Spencer Wright and Karleen Huggins discuss Karleen’s unique approach to a garment fabric store. Karleen transformed a successful brick and mortar store into a successful online business.
Karleen operates the Sewing Studio as a side hustle to her busy day job and has found a niche she can serve while getting deadstock fabric to sewists that love the treasures she finds. It allows her to provide a superior customer experience and help keep, once-wasted products, sustainable back into the marketplace.
They talk about some of her strategies for getting the help she needs to keep her business running smoothly.
- When you have a challenge, break it down into simple tasks to tackle.
- It is possible to manage a side hustle to start your business.
- There are experts who can help you overcome the things you don’t know how to do.
- Find something that is unique you can do.
- If you like what you buy to sell in your store, there is a good chance others will like it too.
- I had never had to maintain a website. I didn’t know a thing about vendor management or setting up customer lists or anything about it. So it was an exercise and kind of just picking apart one little piece at a time and figuring it out. But he brought it down, everything to us in July of 2017, and we went live on September 30th of 2017. So it was kind of a whirlwind for a couple of months.
- So it truly is a side hustle, but in reality, I would suggest that I probably spend about 30 to 40 hours a week. It’s just not traditional daylight hours where most people would expect to go retail shopping.
- I didn’t know anything about building a website. So thank you, Like Sew for kind of walking me through it.
- There’s obviously a tremendous number of online garment fabric stores, so I had to find something that was unique to my shop that made it, I guess, more approachable.
- Don’t buy anything that you’re not gonna love because you may end up wearing it for the rest of your life.
Karleen Huggins acquired the Sewing Studio in 2017. She moved it online and based her operations in Portland, Oregon after it was run as a brick and mortar up in Spokane, Washington.
[00:00:21] Spencer: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Quilt Shop podcast. I’ve got Karleen Huggins here from the Sewing Studio in Portland, Oregon. Karleen, how are you doing today?
[00:00:33] Karleen: I’m doing great, thank you.
[00:00:35] Spencer: Okay, so Karleen to kind of get us started, tell us a little bit about maybe the history of the Sewing Studio and how you got involved with that.
[00:00:45] Karleen: Sure. Sewing Studio originally was a brick and mortar up in Spokane, Washington. Operated by a gal named Lou Ann. She had a brick and mortar for many years, and then ended up with breast cancer and passed away, and her husband and daughters tried to rent it for a few, I think a couple years and then ultimately decided that it wasn’t sustainable by them. So her husband packed everything up into a 29 foot U-haul, loaded to the absolute brim and drove down to Portland, Oregon, and said, it’s your baby now, take over, Karleen. So, I had no idea what online would look like. I had never had to maintain a website. I didn’t know a thing about vendor management or setting up customer lists or anything about it. So it was an exercise and kind of just picking apart one little piece at a time and figuring it out. But he brought it down, everything to us in July of 2017, and we went live on September 30th of 2017. So it was kind of a whirlwind for a couple of months.
[00:01:48] Spencer: Yeah. Wow. that’s a pretty quick transition. So let’s talk about that a little bit more, right? So you kind of make this decision, you’re gonna get into the space. How do you decide that you’re gonna take it from what it was, which is a brick and mortar to an online space? I would love to hear about the decision making more.
[00:02:07] Karleen: Well, I still work full-time at another career that I’ve been in for many years, and kind of the transition was that I needed to be able to do this in evenings, mornings, weekends, my available time. So having brick and mortar didn’t really appeal to me based upon the hours and the time that I had to commit. We live on small acreage and have a building that works very well. So it’s like everything else had to get out of that space, and we turned it into literally a sewing studio.
[00:02:40] Spencer: Amazing. So I think it just kind of was natural, right, if that’s kind of what I’m hearing is that like everything kind of set up and it was like the best thing for me and for this business for the future is to go online, right?
[00:02:52] Karleen: Exactly.
[00:02:54] Spencer: I’m sure that came with a number of growing pains of how to run an online store and, you know, obviously shipping and receiving and vendor management kind of like what you mentioned and maybe we’ll talk some more about that kind of later on in the show. But anyways, super fascinating to kind of go and I mean, 2017, right? You’re obviously past any of the dot com boom but pre-COVID, which is when a lot of stores really went online. That’s when we saw a huge surge in, of you know, just small businesses, medium sized businesses trying to build an online presence. Right. And you had kind of already established that pre-COVID. Is that correct?
[00:03:32] Karleen: A hundred percent correct. I’d love to say that I had some wonderful crystal ball that I was gonna, you know, be ahead of the market, but no, it was just logistics and how many hours and time of the day that I had available to spend. And again, being ahead of it and having everything already on my website and being up and functional by the time Covid was actually, you know, unfortunately it was a good time for our business, but obviously not a good time for the rest of the world.
