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Handmade: Quilter filled void with design business

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News

Dearborn resident Kathy Connor had been working as an instructor of quiltmaking and embroidery machine applique when she realized there was a void that needed to be filled. So, after taking classes in embroidery digitizing, she started a home-based business in 2005 called Smith Street Designs that’s “combining technology with tradition.”

“I had been working at a fabric store, Bits ‘n Pieces in Wayne, and I had started teaching quilting and embroidery classes. When embroidery machines first came out, there were embroidery packs that were $100. If you wanted to teach a class, students had to pay $100, and that was just too much, so I started digitizing — a process of using software to create embroidery designs,” recalls Connor. “It made it more affordable for students to take a class. The classes ran $25, or so, and I charged $20-$24 for a pattern.”

Not long after starting her business, she realized stores might also be interested in the projects and quilts she was making. That idea led to selling wholesale to quilt stores across the country and Canada. The business quickly grew, leaving Connor with less time to teach.

“Now I focus on designing and getting ready for quilt market, one of my major avenues to reach quilt store owners,” she says. And in addition to selling to nearly 500 stores, she’s also been picked up by distributors, and, therefore doesn’t always know who’s ordering her patterns.

Each comes with a printed pattern, instructions and a CD with embroidery designs. Connor currently has 55 patterns on the market across the country, priced from $12-$60 each. She says her goal is to design six a year, but admits she doesn’t always reach that number.

Connor says there are many steps involved in her labor-intensive quilts.

For example, “After the embroidery design has been digitized and sent to the embroidery machine, the background fabric for the quilt block is placed in the embroidery machine hoop and the design is sewn out,” she says. “The design indicates where to place the applique pieces in the design and the machine stitches over the raw edges of the fabric pieces. When the design is finished on the machine, the fabric is removed from the embroidery machine hoop and trimmed to size. This block, and many more, are then pieced to other quilt blocks to make the quilt top.”

Although appliqueing a quilt by machine can be very time-consuming, Connor says it takes considerably less than doing it by hand. “I would lose interest,” she says. “This way, I can do it in a shorter length of time. It’s intriguing to me to create the design and see it stitch-out (on the machine).”

Connor, who sharpened her skills with more advanced classes at a quilt shop in North Carolina, keeps a sample quilt for each pattern she designs. “I’ll get a call from a quilt shop, and I’ll send them a few samples so they can hang them in their shop for a period of time and teach the class.” She ships samples all across the country for trunk shows.

When it comes to inspiration for creating her unique heart and flower-filled designs, Connor is most influenced by traditional appliqued quilts and gardening. “I love to garden, so I’m always taking pictures of flowers out in my garden, or wherever I see them, and I translate that into applique designs,” she says.

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Smith Street Designs at smithstreetdesigns.com.