$30 billion crafts industry enjoys resurgence

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Customers from Ohio, New York and elsewhere travel to The Quilt Company in Allison Park during bus excursions to browse the 5,000 colorful fabrics and assortment of tools. Once, 40 quilting devotees from Ireland visited.

The craft has grown more sophisticated with “a lot more out there” in supplies and tools than when the shop opened in 1993, said Cary Montgomery, who owns the business with his wife, Karen, a nationally known quilter.

“People used to do a lot more hand quilting, and piece together old fabrics,” he said. Now, in addition to computerized sewing machines that can cost several thousand dollars, but turn out precisely stitched items quickly, “There are beautiful batiks and higher-end fabrics that never were accessible to the ordinary shop.”

Interest in quilting, other forms of sewing and many crafts in general is increasing. At least one project a year is crafted in about 56 percent of American households, according to the Craft & Hobby Association, and the industry held steady at nearly $30 billion in annual revenue through the recession, when many other retail sectors declined.

Woodworking is the No. 1 hobby in terms of sales, said Keri Cunningham, marketing director for the New Jersey-based association. And food crafting such as cake decorating has risen in recent years to third place, just behind drawing, largely due to TV shows such as “Cupcake Wars.”

Other media inspire crafters too, experts say. Examples range from the fashion design-themed “Project Runway” TV show to Etsy.com, an online marketplace for handmade items that said it sold $62.8 million of goods in March, do-it-yourself projects showcased on bulletin board website Pinterest.com and lessons offered via Craftsy.com.

Crafters are motivated mainly by a feeling of accomplishment and a need to be creative, the Craft & Hobby Association said in its latest survey results, from 2010.

Tough economic times can shift their interests. For example, “Something like scrapbooking can be very expensive, compared to knitting,” Cunningham said, adding that “mixed media” crafts that combine yarn, canvas and scrapbook supplies are gaining fans.

About 14 percent of U.S. households have at least one active quilter, the 2010 Quilting in America survey said.

Montgomery said The Quilt Company draws much of its renown from Karen Montgomery's growing reputation as an authority on quilting. That craft has helped to revive a home sewing market that slumped starting in the 1970s, as inexpensive imported clothing erased the cost advantage of making garments.

Karen Montgomery designs patterns and fabrics and is developing rulers for a notions maker, her husband said. Fabric sales at the shop have roughly tripled from $100,000 annually early on, he said, but the Montgomerys also have a wholesale business and sell Bernina brand machines. Their son Brandon repairs machines.

With nearly unlimited pattern, color and project options, “It's not just a quilt anymore. It's an artistic creation using cotton and other fabrics,” Montgomery said.

Market research firm IBISWorld said in a June report that the $4.4 billion fabric, craft and sewing supplies industry declined at an average annual rate of 0.8 percent in recent years but should rise 1.1 percent in 2012.

The industry is expected to continue growing at 0.7 percent a year through 2017, as consumers spend more disposable income, baby boomers keep crafting in their leisure time and other consumers take up hobbies.

Sewing machine manufacturer SVP Worldwide said its sales are growing year-over-year, although the privately held company doesn't give specifics. SVP was formed in 2006 when the Singer brand's owner acquired the maker of Husqvarna Viking and Pfaff, two other legacy brands.

“Sewing is much more socially relevant. It's very mainstream now to talk about sewing, to make your own things and have Pinterest parties” based on the craft, said Vanessa Parrish, SVP's director, brand coordination and communications. Sewers in some cities gather to cut quilt squares, for example.

SVP, with a North American headquarters near Nashville, produces about 100 models, ranging from basic $100 machines, mostly in the Singer line, to Viking's Designer Diamond Deluxe, with a suggested $10,000 price, that's built to stitch perfect embroidery on both sides of a fabric, for example.

Singers are sold by mass retailers, while the two other brands are available through dealers; locally, Viking galleries inside Jo-Ann Fabrics stores in Cranberry and Robinson, and Pfaff through the Thornton Co. in Ross.

IBISWorld lists Jo-Ann Stores Inc., with 751 stores in 48 states, as the leading craft and sewing items retailer with 26 percent of the market. Michaels Stores Inc., with 1,047 stores in the U.S. and Canada, has 13.7 percent of the market. Both chains have about a dozen stores in Western Pennsylvania.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., which opened a Robinson store in September 2011, is third with a 9.6 percent market share, the report by the Santa Monica, Calif., firm said. The Oklahoma City-based retailer opened 11 stores this year and has another seven planned for 2013.

The dominant chains grew as many smaller retailers closed, although they face challenges from online competitors and discount stores that carry craft supplies. Wal-mart phased out fabric departments in 2007, however, IBISWorld said.

Kelsey Chabal, 15, got a sewing machine and lessons as a present last Christmas, after expressing interest in the hobby.

“I like to make my own clothes, and it's so useful for mending,” the Upper Burrell teen said. Her high school doesn't offer lessons, and none of her friends sews, she said. “But they like it when I make them things.”

Kelsey is among the new, younger customers Sandy Fink has been welcoming to The Sewing Store, which she opened 16 years ago in Lower Burrell. Many represent the first generation who didn't learn their skills from a relative or teacher.

“It's more hip with kids to be crafty and to sew now,” Fink said. “For a long time, sewing was a chore, and then it became uncool to have homemade clothes. All that has passed.”

Business has increased in the past year as she stopped carrying strictly fashion fabrics to focus on quilting supplies, plus Bernina machines. “I should have done it a couple years ago,” she said.

The traveling Original Sewing & Quilt Expo held its first Pittsburgh area show in August.

About 2,000 hobbyists attended the three-day products show and workshops in the Monroeville Convention Center, even though the Squirrel Hill Tunnel was closed that Saturday, said Lynn Lunoe, marketing director for the Westlake, Ohio, business that stages expos in nine cities each year, plus a special quilt show in Atlanta.

Based on first-time results, the Pittsburgh show “certainly has the potential to grow into one of our largest events,” Lunoe said, and the expo is set to return Aug. 22 to 24.

The expo helped to drive a 10 percent bump in membership for the American Sewing Guild's Pittsburgh chapter, President Debra Thompson said. About 260 members meet monthly in nine neighborhood groups to learn skills and sew for charity.

“People now are making things because they want to be creative,” said Thompson, who has been sewing since childhood. “Originality is always a big factor. You can get what you want if you sew.”

Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or kleonard@tribweb.com.

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