[00:03:57] Spencer: Sure. Really interesting. Okay. So I want to, I mean, kind of based on what you’re saying, I want to talk a little bit more about what it’s like to run a quilt and fabric business.
[00:04:10] Spencer: You’re kind of moonlighting, right? As, as some people would say. I think that there’s probably a big segment of Like Sew users of, you know, of just the quote shop owner, you know, population that in some way or another are moonlighting their business, right? I think that is actually a pretty big percentage. And so I would love to hear what kinds of challenges you face as someone who isn’t dedicating your full-time to your business, but it’s still thriving in its own ways.
[00:04:36] Karleen: Well, I call it my side hustle. So it truly is a side hustle, but in reality, I would suggest that I probably spend about 30 to 40 hours a week. It’s just not traditional daylight hours where most people would expect to go retail shopping.
[00:04:53] Spencer: Yeah. Let me just pitch in here. That doesn’t sound like a side hustle to me.
[00:04:58] Karleen: You know, it’s part of my personality. I’m a very “A Type” personality. My regular career keeps me working between 40 and 60 hours a week, and I have about 150 to 180 employees. So this was my creative outlet originally, and it’s just grown and grown to something that’s, it’s just fun and it still is very creative for me. But you’re right. Literally when everything showed up at the house, I was like, how am I going to do this?
[00:05:26] Karleen: So in my traditional fashion, I just kind of broke it down. I, first of all, needed to get domain names transferred and, you know, some little things and I had no idea how to do any of it. I didn’t know anything about building a website. So thank you, Like Sew for kind of walking me through it and I apologize to those people who had to work with me cuz I asked some of the most ridiculous questions. In hindsight, they probably were rolling their eyes most days, but just understanding the process and what it looked like and what I wanted the website to look like and how I envisioned, you know, everything to, you know, the workflow going. Having never even worked on the backend of the website before, I had no idea what the workflow should look like. So they were very patient and offered me some wonderful suggestions and solutions, and we know we’ve continued to pick away at maybe some choices that I should have made differently back in 2017 to make those a little bit more user friendly at this stage.
[00:06:19] Karleen: So, and then again, I don’t do traditionally quilt. Everything I do is pretty much garment for home sewists and that’s been a whole nother segment of trying to find my product and find vendor relationships and figure out what would make me unique in that space. There’s obviously a tremendous number of online garment fabric stores, so I had to find something that was unique to my shop that made it, I guess, more approachable.
[00:06:50] Karleen: And that was when I kind of went down a rabbit hole in spring of 18, dead stock fabrics and that definitely is something I love. I enjoy it immensely. It’s challenging but it’s still, it creates a kind of a win-win. Dead stock fabrics are fabrics that a lot of fashion designers or manufacturers have leftover from their custom orders or their manufacturing of clothing for retail, and they don’t know what to do with them.
[00:07:22] Karleen: So a lot of times they would either throw them in landfills or burn them and that didn’t seem like a good use of fabric for me. So finding these dead stock vendors, making relationships with them. I’ve got dead stock vendors in Europe. I’ve got some in New York, a lot in LA, which is closer to me so I can get down to visit ’em two or three times a year. And finding dead stock fabrics is kind of like finding a, you know, it’s a needle in a haystack or a treasure hunt, however you wanna look
[00:07:51] Spencer: Yeah, so that’s super, super interesting. We’d kind of talked a little bit before about the podcast Karleen and I did just about dead stock fabrics, which I was not super familiar with and did some Google searching and it’s such an interesting kind of niche to the fabric industry. So I’d love to kind of explore that more. So tell us a little bit about how this works. Are these like one-off lines? Like do you constantly get fabric from the same vendors and are they the same patterns? Or you’re always getting different patterns, you know, what does that look like for you?
[00:08:25] Karleen: It’s always different. Like I said, there’s a number of different resources that I use. two or three are in LA so I can physically go there and see whatever they have in inventory. One of the places I go in LA sells a lot to like Hollywood costume designers or dress designers. So they’ll have smaller lots of fabric, maybe 20 yards or less. Some of the people I find in Italy and France, they sometimes only have five or six meters of something, but it’ll be something like a Prada fabric or something that, you know, we just don’t get a ton of here in the US. But again, there’s a lot of different vendors and sometimes I’ll go in, like right now I have a lot of Eileen Fisher, which is a women’s clothing brand, an upper end women’s clothing brand, and I found a lot of dead stock, from Eileen Fisher’s, you know, past seasons that they didn’t use. So having that quality where someone can make a garment themselves out of Eileen Fisher quality fabric, it’s kind of a win when you just don’t get to run into a big box store and buy that. Garment fabrics aren’t a lot harder for people to source, especially if they’re in more of a rural area.
