Friday, July 29, 2005

It's not always work when you own a store. This Friday we actually got to play together. Cynthia's mom watched the store (have we mentioned that we love her?), and we drove to Quilt Odyssey in Hershey, PA. It's only 2 hours away from us, so it was an easy trip. It was a beautiful, carefully selected show. Here are a few of our favorite quilts. (You may notice a bias towards contemporary pieces.)

Let's start with a detail from the best of show. Exquisitely hand-appliqued and meticulously quilted, this champion piece combined wonderful fabric selection, perfect color choices, and a fabulous ribbon-work lattice setting to create this showstopper. Unfortunately, the camera didn't capture the masterful stitching or intensity of color. But you can still see how pretty it is:

This fire scene as viewed from across a lake also captured us. Heavy thread work combined with hand-painted fabrics resulted in piece that evoked a strong emotional response. The quilter says that you feel safe because of your vantage point:

Here we have a Harmonic Convergence quilt. We actually teach this quilt as one of our classes, so it was interesting to see it in the show. It's fun to make, and more simple than it appears. Ricky Tims designed the Harmonic Convergence.

And here's another geometric, with a nice diagonal play of light and dark:

These birds are shaped more like crows, but have yellow beaks more like grackles. You decide:

Nine-patch quilts are boring, right? No way! This is a 9-patch quilt. If you don't quilt, a 9-patch is a quilt block made up of 3 x 3 squares. It's normally a simple, plain block--the perfect block for a first-time quilter. But if you use patches that are each a tiny half-inch, and position them in a color wash, and spend about 3 years sewing, you might get something spectacular. The minute we turned the corner the luminous glow from this quilt drew us in:

This was a gorgous small wallhanging. Creating faces with just fabric and thread is not easy, but here you get a sense of how effectively this person captured a true portrait :

....with particularly creative quilting in the borders:

The Ninja is a famous National Geographic cover photograph. The quilter gained permission from the photographer and created this award-winning work. We were drawn to him again and again. The quilter clearly took a long time thinking about fabric choices, and used amazingly few different fabrics (combined with heavy stitching) to create a rich texture. His eyes were exceptionally well-done:

Finally, the wall of quilted bras gathered groups of giggling women (and a TV crew) :

Our favorite was the box of chocolates bra. (After all, we were in Hershey.)

Of course the show had a market too, as does every good quilt show. We each bought ourselves a few pieces of specialty batik fabric--Kim's for quilted shrine replicating the feel of late-Medieval religious iconography, Cynthia's for the back of a quilted sweatshirt jacket. Maybe we'll be there as vendors next year--but for this year, as one of our customers said when she saw us, we had fun just being civilians.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Kim writes:

If you've read this blog and Cynthia's detailed entries over the past week, you just may be wondering "Does Kim ever work at the shop?" or "What does she do with her time, anyway?" Those'd be fair questions. I do work at the shop, in fact I was just there yesterday. I just haven't written about it yet. My time over the past two weeks has been taken up by something far more important, far more wonderful than any old shop.

People who know me won't be surprised by this, but to understand what I've been doing you first need to know that I have a slightly obsessive personality. It's true. Think about this: I took my first quilting class in 2000 and owned the shop by 2003. That's obsessive. Maybe more than slightly.

I rarely become interested in anything halfway. Whatever I'm involved with seems to expand to fill my entire life. This makes it very easy to be a good shop owner and teacher, because I'm passionate about what I do and can convey that passion to my customers and students, but sometimes I become more than a little sidetracked by other things.

My current obsession is actually a reemergence of something that I have been following since 1998. It pre-dates quilting. It's been a pleasant preoccupation over the years, something to spend a little time on now and again, but it has only become a full-blown, raging obsession over the past couple of weeks. This one's serious. Over the past couple weeks I've thought about little else. I've spent almost all my free time reading about it, researching it on the internet, writing about it, having delightfully long conversations about it with other obsessives, and even dreaming about it.

