at all. The amazing thing, though, was that a brief season of not buying fabric made me think more deeply about whether or not I really need much of a stash and broke through my scarcity mindset about fabric (feeling like I had to buy it right now or I’d never get pretty fabric again).
Why Stash Culture Hurts Quilt Shops
“But HollyAnneeeeee— telling people NOT to buy fabric will hurt quilt shops, and you DON’T want to do THAT do you??”
Sit down for me, babes, and listen very carefully: the local quilt shop model where a small shop makes its bread and butter on fabric is dead.
Dead as a doornail.
The margins on fabric sales are so, so, so thin. And stash culture demands that these shops push more fabric on quilters who really already have plenty (remember STABLE above), and then quilters feel guilty if they go to the shop and don’t buy fabric because that means they aren’t supporting the shop, but they feel shame if they spend money they needn’t be spending on fabric they really don’t need. So with the current model, quilt shops are attempting to build a business on thin margins and feelings of shame. Does that sound very sustainable to you?
Now, before y’all tar and feather me, let’s agree on something very, very important: local quilt shops are super cool, and we’d like to keep them around. We also want them to be fun, safe, and dare-I-say-it hip places where we can connect with other quilters, learn new skills, and purchase supplies. Agreed? Excellent! But think about this:
A quilter walks into Ye Local Shoppe who has self-admittedly hit STABLE. In fact, she was just telling a friend last night that she has no business buying fabric for a long, long time because she needs to use what she has back home. But she loves Ye Local Shoppe, and she wants to support it, and before she knows it, she’s purchased $50 worth of fabric when she had really just planned to pick up a pack of needles and maybe pet that new Tula Pink line. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what our quilter did— she’s a grownup after all and can make her own purchasing choices— but there’s a high likelihood of some buyer’s remorse. Get buyer’s remorse enough times, and the shame starts to creep in. We want shops to be happy, joyful, carefree places, remember? Not somewhere that gives us that little nag in our stomach that we just might be about to do something we’ll regret.
Why Stash Culture Hurts the Environment
In black and white, we are using a lot of water and a lot of chemicals and a lot of cotton to make stuff that will most likely end up in a landfill when we die, not to mention all the strike offs and more that end up in the landfill along the way. I’m not going to pretend to be a real expert on this, so check out this article to get a bit more information about textile manufacturing in general.
What Should We Do Instead?
My thoughts about stash culture started because I’ve observed too many lovely quilters feeling shame about their stashes, and I experienced that same shame when we were pushing to pay off our credit cards in 2018. In response, I began to brainstorm what a different model might look like. I’m not a shop owner or an economist, but I think these kinds of ideas and changes will strengthen our community and industry.
First, on the industry side, there needs to be a slower sales cycle. Two, three, four fabric collection releases a year is freaking insane. Gorgeous fabric collections are old hat before they’ve even hit the shelves. There is constant pressure for more, more, MORE on designers just like there is for shoppers. I don’t know how to slow down that train so that fewer collections hit the shelves but they remain popular longer (and ideally become more profitable because the buying power of shops and quilters wouldn’t be stretched over so many collections), but it would ease up some of the scarcity mindset around fabric shopping (“It may not be here next time I come to the shop”), free up some capital for the shop because they wouldn’t be refreshing inventory as quickly, and relieve some of the strain on the environment that comes from production.
Second, there’s more money in education (and notions and machines and longarm services…). I totally want quilt shops to continue selling fabric, but I think there are other products and services that would be a stronger “bread and butter” sell, so that revenue from fabric becomes gravy rather than lifeblood.
Imagine a shop where education and longarm services are the primary income streams. A new quilter walks in— she’s decided she would like to make a quilt and she’s borrowed a sewing machine from a friend, but she doesn’t know what else she might need. She walks into Ye Local Shoppe and is greeted warmly and with a list of upcoming quilting classes. She decides to take Quilting 101 a week later, so she registers, pays the fee, and is handed a supply list. She immediately purchases everything on the list— thread, rotary cutting supplies, a bit of fabric for a quilt top. When she comes to the class, she absolutely loves it and makes good progress on her first quilt top. Toward the end of the class, the instructor reminds everyone that Longarming 101 is just two weeks away and there are only a few spots left. The instructor points out to our quilter that it would be a great opportunity to finish her quilt herself if she’d like. Our quilter thinks that’s brilliant and registers (and pays for) the long arming class. Two weeks later, she arrives for the class and purchases batting and backing for her first quilt before class starts. Several hours later, she has the gist of how to do a simple pantograph on her quilts, and she’s continued getting to know the ladies at the shop and in the class. She’s starting to feel like she has friends in the quilting world and is really excited for her new community and new skills. Before she leaves, she and several other ladies are invited to come to the shop the next week during the bee to learn how to bind their quilts in a social setting. When our quilter comes for the bee, she finishes her quilt, is pleased as punch and wants to make another, so she picks another class to learn how to make another quilt, registers, and purchases fabric for the quilt top. And so on and so forth. Of course at some point our quilter will begin purchasing patterns and branching out on her own at home, too, but by then the shop will be the center of her quilty community. She’ll continue to take classes to hang out with her friends as much as to learn, and she’ll “schedule” her shopping around social events so that she’s making purchases nearly every time she’s in the shop. Each purchase will be full of excitement and joy because nearly all of her buying will have a specific purchase, and she’ll get additional psychological reward for her purchases when she uses that fabric to learn and make something new. As a result, the shop will have a stable, happy, enthusiastic repeat customer who buys plenty of fabric, but who is also buying classes and longarm time— both of which have more generous profit margins for the shop. It’s a win all around!
Is this scenario a bit idealistic? Maybe. But it’s this kind of model that is far more sustainable for a shop. Quilters love and need fabric, but shops will see more stable business from emphasizing class offerings, services, and social events. Here in Atlanta we have a sewing studio called Topstitch. The offer garment and bag sewing classes rather than quilting, but they have a model very similar to the one I described. Oh, and did I mention that they are in a large space in Ponce City Market (aka THE hip happening place in Midtown Atlanta aka the rent ain’t cheap, and they’re killing it!)? There are several sewing studios in metro Atlanta, in fact, and this seems to be a much healthier and more sustainable model for everyone involved.
The bottom line is that we quilters love to spend money on this gorgeous hobby, and that’s a good thing. It’s wonderful to make an investment in something you care about. What I’m suggesting, though, is that it’s more valuable for the quilter and healthier for the quilt shop to invest in education and community first and supplies second. The result is less stash, less shame, more learning, more friends, more finished quilts, more sense of accomplishment, and much, much more confidence!