[00:09:34] Spencer: Okay. Interesting. so we’ve talked a little bit about garment fabrics once before on the show when we were talking to Smile Spinners, which is a quilt and fabric store up in Pennsylvania and one of the things that I remember is that there’s this big push for sustainability in the industry and in the world, right? As a whole, I think we know that there’s a need to be kinder to our environment, and I’ll just kind of leave it at that, right? And I think dead stock fabric is one way to kind of be a part of that, is that, one way that you see kind of the advantages to dead stock?
[00:10:07] Karleen: Yeah it’s one way, definitely. I mean, you’re right. We all hope that we can figure out ways to be kinder to our planet. And again it also adds something that all my competitors don’t have, I mean, if they haven’t been climbing in, you know, up on a forklift, on a pallet of fabric that’s, you know, 20 feet in the air to find the perfect role of fabric that is unique. So, I, you know, again, I find it in a lot of different places. There’s a couple of local Portland manufacturing designers, and I actually buy their dead stock as well. Again, it doesn’t come often with a large volume, so I may get five to 10 yards of a fabric and then it’s gone. And it’s not gonna be at my competitors online. It’s not gonna be around for months and months. But it does find a way to get that dead stock fabric out of the landfills, not being burnt, not being, some sort of wasteful way, you know, left to the earth. So I do carry regular fabrics or fabrics from regular vendors kind of to supplement or to infill some of that, but I do try to only have natural fabrics. So cottons, linens, you know, I do have some rayons, which there’s some people who don’t feel like a rayon is necessarily a natural fiber. Wool, I carry a lot of wool knits, so things that I can restock, I do carry and keep them in stock to supplement some of the dead.
[00:11:36] Spencer: Yeah. Very interesting. Okay, well we’re gonna go ahead and go to break and when we come back I want to touch a little bit more on dead stock and then we’re gonna hear about how you are marketing to your customers. So let’s go ahead and break there.
[00:12:48] Spencer: Okay, so before break we were talking about dead stock fabrics. And I had a couple more follow up questions on that because it’s just such a fascinating concept for me. And I also think it’s gonna be fascinating for our viewers because, I think this is kind of niche, right? and I think it’s something that could maybe grow potentially. So I think my first question would be, you mentioned you. , you do keep fabrics in stock that you can restock, right? Which is gonna be, you know, solids or you know, patterns that are consistent or whatever it may be. Correct. I’m curious, how does it work? Like how do you advertise for a product that maybe only sits on your shelves for a week or a month, right. Because as soon as you advertise it and it gets sold, if someone buys enough of it, you’re probably, if I’m hearing right, you’re never gonna have that fabric again. It’s probably never coming back. Do you run into problems with that?
[00:13:41] Karleen: Not so much. I think first of all, I advertise mostly to my newsletter subscribers. They always get the first, you know, opportunity. So, that’s the first way and then I do use all the social medias, the Facebook and the Instagram that others do. But newsletter subscribers always get the first, you know, leaked information, you know, a new fabric is, you know, check out the news fabrics or whatever. So they get the first piece of information on that. And then Instagram, Facebook, that’s how most people find me.
[00:14:13] Spencer: Yeah. Okay. So, I mean, I’m kind of thinking about it like, I don’t know if this is a good parallel, probably not, but I’m thinking a little bit Black Friday-esque where there’s this like, kind of demand that not really, not necessarily in pricing, but in product, that it only exists once and it’s never gonna exist again. So it kind of drives this, like the uniqueness of the product is going to drive a little bit of consumer behavior, right? That they say, okay, well if I don’t buy this fabric now, I’m never gonna be able to and I think that’s part of we’ve gotten into this as consumers and I don’t view myself as like a big consumer, but you know, just as consumers, as a population, I think. Shopping as a whole has become so convenient, right? Like everything is always available and there’s no need to make an impulse decision. I think they still happen. You know, the internet is driven, you know, impulse decisions, you know, very high. But I think at the same time, right, like, if I see a pair of shoes or I can search something by a SKU number in Google, and every single place that sells that item is gonna show up, right? And I can see 15 different places that sell that exact product. And so I have no incentive to purchase now, right? I can always wait. I can research further. And I think to some degree that could be detrimental to businesses in which people are really methodically buying. I don’t know if you see that in your business?
[00:15:41] Karleen: I do see that when I have like a new launch of, like recently I just got some wool interlock knits that are dead stock and they’re amazing quality, but, the first day I actually put it out past the newsletter subscribers and put it onto Instagram. There were orders coming in where people were buying, you know, like five and six yards of each color and…
[00:16:04] Spencer: Oh my gosh.