What could be so captivating that it would dominate my waking (and sleeping) life? You may have heard of it: a little series of books about a wizard named Harry Potter. If you've read the books, especially the most recent, you're probably nodding your head in understanding. (In which case, if you want to chat about it, do stop by the store. I'd love to talk to you.) But if you haven't read the books, it may be a little hard to understand how a series of children's books can send a supposedly mature 30-something woman around the bend.

I've always been a big reader. When I was a child, I'd finish one book and immediately start another. It's always been easy to immerse myself in an imaginary world and make myself at home there. But rarely, in all my years of reading, have I found myself in a world as imaginative, as fully developed, with so many wonderful characters to care for, as J.K. Rowling's wizarding world.

Has there ever been a series of kids' books that has ensnared so many grown-ups? Separate adult versions of the books have been released in the U.K.--the only difference is in the cover. I've seen many adults reading these books in public, including some who tried to hide their interest in a kid's book by covering it in brown paper. Many book critics have tried to find a parallel to adult works, proclaiming this or that book "Harry Potter for grown-ups." Stephen King had the best response to them: "I'm thankful that 'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell', by Susanna Clarke, was almost as good as its lyrical first reviews...but it's not Harry Potter for grown-ups, as so many of them said. Harry Potter is Harry Potter for grown-ups, you dweebs."

Rowling's vision has transcended the scope of traditional kids' books. This isn't a normal children's series in which each book can stand alone. Rowling's books are multi-layered and interconnected. A minor detail in one book becomes a major plot point in another. Each book builds upon the next creating connections that are fully realized only later in the series. As Harry's grown the books have grown with him, becoming deeper and darker, emphasizing universal themes--good vs. evil, love, choice, redemption, friendship--that resonate and remind us of, without preaching, what matters. Plus, Rowling has a wonderful imagination and sense of humor. These books are just plain fun.

I've loved these books so much that I finally managed to convince my husband to read them this year. How did he like them? Let's just say that midnight on July 16th (the release date for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) found my normally sensible, stable, reasonable, engineer husband standing in line at Wegmans with me to get our copy. I tried to read the book slowly but finished by Sunday the 17th. Kevin finished by Thursday. I'm actually re-reading the whole series again, looking for clues I missed earlier, based on the new information from this one.

The release of the seventh, and last, book will be bittersweet. As much as I want to learn about Harry and his friends (and the fate of the wizarding world), it will be hard to close this chapter of my life. Good books can do that--transport you to another world and make you believe in them. Based on that criteria, Rowling's Harry Potter books are some of the best.

If nothing else, I hope that, if you've been wavering about reading these books, I've managed to push you over the edge. Go ahead, try a chapter or two. You won't become obsessed. I promise.

(But if you do, at least you'll have two years to catch up before the last one is published.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Cynthia writes:

I have a certain admiration for Wal-Mart. I know that this is not necessarily a popular viewpoint. What I mean is, whenever we move the store around and get fairly large shipments (by that I mean two or three boxes of yarn or fabric, all at the same time), it takes days to get things straightened out. Go to Wal-Mart any night of the week, and you can see young men wheeling skid after skid of merchandise out. Displays have magically moved--conveniently located so you can grab whatever you need for the appropriate season. (This week it's "Back to School," with aisle after aisle, right up front, of notebooks, pens, erasers, paper.) I know that Wal-Mart has many employees to do this. But still.

Last week, we got a shipment of four fairly large boxes that looked like this:

And then we made the back storage area into a real yarn room:

It has taken three full days getting things arranged, one of them a Sunday, with a total of 5 people working on and off, and it's still not quite done.

Wal-Mart never looks very disorganized. Sometimes the aisles are full of shipments, but they're rarely actually messy. I don't know how they do it. I started out my day with the store looking like this:

I hate it when the store looks like this. It's embarrassing. But a big shipment somehow seems to lend itself to this sort of mess. I apologize to every person who comes in. Most customers seem almost delighted to have things out of place: "It looks just like home," they say cheerfully. I appreciate the empathy.

So I worked all day putting up yarn. I kept thinking about how the Yarn Harlot was making cute little insect-like baby booties, and in my head, I, too, made little ladybug and little bee booties. On the outside world, I built little sloping shelves out of grid and tie wraps, little shelves to keep the yarn from plunking to the floor like so many apples.

