Sewing up new markets


Sew Country owner Sheila Cornett (left) assists customer Laura Burns of Pringle SD in selecting quilt fabric and kits. Cornett has operated her store in downtown Belleville for nearly 25 years, which serves as a destination for fiber art enthusiasts from around the country. She also sends fabrics and kits on a daily basis to international customers through an eBay partnership with her sisters.

Quilt store caters to local, national and international customers from downtown storefront

By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor

It’s a typical business day at Sew Country in Belleville.

As store owner Sheila Cornett waits on Laura Burns of Pringle SD, Christine Strutt is helping Cornett cut quilt fabric destined for Germany, London or the Russian Federation.

“She (Cornett) sends fabric to places I’ve never even heard of,” says Strutt. “I was amazed.”

Sew Country, which marked its 23rd year in business in September, tapped into a national quilting trend early that shows no sign of slowing. A 2014 Quilting in America survey shows that quilters in the United States spend $3.76 billion a year on fiber arts, a 5% increase in the value of the market over the last four years. The average quilting household expenditure has increased 36% in that same time frame.

The survey also shows that there are more than 16 million active quilters, or one out of every 20 Americans.

Burns fits the profile of many of Sew Country’s customers. Pringle is located just south of Mount Rushmore, and Burns and her husband were enroute to Joplin MO to watch their son run cross country.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been in Belleville,” Burns said, but planned their trip itinerary around Sew Country and other quilt stores along the way. “There are a lot of really nice quilt stores, and I like to see the different fabrics they each have.”

Burns was drawn to Sew Country because it participates in the Row by Row Experience, a national promotion in which each store owner creates a special pattern and fabric kit that customers can turn into a quilt. The first customer to return to each shop with a completed quilt of at least eight “rows” wins 6 1/2 yards of fabric from that store.

“I’ve had about 150 people participate in Row by Row this summer, and people came in from every state in the nation and Canada,” Cornett says.

Customers like Burns must visit the shop in person to receive the pattern–and they usually find other kits and fabric to take home, Cornett says. At least two or three times a week Cornett says she meets customers like Burns– quilters who have never been to Belleville before but come specifically to visit the quilt shop.

Row by Row is just one of the many events Sew Country hosts through the year. Three “shop hops” each year, a cooperative effort of quilt stores in Kansas and Nebraska, introduce many first-time customers to Cornett’s store. Many of those shoppers become regulars, she says, making special trips to Belleville to browse the 6,000 bolts of fabric, along with patterns, tools, kits and gift items that stock her shelves.

“Most of my regular customers come from a hundred mile radius,” she says. “We have customers from Salina and Smith Center and Lincoln NE who come pretty regularly.” One of her more popular events is $5 Quilt held every third Saturday. “We have people come to Belleville every month from Clay Center, Concordia, Clifton, Linn and Hebron for $5 quilt,” she says.

National, international shipping

For many years, Sew Country attracted orders from across the nation through its website. Several years ago, Cornett partnered with her sisters, Lori and Natalie, on an eBay auction site:

That partnership introduced Cornett to a wider national and international audience, and new markets for out-of print fabric that once filled her clearance racks.

“There has been a huge demand for pre-cuts,” she says. Pre-cuts include a wide range of 5” squares, 10” squares of fabric, or 2 1/2” wide strips known as charm packs, layer cakes and jelly rolls.

“We get a lot of orders from Australia, and places like Switzerland, and the Czech Republic,” Cornett says.

While some of her staff members spend their time cutting, assembling and mailing fabric, others, including Cornett herself, keep the quilting machine humming downstairs. The long arm quilting machine is a 10’ long device in the lower level of the store that joins a finished quilt top with batting and backing.

Cornett says she fills a niche for a growing segment of the population. “Baby boomers have attained retirement with more disposable income and more leisure time,” she says. “Their kids are grown, and they want to pursue creative hobbies and interests.”