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The Traveling Quilter: Quilt Shops in Greater Chicago

Many quilters try to fit visits to local quilt shops into business trips. This presents certain logistical challenges, both in the allocation of time and the availability of transportation. In most big cities, there are few or no traditional quilt stores in the downtown area, where professional meetings and conferences are typically held. If your company hasn’t sprung for a rental car, you pretty much have to rent one yourself if you don’t want to spend hours on buses that don’t go exactly where you need them to.

Lynn recently attended a large professional meeting at the Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago, and I decided to join her for the latter part of the week and extend our visit through the weekend, to visit some quilt stores and other cultural attractions of America’s “Second City.” Neither of us had ever been in Chicago before, except for airport layovers through the years, and we were looking forward to getting acquainted with the city, even if it was late February.

In preparation, we flipped through our handy quilt shop guide, The Quilter’s Travel Companion, and found 23 shops listed in northeastern Illinois in the Chicago area. Clearly we weren’t going to be able to visit them all during our short stay, so we identified a cluster of five of them in the near suburbs of Batavia, Naperville, Lisle, and Wheaton, based on their descriptions in the QTC and on the recommendations of our friend Barb Vlack, who lives in St. Charles.

One of the things that quickly dawns on you as you drive out of the inner city into the western suburbs is that this is a big place. Although Lake Michigan prevents expansion of the metropolitan area to the east, the western side opens into the great American prairie, giving the city plenty of space to sprawl. We drove out about 30 miles to Batavia, Illinois to visit our first shop, Windmill City Quilts, which is in the lower floor of a charming two-story building facing the Fox River. (3 Webster St., Batavia, IL 60510, (630) 482-2984, http://www.wcquilts.com) Above it is a local ice cream shop called “Al’s Café and Creamery,” which makes it a popular spot around lunchtime, although Al’s seemed to be closed the day we were there.

Owned by Robin Saunders, and recently sold to a new owner, Tammy Rice, Windmill City Quilts is a well-lit, roomy shop of some 2400 square feet, containing about 3500 bolts of fabric artfully arranged throughout. Quilts hang down from the high ceiling, draped over PVC pipe. Like most of the shops we visited in the Chicago area, Windmill City didn’t exhibit a strong preference for any particular style – country or contemporary – but had a balance of fabric types ranging from Hoffman batiks to Debbie Mumms. Like many quilt shops these days, they featured a large and varied selection of flannel fabrics. The shop features its own line of quilt patterns, and has a flair for creative display, with books and patterns grouped with appropriate fabrics throughout the store, rather than being divided strictly into “departments.” Overall the feel is one of richness, but the store doesn’t seem the least cluttered.

In the back is a good-sized classroom equipped with tables, a design wall, and lots of quilts around for inspiration. The class offerings, as outlined in their nicely produced newsletter, feature a wide variety of experiences, from beginner selections on basics, color confidence, rotary cutting, etc. to more advanced sessions on hand quilting, appliqué, binding, and trapunto. Several classes on wearables are also offered. In a nice touch, classes and supplies are discounted early in the sign-up period to encourage early registration. The shop also offers class registrants an opportunity to “try out” Pfaff sewing machines, a clever and low-key way to familiarize quilters with a new machine. If none of the classes is what you want, you can also attend “Sit ‘n Sew” Night for four hours on a Friday night and bring a project of your own.

Windmill City is obviously a well-run shop, with lots of attention paid to detail. Hopefully the new owner comes in with the same commitment and energy.

The QBU Prairie Shop (1911 W. Wilson St., Batavia, IL 60510, Telephone (630) 406-0237, http://www.qbuprairieshop.com), our next stop, was nearby in Batavia, but a little hard to spot in its strip mall at a major intersection. We drove by it several times before spying it beside the Ace Hardware, but backtracking in a strange city is more the rule than the exception on our quilt shop trips! Owned by Karen and Paul Lukac, this 3000-square-foot store is chock full of fabric and books. It boasts some 3,400 bolts of fabric of all styles, and 1,500 books, one of the largest quilt book selections we’ve encountered. But then “QBU” stands for Quilt Books Unlimited. There is a generous selection of patterns, including some really cute folk doll patterns.

A roomy classroom with lots of samples displayed and clearly labeled on the walls is the place where local quilters can take a wide variety of classes, including a good selection of Electric Quilt tutorials by Barb Vlack. Other creative offerings include Stack ‘n Whack, Buttons and Bow Ties, and Color Theory. One of the things that sets this store apart is that they also have a bead department, and offer beading classes. Their inventory includes hundreds of Japanese and Czech beads, with books and other beading supplies, and they offer at least 10 beading classes, including a Basic Beading Demo. In a clever crossover, one of the beading classes makes a quilt block bracelet from a pattern designed exclusively for the shop.

The Prairie Shop has the wonderful feel of personal eccentricity, reflecting the passions of its owners and their desire to share them with their customers.

