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The Traveling Quilter:

Quilt Shops in Southern Louisiana

Most people don't go to New Orleans to visit quilt stores. But we're not most people. So when our plane touched down in N.O., we hopped the rental car and headed for the first store on our list, Yesteryear Antiques and Quilts in Ponchatoula, which is on the northern side of Lake Ponchartrain (165 East Pine, 504-386-2741). We had consulted our favorite reference, Quilters' Travel Companion, and carefully mapped out our visit. After some initial directional snafus, (suffice it to say we may be the first couple to accidentally circumnavigate Lake Ponchatrain in a frog-strangling downpour and emerge with their marriage still intact), we arrived at Yesteryear approximately five minutes before closing. This was not a huge disappointment, because although they carry neat stuff, the emphasis is on selling antique quilts rather than creating new ones. They had some gorgeous antique quilts, vintage fabric and buttons, old spools and spindles. Among the beautiful oldies was an unusual solid pink tucked and folded number from the twenties. However, we enjoyed our peek at Ponchatoula, a town that bills itself as America's Antique Town. There's a Feed and Seed across the way from Yesteryear and several other interesting shops on the same street.

After a long drive back to New Orleans, we bought an expanded map and plotted the rest of our visit. Since we didn't feel like an extended trip the next day after a plane flight and our Ponchartrain excursion, we decided to check out the close-in opportunities. Since many people visit New Orleans on business, we were especially interested in any location which might be accessible without a car. Both the Quilt Cottage and The Quilt Shop in New Orleans fit that requirement.

The Quilt Cottage (801 Nashville Ave., New Orleans, 504-895-3791) can be reached by taking the St. Charles streetcar from Canal St., getting off at Nashville and walking through the picturesque Garden District for a few blocks, or by taking the bus down Magazine Street. The Quilt Cottage is located in an old house, right on the corner of Nashville and Magazine.

The first thing that catches your eye when you open the door of The Quilt Cottage is a large baker's rack loaded with finished quilts available for sale. Many are very current patterns, some hand quilted, some machine quilted but all of them gorgeous. They range in size from table runners to king size and the styles vary from traditional to contemporary. There are also quilts for sale hanging from the ceiling, from the walls and just about everywhere. There is a terrific selection of fabric, many complete lines of favorite designers, and some highly unusual Indonesian fabrics and handpainted batiks that are extremely different. And that's just the front room of the store. The back room is stuffed with books, stencils, decorative thread and patterns for wearables of all descriptions. Not only has co-proprietor Carol Schiaffino co-authored the American Society of Needlework book Fan Quilts, she has designed patterns with a definite New Orleans flavor, including a distinctive mask design that is just begging to be made up with the traditional purple, green and gold Mardi Gras colors. Should you need a souvenir for yourself or one for a quilting friend back home, The Quilt Cottage carries specially designed Mardi Gras fabric, with white or black background. And if it's a really special friend or something for you, she offers three extremely clever fat quarter assortments, each one representing something indigenous to Louisiana. There's a choice of gumbo z‚herbes or crawfish etouffee, which have fabrics representing the ingredients tied up with a silk-screened recipe panel or the Mardi Gras selection which includes actual Mardi Gras beads if you're on a diet.

The Quilt Cottage is home to Stitchy Fingers and the Under Cover Quilters, who meet at the shop. The store was featured in Country Home Magazine as part of a story on the local quilt guild. Class choices are plentiful, and many offer either AM or PM sessions to fit differing schedules.

Right across the street from The Quilt Cottage is Café Luna, which offers reasonably priced coffee and pastries you can enjoy on a cute outdoor porch if it's not too hot. Otherwise, you can stay inside to sip your latte and try to decide which of the beautiful stylized "good karma" voodoo dolls you have to buy. Foolishly, I couldn't make up my mind and wound up not getting one because I didn't see anything else like them during my stay. She who hesitates, etc. etc. If voodoo with your refreshments isn't your thing and you prefer the familiar when it comes to coffee, there's also a Starbucks at the same intersection.

After we finished our coffee break, we headed back to the Quarter via the funky shops that stretch down Magazine Street. Arriving at the French Market rather late in the day, we located The Quilt Store in New Orleans (816 Decatur St., 504-522-0835), we found the proprietor stitching away and talking to customers as she worked on a crazy quilt. Having been in the French Market for 22 years this store sells more finished products than it does fabric, although fabric and patterns are available. They have lovely selections of fat quarters tied up charmingly for easy selection as gift items and kits for many of the more popular finished items, but this store appears to focus on patrons who are not interested in doing it themselves. There are many stylish wearables, cathedral window offerings from potholder to king bed size, crazy quilts and crazy quilt stuffed pigs, nice chenille stuffed animals and many beautiful though somewhat pricey gift items. The day we were there, someone was writing a check for a king-sized crazy quilt to be shipped to her home. The Quilt Store obviously knows its quilt business: they have shipping rates posted on the walls, not just to the US but to many international destinations as well. So, if you have a loved one that needs to bring you back a wonderful present from his/her business trip to New Orleans (Has your significant other priced overnight childcare recently?), steer him/her toward The Quilt Store, conveniently located in the French Market, open seven days a week and until 9 p.m. on weekdays. (Editor's Note: The Quilt Store in New Orleans suddenly and somewhat mysteriously closed in the summer of 2002. Even the staff were mystified when the store went out of business and vacated its storefront virtually overnight.)