About 2:00, my mother stopped by. "Do you need an hour's worth of help?" she asked. I love my mother. Yes, and thank you. So we moved all the bulky yarn to the new back room, and we built more little grid shelves, and we put out new yarn. By the end of a couple of hours, it was starting to come together:

My mother is smart and knows when to quit, so she left. I put away a little more yarn, and then finally I, too, had had enough.

I did a few small tasks until it was closing time and one of our quilting teachers, Bobbie, came by to teach a class on quilted letters. Here's what she's working on. It's going to have an M appliqued in the center out of blue and green Oriental fabrics. How beautiful is this going to be?

And Deb, another quilting teacher and longarm quilter, gave me back my quilt top--all quilted. Kim and I had done this one as a class--a mystery quilt for the shop. We gave everyone a clue a month, for 6 months, and they slowly pieced the complex pattern.

[I was to piece ahead so that Kim could show everyone the next step as we went. Most times I cheated and did only a small part of, say, "Step 2," enough that Kim could show the step. As we reached Step 6, I realized that I was realistically on Step 3. By sewing on a Sunday all day until my right eye was twitching, I got it done on time for our Mystery Reunion last week.]

As I was making this quilt, I wasn't sure if I would like the fabrics I chose, but I have to say that in the end, I love it and would change nothing. There's a picture of it on Deb's website. Look under "Customer Quilts, 2005," page 2. You'll also see Peggy's mystery. Different fabrics, different look. These quilts also look different depending on how far away from the quilt you are standing; your eye picks up different patterns. I like stuff like that.

Okay, Kim. Tomorrow is my day off. Tag, you get to figure out where to put the rest of the yarn.

Monday, July 25, 2005

We interrupt the report of the yarn market to announce the latest rearrangement of our shop. The story of this rearrangement does have its origins from yarn market.

You will recall that we made a list of the yarns we needed before we went to market. To foreshadow today's adventures, we bought many of them. We have a small shop. The shop was already full before market.

Day 2 of yarn market has passed, and we have now bought much yarn. (We'll get to that later.) It is 4:30 a.m. Cynthia turns over in her sleep.

Kim: "Are you awake?"

Cynthia: "No."

Kim: "I can't get to sleep."

Cynthia (still not awake): "Why?"

Kim: "I don't know where we're going to put all the yarn."

Cynthia: "Don't worry your pretty blonde head about it."

Kim: "Okay." She falls asleep. Cynthia falls back asleep.

Kim continued to worry her pretty blonde head for the next month, Cynthia to sleep. At the end of June, Kim finally came up with a solution: Move everything out of the back closet, take off the door, and make it a yarn room. Kim is our conceptual thinker.

We did that today, which is Sunday. It was not easy. You see, the back closet had been full when we started. We worked from about 12:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. We had men come in during the afternoon to take off the door, take out fixtures, and put up new lights. (Thank you, Dad and Kevin.)

It must be fun to have a job where you can knit and quilt all day.

We did not think to take the camera to the store today to record our adventures. Trust us that it was a mess for hours. It is still a mess, but by 10:30 tonight it was a workable mess, so we quit. We did listen to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack the entire night, at least four times. As we hauled out trash, arranged quilt batting, and put together wire blocks to hold yarn, the music made us feel as if we were doing something grand--something perhaps even... epic.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Fall Preview 2005 (Part 1)

As shop owners, one of our biggest treats is the chance to attend quilting and knitting markets. These markets are held several times a year, in various locations across the country, and provide shop owners a chance to preview the newest yarn, fabrics, patterns, books, notions, tools, and techniques. In other words, we get to go shopping!

The most recent market that we attended was TNNA (The National Needlework Association) in Columbus, Ohio, in June. This is a huge market for both knitting and needlework and it's where we plan and place our yarn orders for the fall. We wish we could have pictures for you, but they're not allowed. The convention is held on the floor of a huge convention center in center city Columbus.

