Patchwork plan

After a popular shop closed, Blue Bar Quilts owner created a niche in Middleton.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Madison area quilters may well know Gael Boyd, owner of Blue Bar Quilts in Middleton, from her previous days as an employee at Stitcher’s Crossing on Mineral Point Road. In 2015, Stitcher’s Crossing closed, leaving a palpable void in the area’s quilting community.

Boyd, an affable seamstress and long-arm quilter — referring to a large, industrial quilting machine, not a physical attribute — said she was encouraged by former customers to open her own shop. Admittedly, she had toyed with the idea, but was hesitant about managing employees.

Eventually, she hired her friends, Julie Cowing and Diana Greenberg, and now employs 13 other part-time workers since opening in April 2017.

“I had no interest in keeping books or anything like that,” she laughs, thinking back. “I was an English major who never became a teacher, but I had worked in customer service and retail since my late teens. I knew how I wanted to handle a business from that standpoint.”

Enrolling in classes at UW–Madison’s Small Business Development Center helped allay any fears Boyd had. Even the process of securing a $130,000 Small Business Association loan, she recalls, wasn’t as difficult as she thought it might be. “It was a process,” she says, “but not unwieldy.”

Boyd hired an attorney to work out the details of her lease and negotiate the 5,600-square-foot store’s build-out, and she established a home equity line of credit. Greenberg is the business manager, while Cowing is Boyd’s retail manager.

She’s learned a lot, too, including more than she ever thought she’d learn about inventory management. “Running a business has nothing to do with the passion part of it, but I knew that,” she admits.

Boyd’s sewing skills began around the age of eight under her grandmother’s watchful eye, but she didn’t begin quilting until much later — 1995, in fact — thanks to her aunt, an award-winning quilter.

In her business plan, Boyd decided to focus on quilting rather than both quilting and sewing because she’d observed her previous employer spreading herself too thin. “It’s difficult to do either well in one space with one budget,” she explains. “You have to do one thing really well and provide stellar customer service.”

Perhaps that’s why Blue Bar Quilts is in the black after just two years, quickly exceeding Boyd’s initial goal of five to seven years. Her focus now is on increasing retail and online sales.

Blue Bar Quilts does not stock any reproduction or traditional fabrics but offers modern fabrics made by modern fabric designers and contemporary graphic artists. It’s all an attempt to woo a younger demographic, but baby boom women (and a few men) remain the shop’s primary customers.

Blue Bar Quilts is one of a handful of quilt shops in the greater Madison area, although the number of individual quilters has risen dramatically. As shops go, Boyd says each has its own niche. Many are also sewing machine dealerships, which she’s trying to avoid, saying it changes a shop’s focus and increases overhead. “My focus has always been to have a great selection of fabrics and classes.”

The large space includes a classroom that can accommodate 20 portable sewing machines; a display gallery for showcasing quilts from traveling challenge quilt shows; a maker’s gallery where artwork is sold on consignment, from jewelry to stained glass to handmade baskets; and a wet studio used for fabric dying and classes.

It also hosts nationally renowned speakers for artisans or hobbyists anxious to learn a new technique, for a fee. Another popular event includes late-night sewing parties from 6 p.m. to midnight for $20, which usually includes pizza.

Boyd, a Massachusetts native who moved to Madison in 2008 after living in New Hampshire, sounds surprisingly Midwestern. “My accent is intentional,” she laughs. “I’ve been cultivating my non-New England accent, but I may still have a little more of that East Coast edginess.”

Blue Bar Quilts Inc.
6333 University Ave., #105
Middleton, WI 53562
(608) 284-9299

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