Usually we try to find a charming place for lunch in our wanderings, but since our sojourn was taking longer than planned, and we seemed to be in the Land Of Strip Malls, we ate a hurried meal at a local White Castle (an experience in itself!) and then moved on to Naperville, where we knew from Barb Vlack that we were to encounter the “Mother of All Quilt Shops” in the Chicago area. Stitches-N-Stuffing (790 Royal St. George Dr., #119, Naperville, IL 60563, Telephone (630) 420-7050, http://www.stitchesnstuffing.com) is a huge quilt store and Bernina dealer that was very busy when we visited, and had lots of help manning cutting tables and cash registers. We wandered around the store, snapping a few pictures for this review, and marveling at the comprehensiveness of their selections, when we were suddenly in the presence of the owner, Beryl “Sue” Coulson, who politely inquired as to exactly what we were up to. When we explained that we were from Planet Patchwork, her face relaxed into a smile and we had a long conversation about the store, its history and its future. Sue runs the store with the assistance of her daughter, Sarah (who was in the back, crunching numbers), and is very proud of its success. It is one of the largest volume Bernina dealers in the country, and located as it is only a few miles from Bernina’s U.S. headquarters in Aurora, IL, it is a destination for many would-be dealers and Bernina VIPs in the area. The store even has its own full-time Bernina repairman, who has his workshop in the front of the store in a window.

Beyond the heavy emphasis on Bernina, the store is quite remarkable for the breadth and depth of its fabric, notion, and book offerings, and its attractive layout and design. There are more than 4,000 bolts of fabric, which tilt toward country and primitive styles more than the other stores we’d visited, and a whole large room full of quilt patterns. Shop samples and displays spill over with wearables, dolls, Santas, books, fat quarters, baskets, and batting. The shop’s several large classrooms will seat more than 100 quilters in a large variety of quilt class offerings, and 33 part-time employees make sure there are no long waits at the cutting tables.

The store’s newsletter is a 16-page newsprint tabloid offering some 70 classes, not just in quilting, but in such other needlecrafts as embroidery, cross-stitch, and serging. Bernina machines are available for use in classes (and classroom machines are periodically available for sale at a discount). Thinking ahead to the future of quilting, the shop also offers classes in their Kids’ Club, as well as a Birthday Sewing Party, at which up to seven children make a project they can take home. In addition, the store sponsors classes for beginners and others to make quilts to donate to local charities. Once the quilter finishes the quilt and turns it in, she gets a store certificate for the cost of the class.

In another original twist, Stitches-N-Stuffing does a garage sale each year to clear out their older merchandise. Held off-site, and accepting only cash and checks, the garage sale is quite the quilting event. In 2003 it is being held on May 30 (more details at the store website).

After a pleasant half-hour with Sue, it was getting late and we had more shops to visit, so said our good-byes and headed out for Pieceful Heart Fabrics (2723 Maple Avenue, Lisle, IL, Telephone (630) 718-0112). We once again had a little trouble spotting it tucked away in the corner of a strip mall, but once we got the street numbers sorted out we nosed our way toward it. Pieceful Heart is about as different a quilt store as there could be from Stitches-N-Stuffing. Relatively small, it had an intimacy that was appealing, and it was obviously very popular in the area, as it was FULL of customers. Beyond size, the owners’ taste in fabrics was completely different than any other shop we’d encountered, tending toward high-contrast, bold and bright colors, Bali batiks (including an unusual collection of batik flannels!), fossil ferns, Kaffe Fassets, etc. There was also an excellent selection of black and white fabrics among the 2,000 or so bolts on display.

The shop’s very friendly quarterly newletter, in booklet form, offers nearly 90 quilting classes for all skill levels. They are also very much involved in community projects, offering a Help-A-Baby Sewathon, as well as a “Hearts & Hands UFO Lock-in” evening to provide the opportunity to get away from household responsibilities to work on that long-neglected project. This event is so popular that participants are selected by lottery.

After leaving Pieceful Hearts we planned to hit one more shop, Cotton Cottage, purportedly in Wheaton, on our way back to the freeway. This time, however, our navigation skills failed us entirely, and after several swings through the neighborhood where we thought the shop was, we gave up and headed back to downtown Chicago. It was probably a good thing, as it was after 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and the rush hour traffic was brutal, even going INTO the city.

For quilters visiting Chicago, there is one other major destination, in the downtown area, that is a “must see,” and that is American Girl Place near the Magnificent Mile (111 E. Chicago Ave, Telephone 1-800-AG-PLACE, http://www.americangirl.com/agpl/).

For all fans of the 18-inch doll collection of The Pleasant Company, with its line of fictional little girls from the world over, and all their accoutrements, this is heaven (if a bit over-the-top and commercialized). Housed in three stories, with a fancy escalator, this store and café offers just about every American Girl product you can imagine. We had contemplated having lunch in the little tearoom style café, but found that we were too late to make reservations that day at this obviously trendy and sought-after luncheon spot. We watched enviously as a steady stream of young ladies and their mothers, more foresighted than we, were ushered into the cozy dining room.

In the lower level there is a small theater that shows films about the dolls, and upstairs past the café there are several rooms with displays of the dolls, their clothes and furniture, their horses and goats, and of course everything is available for sale. Lynn bought a small purse for one of her five AG dolls, but decided against purchasing the latest release, a Native American doll named Kaya, in the interest of sparing our budget.

One other recommended spot – the Art Institute of Chicago. Besides its magnificent collections of European, Asian, and American Art, it has a large selection of textiles. Featured while we were there was a group of far eastern velvet and satin fabrics that were breathtaking. Our favorite experience there was the permanent installation of stained glass windows by Marc Chagall (see photo below).

 

 

 

 

All in all, our trip was successful at mixing business and the pleasure of textiles, spoiled only by being too short. We’re looking forward to another sojourn to Chicago. After all, there are still 19 quilt shops there we haven’t visited!

 

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