You need a retailer's badge to get in. The market is made of both yarn and needlework companies; since we don't do needwork at our store, we can skip past a lot of booths. But we still walk for miles on that floor. We've been there twice. Last year, we were completely overwhelmed, but this year we were ready for it, and we knew what we were looking for.

The planning for market begins long before we pack our suitcases and head out. Shoppping for a store is quite different from shopping for a stash. We have to understand our customers, evaluate what sells (and what doesn't), and anticipate trends in our region. In the weeks leading up to TNNA we undertook a thorough evaluation of all the yarns in our shop. We thought about the qualities and types of yarns that work best for the kinds of projects our customers create.

We carry about 100 different types of yarn in our shop, and we ranked them all from best to worst sellers, we evaluated the characteristics of the yarns that were good and poor sellers, and we discovered gaps in our current inventory. We found mainly that clear or bright colors work best in our store. No surprise.

As a result of our analysis, we were on the lookout for a few new things: More variegated, large-needle yarns (Berroco Foliage and Hip Hop, and Lang Tosca were some final winners); a high-quality, D.K.-weight, superwash, merino wool for babies; some yummy alpaca; organic cotton (we get many requests for it); any interesting yarn that is good for felting; and, of course, any new patterns or yarns that we might run across and "need." You have to be flexible in your planning.

We found and have already gotten in our baby yarn. It's called Biberon, by Aurora yarns, and it is incredibly soft, in lovely baby colors; Cynthia's mother has made this adorable yellow sweater from it and has proclaimed that it is one of the best yarns she has ever knitted with. Whew.

We were lucky in that two of the sales representatives from our main companies, Berroco/JCA and Crystal Palace, had come to our store to show us their fall lines the week before the show. We spent the entire day with each sales rep, and placed our fall orders with those companies. That freed up a great deal of time for us to be able to scout new things on the market floor.

By the way, our Foliage and Tosca have also arrived! The beautiful mitered throw sample we have is made from Foliage.

Market opened Saturday, June 11th at 10:00. It takes us about 6 hours to drive to Columbus, and also there was a fashion show and jubilee party the night before so we left Friday morning. After a 40-minute detour (Cynthia had left her suitcase at her house, but didn't realize it until she got to Kim's), we headed out. Despite a few more detours (construction on I-80), we arrived in Columbus with plenty of time to relax before the fashion show.

Yarn companies and pattern designers enter garments in the fashion show to entice us to visit their booths the next day. Cynthia went crazy over a Berroco suede cowgirl jacket. We had already ordered this pattern the week before, and we had ordered Suede in a number of the new colors, including Suede Tricolor, which is a self-striping yarn. Cynthia apparently has a redneck streak in her and cannot seem to forget about this jacket. So when she is done--or at least very far along with--with her new shadow-knitting sweater, her Wool in the Woods Pizazz sweater, her mitered squares sweater, her blue/purple Mango Moon poncho, her Maggie Jackson shawl, and her Manos sweater--older stash and all her quilting projects don't count--you just may see her starting this jacket over the winter. There were many incredible sweaters, wraps, jackets, and felted bags. This is the year of the shrug and the shawl.

Before and after the show there was food. You could get prime-rib sandwiches, veggies and dip, and desserts. More desserts arrived after the fashion show. At first we were excited about the chocolate fountain, where you could dip cookies or pretzels--but it quickly became apparent that we might be wearing chocolate on our good clothes. We went to the other side of the room where waiters were putting out trays of chocolate cake. The waiters could not even get the trays all the way down before all the cake was gone. We felt lucky to be in the right spot at the right time, and we each were able to grab a piece of cake. (It seems obvious from the amount of chocolate available that this is a female-oriented industry.)

In addition to the fashion show, we browsed The Great Wall of Yarn and New Items area, noting booths that we needed to visit.

The Great Wall of Yarn is a large wall of grid, about twice as long as our store, with yarn hanging from almost every company. One the table at one end of the wall, there are packets with lists of company names. Store owners can grab a packet and walk down the wall of yarn, snipping and taping yarn samples into their packets. Last year we went crazy and snipped almost every yarn, but this year we were more experienced and just picked out a few things that seemed as if they had potential for our store.

