Cost of Living

Pandemic sewing surge propels quilting to unexpected successes

Yet another hobby from yesteryear has shot up in popularity through the COVID-19 pandemic: quilting. It's grown the Watergirl Quilt Co. from filling the owner's eastern Ontario living room to a full fledged store in just 11 months.

It's not just quilts — demand for sewing machines is up too

Michelle Peters started Watergirl Quilt Co. out of her home near Prescott, Ont. in early April 2020. Three months later, business was going so well, she opened a full fledged store in town. (Submitted by Michelle Peters)

When Michelle Peters decided to quit teaching elementary students in 2020 and start a quilting company, she had no idea the pandemic might be good for business.

But eleven months after Watergirl Quilt Co. launched in Prescott, Ont., it's grown from taking up a room in her home to being a full-fledged store with more expansion on the way.

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When Ontario first imposed pandemic restrictions in March 2020, Peters' original plan to take over an existing quilt store fell through. Her bank loan was frozen and alternate financing wasn't available to keep the deal afloat.

"Instead I launched Watergirl Quilt Co. out of my home," Peters said, "with shelves in every spare space. I pounded the virtual pavement to find customers and I worked 14-hour days."

"I couldn't let the pandemic put an end to my dreams, there was no way," said Peters.

Three months later, Peters opened a storefront in Prescott, and she's working to turn the border town into Canada's quilting destination.

"There's a lot of empty shops and [Prescott] needs to be revitalized. I just thought, you know what? Quilters are the people to do this because they will travel anywhere in the world for their passion if something takes their interest," said Peters.

Getting by with a little (business) help from her friends

Peters attributes some of Watergirl Quilt Co.'s success to the free business coaching she got from her thread and notions distributor Gail Heller, who supplies hundreds of sewing and quilting businesses across Canada.

"We have shops in every province and [two] territories," said Heller, owner of Erie Quilt Art in Calgary.

"The only reason we're not in Nunavut is because, as far as I know, there's not a quilting shop there."

Heller says the early months of the pandemic were very difficult for many sewing and quilting businesses, including her own.

Gail Heller, owner of Erie Quilt Art in Calgary, Alberta, says she worked twice as hard for half the gain during the pandemic to keep her own business and the stores she distributes to afloat. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

"March, April, May were pretty tough," said Heller who estimated her sales were down by about 40 per cent.

As well, pivoting to an online marketplace for the pandemic was easier for some companies than others. 

"Some shops really thrived right from the get go. They had a huge online presence. They were very quick to embrace Facetime appointments, curbside pickups, etc." said Heller.

But according to the distributor, others could not adjust as quickly.

"It's an industry where there are people who've been in business for 30 or 40 years. There were some [quilting businesses] who didn't have an online presence, who had to scramble to do that or some who chose just not to do it. Who thought that they could just wait it out and reopen when things changed."

As a result, Heller decided to offer free Zoom business coaching to her customers to help them pivot to an online business model.

"We talked about the challenges and shared what was helpful, what was working, what wasn't working. I believe that helped a lot of people."

Sewing industry on the mend

When Canadians realized they'd need to start wearing masks in public, many sewing and quilting stores saw a rush in demand for fabric, elastic and thread.

But it wasn't just the materials selling faster. Sewing machines also saw a significant bump in sales during the pandemic.

Many quilters cite Swiss sewing machine company Bernina's products as their tool of choice. Bernina Canada saw demand go up by about 20 per cent, according to the company's National Product Educator Adrienne Gallagher.

"[That's] kind of unprecedented for us in the sewing industry. And this year, we have most of our machines pre-sold until well into the summer," said Gallagher.

Adrienne Gallagher of Bernina Canada says normally it takes six weeks to get products from their international factories to their Whitby, Ont. warehouse. But right now due to ongoing supply chain issues, it’s taking more like 12 weeks. (Submitted by Adrienne Gallagher)

"It's a very unusual position to be in," Gallagher admits.

"Usually machines come in and they kind of trickle out. But right now we're sitting here biting our fingernails, hoping that we can get a shipment in from Thailand or Switzerland wherever the machines are coming from."

More than quadruple the demand in a single year

Even century-old sewing machine company Singer saw a bump in demand, selling-out of products just a few weeks into the pandemic. 

We do see a potential for shortages in [sewing] machines all the way through the end of 2021.- Dean Brindle, chief marketing officer at SVP Worldwide (owner of Singer)

"We likely would have exceeded all [sales] targets historically if we could have got more units from the factories last year and shipped to the full demand that we had seen from consumers," said Dean Brindle, chief marketing officer at SVP Worldwide, the company behind Singer.

Brindle told CBC Radio's The Cost of Living that Singer is continuing to chase increased demand for its products. 

"Even with expanded factory production beginning in the second quarter of last year all the way through this year, we do see a potential for shortages in machines all the way through the end of 2021."

"That's not based on some projection," Brindle said, "that's based on actual customer orders at this point. So there's still going to be machines in short supply probably through the balance of this year."

Internal research conducted by Singer in five countries during the pandemic, showed that 20 per cent of their customers in 2020 were people who had never sewed before.

Brindle said that number accounts to four to five years worth of new sewists in a single year.

Written and produced by Tracy Fuller.
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