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Austin, Texas, and The Hill Country

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By Lynn Holland

Texans always seem to do things in a big way, and their interest in quilting is no exception. Since the state is so huge, the range and number of its quilt stores make it a continuing draw to the avid fabric artist. After all, the annual Houston Quilt Market and Show are a must for the professional quilter, and many of the local shows have displays and an array of vendors that could rival any show in the country.

This trip, we ventured to Austin, and the Hill Country that is just a short drive south of Texas' capitol city. Luckily, we arrived a few days in advance of the area's second annual Bluebonnet Patchwork Trail shop hop, so all the stores were in full bloom, and eagerly awaiting the influx of hop shoppers. A central feature each year is the Hop Quilt. Each store offers a different piece of the quilt, and by the time you visit all nine stores you have the complete pattern and instructions. As an added attraction, each store displayed its own interpretation of the Bluebonnet Patchwork Quilt.

Our first stop was at The Quilt Store in Austin (2700 W Anderson Ln # 301 Austin, TX 78757, (512) 453-1145. Tucked back in a cleverly constructed strip mall, this split-level store has lots of space for the miles of fabric and other goodies that stock the shelves. In addition to the expected super selection of calicos, they also have silks and velvets to accommodate the crazy quilter. Although the owner Laurie Evans was not in the day we visited, we were warmly welcomed by Melissa and resident cat, Chaco. (Named for a nearby canyon, we understand.)

There were samples everywhere, and classes to accompany many of the items hung throughout. The "Only One Block" quilt caught my eye, since I'm always looking for the quick project. This is a bed-size quilt based on a traditional block but "blown up" to sixty inches. Too much fun! The class for this is just four hours, but what results!

Speaking of classes, the newsletter lists a nice mix of traditional hand offerings along with the newfangled options. The newsletter itself is quite distinctive, complete with unique Victorian, art deco and vintage fashion graphics. Although not there in person, Laurie's personality was evident throughout the store in the adorable tins, bags of quilt candy and quilt-related gift items that she stocks. Both Mary Englebreit and Debbie Mumm are represented in the offerings, but my favorite item were the shop's exclusive T-shirts, featuring Victorian ladies in a suffragette pose wielding rotary cutters! Naturally, I bought a bright turquoise one, which wound up with my DIL because they were all out of size Scrawny.

Looking around for lunch choices in the mall, we passed on the florid Mexican place which looked fabulous but too filling for our usual lunchtime appetites, and stopped at the San Francisco Sandwich Shop for something lighter than tamales.

No longer famished, we ventured on to Gem Fabrics on the north side of town, which has been in business for over 50 years (13776 N Highway 183 # 142, Austin, TX 78750, (512) 258-8061). They are deeply entrenched in the quilting community, supporting charity donation quilt events, classes, workshops with nationally known teachers and even sponsoring a Future Quilters of America club. This store is also in a shopping center, and the store itself is loaded with samples, kits, gifts, displays and more. My favorites were the Rumpled Quilt Skins, adorable crinkled fabric beasties displayed in aquarium settings. There were tables heaped with fabric gift choices, and , showing their years of knowledge and experience with fabric lovers, offer cookbooks "for quilters' husbands". There are numerous block-of-the-month opportunities, and the Future Quilters group was focusing on a Sunbonnet Sue theme for its year-long project. The newsletter is a twelve-page tabloid- style presentation, packed with classes. Judging from the number of customers in the shop on a weekday afternoon, this store deservedly has a large, loyal following.

We spent the night at a Bed and Breakfast known as the Strickland Arms in the historic Hyde Park district. Staying there was sort of like dropping in on friends. The wraparound porch on the large old house was strewn with bags of grass seed, fertilizer, and assorted junk. The grounds were lovely in an overgrown sort of way, with ornate statuary of naked Italianate ladies providing focal points among the greenery. In the morning, after a very nice breakfast of fruit and muffins, we set out for yet another Austin shop, Homestead Sewing and Quilting, out on Farm Maintenance Road 812. From the map, it appeared to be a substantial drive away from the central city, but we have found many quilt store gems down dirt roads, so we set out. As it happens, we should have used the cell phone first instead of last. After another one of the travelling quilter's wild rides, we found the address. Sharing a manufactured building with an auto body shop what used to be Homestead Sewing and Quilting now ha d a sign that said "Broken Butt Saloon." Since there were no signs of life, it appears the saloon didn't survive in that location either! I called the number listed in my Quilter's Travel Companion, and talked to the owner, who told me that due to the illness of her mother, she has closed the storefront and operates her business from her home. Well, at least we got to see another side of Austin!