The New Items area has .... new items! We particularly noticed some beautiful buttons there that we found inside and bought. (They have arrived.) We also found some really cool purse handles; they're clear plastic tubing, and you can run your yarn through them to make fun handles for your felted bags.

Next time: The yarns we thought about or bought.

Cynthia writes:

Kim was out all day today, so I was alone in the store. It was a typical day full of problem solving, but at our slower, summer pace.

The first was a customer who showed us a problem that we had already solved. These are my favorite types of problems. Shirley had come in a few days ago and showed Kim that her serger had chewed up a shirt she was making. Kim found a beautiful fabric that covered the chew mark and made the shirt look even better than the original. Shirley was so happy that she brought Kim a bag of Hershey’s dark chocolate with almonds. I knew that Kim would not want to eat the entire bag by herself, so I did her a favor and had a few pieces. Normally we do not get chocolate for solving problems. That is probably good.

Next problem. A customer wondered how to wind skeins of yarn easily. My solution: An umbrella swift ("reeling machine") and ball ("wool") winder. I have had my own set for about 15 years, since long before owning a shop, and I cannot imagine being a knitter and not having these tools. They are much better than knees or the back of a chair--or even a helpful child. The umbrella swift unfolds like an umbrella, and looks like a Ferris wheel or merry-go-round, depending on which position you prefer. You then use the ball winder to …. well, wind the ball of yarn. Most knitters hate buying these tools because they would rather buy yarn; each part is close to $50. (Kim is always puzzled by this dread of buying the ball winder, given how much quilters spend on their tools—just beginning with sewing machines.) No, a swift and ball winder are not glamorous, but like new tires on a car or the roof of a house, they make life easier.

On we go with more problems. It is midday. Kim calls me in a panic. The Noro Kureyon felted purse that she knit had a dropped stitch in it, and after she started to felt it, she got a runner, just like the runner in a stocking. She is delightfully dramatic: “I might never want to knit again after this!” She was coming to the shop to pick something else up anyway, so she brought it in for me to fix.

Deb was teaching quilting, and she suggested that we add a loop of yarn, and then pick up the stitches. Thanks, Deb. It worked. (And don't you think her student's table runner is charming?)

Kim took the purse home, and later called to report that after the complete felting, the problems were invisible. She will continue knitting. That is what I love about felting: It always felts out.

I had a lull in the afternoon, so I decided to work on a quilted wallhanging. We had run out of my preferred quilt batting, so I decided to use thin garment batting instead. When I started free-motion quilting, the stitches were much bigger than I was used to. It looked awful. I put it aside and will rip it out later, and then use the regular batting. I wrote down “batting” in our order book.

I had two customers this afternoon who wanted to make afghans and needed to know how much yarn to buy. That is always hard. It depends on needle size, afghan size desired, type of yarn used…. Most people don’t use a pattern, which would tell how much yarn to buy; they just want to make a simple garter stitch afghan. Most of the time they choose yarn that bears no resemblance to any pattern we carry. I figured it out for both people, and off they went. I always pray a little bit after people leave in these circumstances. “Please, let me have been right. Or if I was wrong and she needs more yarn, please let us have enough of that color in that dye lot.”

By 5:00, one of our knitting teachers came by, and we spent an hour figuring out what she will teach this fall and when. (Look for cables, Fair Isle, felted mittens, a great technique class on casting on, binding off, and other tricks, plus a nice sampler afghan class.)

She left at 6:00, as my shadow-knitting class came in. This group started in April, and we have all been working out of Vivian Hoxbro’s beautiful book. One of us is making the Rainbow Jacket, one is making the Sawtooth Sweater, and three of us (including me) are making the Block Pullover. The picture you see here is the progress of the sweaters.

Mine is the middle sweater, the one with the strong rainbow. Look closely, and you will see that it was now my turn to have a problem that I needed to solve.