The next day was Saturday, and we set out early to find Albany, Louisiana. We knew it wasn't too far past Ponchatoula, but it was still quite a drive, located near the intersection of I-12 and I-55. Upon arriving, we found that we weren't the only ones who either suspected or knew that this two-year old shop was worth the trip.

Located across the street from a mobile home community and next to a tanning salon, Material Girls' exterior reminded us of houses whose For Sale sign says "must see inside" (29937 South Montpelier Road, Albany, 225-567-5269). Although the exterior is bland, once you open the door, you're in Wonderland. This store is beautifully decorated; there are lots of samples and consignment items for sale. As we went in there were at least a dozen Santas sitting in a faux snowbank. Made by a local artist, many have coats constructed from antique quilts, but all have lots of personality.

Unique to this store in my experience was a wonderful line of clothing for "quilty ladies." The garments were all well constructed of excellent fabric with an eye to both comfort and style. Most of them were made in Katy, Texas (right near Houston) so I suspect whoever makes them may have firsthand knowledge of what quilters like to wear. Christmas in July was in progress during our visit, and one whole room was dedicated to displaying wonderful Christmas items. There's a Thimbleberry Room for those of us who just can't overdose on Lynette Jensen's fabric and designs. At the very front was a huge bank of flannels followed by bolts and bolts and bolts. There are lots of books and just about every imaginable gadget or helpful item. They carry "Parking for Quilters Only" signs and had several of the very latest tapestry sewing machine caddies in the store for us to admire.

But perhaps the most impressive things about Material Girls aren't the material things. This shop is truly a feel good place and obviously an oasis for lots of quilters from surrounding small (and not so small) towns. Everyone who came into the shop was warmly greeted. The spouse of an out-of-town visitor was steered toward the comfortable "Husbands‚ Chair," offered a cup of coffee and his choice of reading material from a definitely non-quilting collection. Some acquaintances of one of the employees had driven in from Lake Charles that morning (about 200 miles away), so the shop had a family reunion flavor about it that day.

Material Girls seems to be a hub for sewing activities in the community, offering many classes, including beginning sewing for young people taught by the local extension service. They also have Thimbleberries and Aunt Grace Clubs to provide the support groups(!) we fabric fanatics need. In all, about sixty classes are offered, which is quite amazing when you consider that Albany is enough of a small town that the local fire trucks were in an end of Vacation Bible School parade the morning we were there, and it's an hour plus drive from New Orleans.

Co-owner Judy Jensen wouldn't let us leave without a peek at her fabulous quilt-picture-strewn powder room, a copy of the Gulf States Quilting Association guild newsletter (Judy's GSQA president) and advice to stop for lunch at Middendorf's (its right off I-55 at 30160 Highway 51, Ponchatoula). Favored dishes are the crispy fried catfish or the soft shell crab. Judy also told us to be sure to mention the 8th Biennial Show of the Gulf States Quilting Association, September 17 - 19, 1999, at the Ponchartrain Center in Kenner, Louisiana. For more information call (504) 737-2142.

As we headed back toward New Orleans, we noticed in the newsletter that there was yet another quilt store in Kenner that was not listed in Quilter's Travel Companion . Since it was right on our route, we decide to stop. Scrap Happy (2546 Williams Boulevard, Kenner, 504-463-0094) is another two- year-old venture, this one by Ann Deemer. Located in a strip mall that houses an Army surplus store, a Jumbo Sports, a nail parlor and a barber shop, Scrap Happy offered us look at the modern day equivalent of the traditional sewing circle. One quilter was pressing her pieces at the iron up front, another was sitting at the table doing handwork and the proprietor was working on something of her own. All were busy with their efforts , but they paused long enough to talk with us about this obviously popular store. The women assembled there were very supportive of each other's efforts, and gave us an impromptu show and tell. The social aspect of quilting is strongly supported here. Every Thursday two machine quilters stop at the store to pick up tops to be machine quilted and customers gather for this weekly meeting. This Thursday thing has gotten to be so popular that Ann often runs out of chairs and advises newcomers to bring their own just in case.

Although there is a strong emphasis on hand quilting here (Ann just took her first machine class this year), there are classes in both hand and machine quilting. There are, of course, bolts and bolts of gorgeous fabric, lots of patterns and notions and gadgets to meet every need. However, I had so much fun talking to the women assembled there for an informal Saturday afternoon of quilting that I‚m sure I may have missed some of the inventory. Leaving Scrap Happy I felt that I had just visited what quilting is really about. If you're hungry after all this wonderful input, the HobNob café is right next door so you can have lunch or a snack.

Although by this time we were pretty worn out, we had one more stop to make. The Quilting Bee was sort of hidden in a small store behind a large mall, in Metairie, a middle-class suburb of New Orleans (3537 18th St., Metairie, 504-456-2304). It shares its space with a shoe repair shop and a nail parlor, both run by relatives of the shop's owner. Although The Quilting Bee has been around since 1900, the owner admits that she devotes much of her energy these days to caring for her two granddaughters (there's a crib set up in the shop). She participates in the GSQA activities and does carry all cotton fabric and current books. She's not offering any set classes these days due to her family responsibilities, but is always willing to share her knowledge and experience with fellow quilters. If you're short on time, I don't think I'd make a special trip (or pay cab fare) just to visit this shop.

After four busy days in New Orleans and all the quilt stores we could ever wish for, we took one last stroll through the French Quarter, had one final cup of coffee with chicory and plate of beignets, and regretfully returned home.

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