Dairy producers transition to quilts

Ardelle and Roger Kerr turned a corner of their Quilting From the Heart store in Camrose, Alta., fabric store into a studio to teach classes online after COVID-19 changed the way businesses are run. The studio’s backdrop is a series of quilts that the couple made. | MARY MACARTHUR PHOTOS

Alberta couple says their new business shares many similarities with the farm where they once ran a dairy operation

CAMROSE, Alta. — Running a quilting store and a dairy farm have plenty in common, according to Roger and Ardelle Kerr.

A store ties you down, just like a dairy. It’s hard work that can be as never-ending as you want, it’s a large investment and both places encourage families to work together, they said.

“When we farmed, our kids saw us working. When we were here at the store, we worked together and our kids saw us working together. Even now our two grandchildren are here most of the day and they are here watching us work,” said Ardelle.

“There is no way to get rich. Maybe like farming, if we ever sold it we would get rich, but we don’t plan on doing that. The kids will take it over,” said Roger of their Quilting From The Heart store in Camrose.

“In so many ways they are similar, at least for us.”

With Roger working on the dairy farm with his brother, Ardelle was not needed on the farm and began teaching sewing classes. What started as an off -handed comment that she couldn’t get good fabric for her quilting classes turned into the store.

“In an incredible moment of weakness, I said, ‘why don’t we open a quilt store.’ So, six months later we did,” said Roger, who was still milking cows on the family dairy farm outside Camrose.

“It was him who said we should open a quilt store and him who made the business plan,” said Ardelle, pointing to Roger.

Product samples help customers choose what they would like to buy in the store. | MARY MACARTHUR PHOTOS

In 2000, the couple opened the quilting shop with the help of a quilt-loving banker.

For eight years, Ardelle ran the store, taught classes, ordered fabric and kept on top of quilting trends. During the farm’s quiet times, Roger would help in the store, do the books, help customers and ensure the store stayed on budget.

“His skills are financial and mine are more creative. He’s become very creative since,” she said.

Added Roger: “The big thing is budgets, controlling how much you are going to spend. Like everything. It is easier to spend it than to make it. We really kept a handle on fabric buying, especially in the beginning.”

When Roger and Ardelle returned to the farm from teaching school in Saskatchewan, they increased the dairy herd from 30 to 50 cows. At the time, it was a good size to support two families. But, 15 years later, after drought and BSE, the dairy needed to expand once again, or wind down.

“There was no way we could expand. We didn’t have the land base and couldn’t afford the quota and cows, and we really didn’t want to,” said Roger.

In 2008, with the cows sold, Roger joined Ardelle full-time in the store.

Together, the couple travelled across North America learning about the latest quilting trends, taking courses, buying fabric and meeting other quilters and store owners.

During a trip to Pittsburgh, the couple bought their first long-arm machine, a specialized machine that can sew both sides of the quilt and its interior together with intricate designs.

Ardelle had been diagnosed with breast cancer a year earlier and was struggling to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy and the store. The long-arm allowed her to be part of the store and once again focus on her creativity.

While many long-arm machines are now computerized and a design is programmed into the machine, when Ardelle began, most of the designs were sewn into the quilt freehand.

“It was practice, practice, practice, looking at what you like, studying other people, taking lots of classes,” she said.

Ardelle taught herself to draw to help figure out the design process and took a few early internet courses.

“That was 10 years ago. Now if you want to learn something it’s easy to find on the internet. There was very little online then,” said Roger.

The former school teachers also learned quickly the importance of teaching quilting classes to help their customers learn basic and advanced quilting techniques. The back of the store was transformed into a classroom. When COVID-19 shut down or limited many businesses, the couple set up a studio in the corner of their classroom and began teaching courses online.

“As soon as COVID hit we knew we would have to do something to help and we started to do videos three times a week and taught basic quilting on Facebook, which are still up for customers to watch,” she said.

“Especially during COVID we got a whole whack of young customers looking for something to do. Some of the young people wanted to go back to the basics, to be local, to be self-sustaining.”

Their early technology adoption with a good website also helped the store through the difficult times.

More than 2,000 fabrics for sale in the store are also posted on the website. Every new bolt of cloth received in the store is catalogued and posted on their website for their online customers from around the world.

Each day, the couple measure, cut, fold and package orders of fabric and notions. On this day, six quilters have ordered all the fabric in one of the latest design collections.

Quilt designers create designs and fabric in colours and patterns that work well together. Customers may then order a quarter, or half metre from each colour along with the pattern, and create their own quilt from the new fabric.

“The quilting industry is run by quilt fabric designers. They make collections of fabrics with 10 to 40 fabrics that work together,” said Roger.

In the store, dozens of quilts hang on the wall, on the end of shelves and behind the counters. The finished quilts inspire customers to buy the required fabric and pattern and recreate the quilt at home.

The couple markets on social media but they know they also need to provide a destination store for quilters.

“We’re selling entertainment. Nobody has to quilt. People do it because they want to. You’re selling entertainment so you’ve got to keep it fun. It has to be a welcoming friendly place you enjoy coming to. We try to do that,” he said.

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