I hadn’t knitted on the sweater for a few weeks. Remember how your English teacher always told you to put away a paper after you wrote it, so you could revise it with a fresh eye? Sometimes when you get away from something, you notice problems that you hadn’t seen before. I looked at my sweater, and instantly I could tell something was wrong. It turned out that I made half my blocks with 5 stripes, and the other half with 6 stripes. We all talked about my problem and what I should do about it, and as we continued to talk it through, the full extent of my problem sank in with all the other knitters, and I had 3 sets of very big eyes staring at me.

I spoke for them: “I have made a pillow.”

The sweater was too far along to bother ripping halfway back. If I had kept it, the shoulders would have been askew. Okay. I admit I was traumatized. It had been a lot of knitting on size 2 needles.

But I had never been totally thrilled with my rainbow anyway. Rainbows, unfortunately, have a tinge of orange in them. I like wearing blues. So I chose new yarns, in a wash of blue-greens, blues, and purples. The great thing about fiber is that you are free make your own rainbow.

And I cast on a new sweater. After everyone left, I got out the sewing machine, and I made the pillow.

It’s better this way. Really. We now have a sample of shadow knitting right in the shop, so I don’t have to bring my sweater back and forth to show people, and in the end, I will have a sweater with colors I like better. I was having a blast making the sweater, so I don’t mind working more on shadow knitting. Most of all, I was relieved that I didn’t have to tell anyone else what I had to tell myself—that the sweater was not salvagable.

I should not say this aloud, because I know that there are those knitters who like knitting pillows—and I think it’s fine if a knitter likes knitting pillows—some of my best friends like knitting pillows—but although I do not mind owning pillows, I truly hate knitting pillows. The truth of the matter is that I only like knitting socks and sweaters. It is my blessed fortune that I never knew I was knitting a pillow. I thought all along, blissfully, that it was a sweater. There is love knitted into this pillow, and in a pillow, the orange looks great. Everything always works out the right way in the end. Check out the shadow checks. How cool is that?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

We’re Cynthia and Kim—the owners of a small but charming (most days) quilting and knitting store in Pine Grove Mills, PA. You’ve probably never heard of Pine Grove Mills, but it’s about 10 minutes from Penn State University, smack in the center of Pennsylvania (in the Northeastern United States).

We started our blog to tell the stories of our shop; it’s been interesting to run a shop, and we thought people might like to know more about what it’s like. We don’t do e-commerce yet, but we hope that if you’re in the area, you’ll stop by to see us! Our website is

How did we get our start? Although most people think we are lifelong friends, we only met a couple of years before we opened our shop. Kim was muddling through possible career changes and stumbled into a class taught by Cynthia at Penn State. We bonded immediately through our mutual love of fibers—Kim was a passionate quilter and Cynthia a longtime knitter. We started teaching quilting and knitting in a local shop and considered forming a business partnership someday. When the owner suddenly retired and closed her shop, we saw our opportunity. We took the plunge and leased the space. Two busy years later—here we sit in colorful, friendly, creative quilting and knitting shop.

For many people, owning a shop is a lifelong dream. We agree that it is a dream, but we have to admit that neither of us had ever planned on this career. It happened more by serindipity. We took the path that seemed to open when we arrived there. (Cynthia: “About 20 years ago, I read a book called Running Your Own Store. It made me never want to run a business.")

What’s it like owning a shop? We do spend a little time sewing or knitting, but not much during the work day. Believe it or not, about 95 percent of our time is spent on these tasks:

1. Helping people. That part is fun. We do a lot of problem solving all day.

2. Doing accounting. That is not fun—but it can get interesting.

3. Putting away shipments of yarn and fabric. This is like Christmas when you actually open the boxes, and like the day after Christmas when you’re trying to find places to put it.

We sew and knit mostly at home on our days off, just like everyone else.

Right now, we’re in the middle of rearranging the shop for fall, so we’re spending a lot of time figuring out how to do that. We have a lot of new yarns and fabrics coming in, and it’s always a challenge figuring out where to put them in our little store! We’re also planning to be vendors at Stitches East in Atlantic City this fall, at Knitter’s Day out in October, and at the Centre Pieces quilt show in October, so we’re also trying to figure out how to do all of that. We’ll keep you posted.