Driving to Hill Country, we did find great success in New Braunfels, a popular little town with a postcard-from-yesteryear look. Nestled in the center of this quaint village is Millstream Cottons, a stone and stucco treasure box. The store was dressed up for the Shop Hop, and its beautiful natural wood shelves were stuffed with beautiful fabrics. I had to have a "Texas to Go," a mini-wall embroidery and quilting kit, neatly tucked inside a bright blue Chinese take-out box. The store carries loads of local patterns and some stunning handmade buttons. The quaint building is a n appropriate backdrop for the distinctive taste of the owner. This store has lots of wearables, quilt themed gifts, and judging from the newsletter, lots of local talent offering classes and kits. This shop struck me as a real "Texas" store-- lots of emphasis on the uniqueness of the region.

Just down the road (and directly across from the awe-inspiring waterpark, Schlitterbahn) is The Quilt Barn, another Hill Country original (186 E Garden St, New Braunfels, TX 78130, (830) 620-5810). An original '30s grandmother's flower garden top was sitting in a quilt frame in the entrance to this log-beamed house. Here, an old farmhouse table is used for cutting and a tin chandelier provides illumination. There are jars of "quilt jelly," lovely handmade gifts and lots of fabric. Owner Barbara Sloane "retired" from a nursing career to open this shop. At first she lived on the premises and was pretty much open 24/7 ("Since you're there, you wouldn't mind if I just ran over and bought another yard of the border fabric so I could finish my quilt, would you?") Although this was probably a dream come true for her customers, it was little overwhelming for Barbara, who now lives away from the "Barn." People who love the Quilt Barn serve as clerks and teachers, and help give this shop its wo nderful "family" feel. We loved the bluebonnet wallhanging and had a great time visiting with everyone at the store. Classes range from the traditional (Fun Day with Applique) to the modern (Stack and Whack) If you're planning a Texas vacation, remember that the Schlitterbahn is right across the street to provide amusement for husbands and kids!

The problem with Texas for us is that there's always another (and another) shop to visit. We HAD to go to Leon Springs, not just for one more store but also for the famous Rudy's Barbecue. Family legend has it that my brother-in-law once went to Rudy's to get takeout brisket for dinner, but by the time he made the 20-minute drive back home, he and my nephew had nothing left. Although as a Georgian, barbecue means pork to me, in Texas, it's beef. And if you're going to have barbecue, well, it has to be Rudy's. Since we had already committed to a barbecue run, of course we had to stop at the shop right across the street, Sew Special ( 1014 N Main St., Boerne, TX 78006 (830) 249-8038). And Sew Special is aptly named. It was the first day of the Shop Hop, and the store was buzzing with activity. Sew Special is spacious and gracious, with some of the most original fabric selections and original designs we've seen. I was ready to move westward just so I could take Linda Heatherly's monthly InVESTments class. Her April selection was based on the Alamo and it was fabulous. There is an emphasis on wearables at SS, and fabric offerings to match. Everyone working there that day had on something to die (or is it dye?) for, and there were many samples throughout the store.

SS is also a Bernina dealer, and has a service technician with very unusual credentials. Terry Linnell not only sews and smocks, but she once repaired B-52 bombers while in the Air Force!

In the back room were clearance specials and refreshments. The old home week feel was apparent, and many shop hoppers were greeting each other with big hugs. A local guild had a raffle quilt on display and sold chances. And the refreshments! We enjoyed some of the best homemade goodies we had tasted in ages, probably when the ladies of Geraldine, Alabama held their library benefit during the Quilts on the Farm event six or seven years ago.

We had such fun at the hop at Sew Special that we were sorry we didn't plan to be there during the rest of the event.

Of the nine shops participating, we managed to visit five. We skipped the San Antonio stores since we had visited before, although we are always anxious for a return trip, especially to Las Colchas. The real disappointment was that we did not have time for a drive to Kerrville to check out the fabled Creations-- maybe next time. As we said, in Texas, there's always one more store!

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