Ellen Baker of The Long Thread {Podcast Episode #135}

Today’s guest is Ellen Baker of the Long Thread. Living in Atlanta, Georgia, Ellen started her blog in 2007 to chronicle her creations, connect with the larger community and share her designs. She went on to write both 1,2, 3 Sew and 1, 2, 3 Quilt as well as design fabrics for Kokka Fabrics.

During our discussion, we talk about her design process, including how she uses other mediums such as paper cutting, embroidery and stamping to create unique images.

We talk about her sheep design and how that came to be a piece of fabric.

Based on Ellen’s fabric design experience, we talk about the changes (and lack thereof in the industry), the recent acquisition of Free Spirit Fabrics, the issue of cultural appropriation, and ways to revitalize the industry. We also delve into the therapeutic power of making, crafting as a “feminist act”, and how she shares her passion in her work.

Notes from the Show:

Ellen Baker’s blog: The Long Thread

Ellen’s books: 1, 2, 3 Sew and 1, 2, 3 Quilt

Kokka Fabrics (where Ellen designs fabrics)

Dropcloth Sampler

Christian Robinson (guest designer for Cotton + Steel Fabrics)

Social Justice Sewing Academy

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Comments 4

  1. Really enjoyed this interview. The issues the discussion ranged over were interesting and authentic. I like how you don’t discuss quilting or fiber arts in vacuum but always have grounded in the industry and community as a whole.

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      Thank you, Alison! To me, quilting and fiber arts are often representative of our larger community and hope it can be seen in that context.

  2. I have been listening to your podcasts over the last year after I bought a fabric store on Bainbridge Island. I am mainly a garment sewer, but 50-60% of the business of the store is quilting. I have done art quilts and improv quilts for family and friends over the years, but did not really see myself as a quilter. I taught myself to piece traditionally by designing a block of the month for beginner quilters (that was enough traditional piecing for me though, although I am an engineer, I find the exact cutting tedious, so I am heading back to improv!).

    I LOVED this podcast and the section where you and Ellen discussed the industry really resonated with me. Before I left engineering to have children, a big part of my research was design for environment. I have been really disheartened to see that so much of the principles that we developed in the 90s have been ignored and we are producing more waste at a faster rate now more than ever, especially with the online businesses. It is almost as we are in an addictive shopping frenzy that we can’t quit. I am pulled in different directions owning a fabric store. I have to sell fabric to stay in business, but yet there is so much junk out there going to waste….

    So my philosophy has been to buy the highest quality fabric that we can and curate what we buy. I typically choose fabrics with my employees, so that we have different points of view on what we should buy. I jokingly say in my newsletters that if it was up to me the whole store would be filled with green and blue fabrics (although persimmon is currently my new favorite color). We try hard to choose fabric that our customers will love. I stock organic fabrics, but only those that we think we can sell. I have definitely made some bad buys, but I think a few dogs will be inevitable.

    I have made a choice to eliminate Mexican “oilcloth” from our store. Although popular, the stuff is rolled poison for the people who make it Mexico, the staff and myself who have to cut the stuff and smell it, and the users who feed their children and grandchildren on the stuff. I have lost a few sales over it, but overwhelmingly, when I explain why we got rid of it, people seem happy to know that I have researched the materials and made a good choice for health and the environment. We got rid of polyester/acrylic fleece for the same reasons. We carry only organic cotton fleece which is three times the price. I know that many people will head to a big box store to buy the cheap stuff, but I explain why I don’t carry it (microfibers getting into oceans and moving up the food chain so that we end up eating it, yuk!).

    I do have a few complaints that I don’t carry this or that in a collection, and I have customers that still buy online from fabric.com. We stopped carrying multipacks of Olfa blades because Amazon sells them for $2 more than we can buy them at wholesale!

    So what do we sell? We sell a curated collection of lovely and surprising quilt fabrics that we hope are unique. We try and find things that other local stores don’t carry. We sell beautiful garment fabrics that you can’t buy online, although some of them you can….We sell exceptional customer service, and we take the time to help pick out patterns, fabric and notions and if a customer has problems they come to us for help. We try to build loyalty through being helpful and friendly and knowledgable. We reach out to the community and the local schools. I have helped with the sewing program in the middle school. I carry bolts of fabric into the school so that the kids can choose the fabric they want to use for their aprons. We have meetings in the store for the ASG, and we have an Alabama Chanin sewing group. We teach sewing lessons for all ages starting at 7 years old. And we are starting to host nationally recognized teachers, our first was Karen Le page and the next is Kathy Doughty.

    I am sorry, this note is beginning to sound like a sales pitch. I didn’t mean it to be, but I was really interested to hear yours and Ellen’s take on how the quilt industry is not keeping up with the times. I see that in the push to get us to buy four times a year. I can’t sell that much fabric. We are very selective about what we buy and it must be good quality. We dropped a line of solids recently because there quality was so shoddy and I send three bolts back to a distributor because I bought it without seeing it online and it was of such poor quality that I told them I couldn’t sell it.

    I have rambled enough, but I wanted to thank you for the conversation about the environment and our impact upon it. It is something I think about a lot. (we just had a trashion show just after earth day…. what fun, includes repurposed fashion which I always participate in….)

    If you are going to quilt market in Portland, I would love to meet you. Please take a look at our website esthersfabrics.com

    Thanks for reading this long rambling post and keep the lovely podcasts coming, I have learned a lot by listening.

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      Thank you for your story! It’s really wonderful to hear that store owners can be successful by developing their own niche and sticking to it. I will be at Portland Market and look forward to meeting you. Please say hi if you see me too!


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