[00:16:04] Karleen: You know, and I don’t know what you’re gonna do with all of that, but if, you know, there’s obviously some demand for it, but it’s kind of fun to think, oh gee, I picked something that other people like. And you know, I learned a long time ago, a dear friend of mine, she’s still a great friend and she also had an online fabric and yarn store and she said, “Karleen, don’t buy anything that you’re not gonna love because you may end up wearing it for the rest of your life.” So, you know, if I don’t wanna see something on every family member in the same fabric, I better not buy it. So I do try to pick things that I think are a great quality and something I would wear and I would sew with, and that if I had to wear it for the rest of my life, I could live with it.
[00:16:46] Spencer: Yeah. What a great piece of advice. Right. I mean, that’s probably, I think, you know, apart from kind of the dead stock niche, I think that’s a good lesson for everyone, that especially within the quilting and fabric space, right. That like, since it is so useful, you know, if, if you pick something that you’re like, well, I hope that this will, you know, I hope this will take off. If it doesn’t, then you know what’s next, right?
[00:17:11] Karleen: Everyone is gonna be wearing yellow and blue striped clothes for the rest of my career. Huh?
[00:17:16] Spencer: Yes. Yes, exactly. Okay, so let’s kind of shift gears here a little bit. I want to talk about, I guess, what would you say is one of the more difficult parts of being a fabric retailer, especially maybe in the garment and fabric industry?
[00:17:32] Karleen: Well, I think there’s great competition, but I think that’s the same in quilt or in garment fabrics. Just the competition is fierce and it’s, I mean, there’s a lot of wonderful shops. Portland is a mecca for fabric stores. I don’t know. I mean, people who are fabric zealots, they probably know all the great spots in Portland, Oregon.
[00:17:52] Karleen: And yeah, because we have, you know, Janssen and Pendleton and all those things here, we’ve got amazing, you know, Millen pieces available too, but, I think the hardest part is just, you know, kind of getting out there, being ahead of it. And the thing that I’ve always focused, I think this comes from my real career too, is customer service. To me, if somebody places an order, they’ve given me their money, they’ve asked me to do something for them. So for me, getting that product out within 24 to 48 hours max is important and That’s just a huge piece for me, that customer service. I can’t control what the post office does or UPS, if that’s what we end up using, but my job is to get it to them as quick as possible, because like you say, when they’re online and they’re shopping and they’re kind of in this excitement stage, I want them to get that fabric and be excited about it the day they receive it too.
[00:18:43] Spencer: Yeah, I mean that, certainly so applicable in the way that you feel about a purchase, right? Because if you make a purchase and it says this will be there in 21 to 28 days, you know, in 14 days you’re probably not very excited about it anymore.
[00:18:57] Karleen: You’ve moved. You’ve moved on to something else.
[00:19:00] Spencer: You have. You have, because typically you buy something for use soon, right? Most people don’t have the foresight to shop for themselves, you know, a month out . And so that, that fast, you know, kind of turnaround time is really helping the customer experience, and also probably aiding in return customers, right?
[00:19:18] Spencer: If they know that you’re reliable in the amount of time that it takes from, you know, click, buy, to it arrives at my doorstep because that is so crucial here, right? With you being an online exclusive business, you don’t actually get that in-person validation, right? Like everything that you’re doing is via email via your website, your social media, you know, and obviously to a degree, the amount of time that it takes for, you know, a package to ship from your door to theirs.
[00:19:48] Karleen: Yeah, one of my favorite things is when I get either an email or an Instagram or Facebook message back from a new customer saying, Hey, I got my fabric. I love it. I’m excited to sew with it. You know, speed was wonderful. You know, again, customer service is kind of the nature what I think I have to offer; exceptional customer service to every single, you know, purchaser. They have a question they want, you know, to talk about. Can you sit this fabric next to that fabric and send me a picture so I can see the two of ’em together? You know, if I make this blouse out of, you know, this and these slacks out of that, does it match? Does it work? I’m happy to do that. You know, it just, I think you know, online fabric buying, especially when you’re talking about something you’re gonna wear and put on your body, the color and the tones are really important and everyone’s monitors being so different.
[00:20:35] Karleen: It can be a little bit, you know, overwhelming. So I’m always happy to help people and answer questions. And, you know, a lot of new sewists will even say, Hey, is this fabric a good weight for sewing this garment or that garment? And, you know, They picked something that I think that’s gonna look really kind of stiff and not comfortable, maybe you wanna pick something a little bit, you know, lighter weight or something, happy to help and give them my thoughts or my opinions before they invest in fabric. Then they go, oh, this wasn’t what I hoped it would be.
[00:21:05] Spencer: Yeah, sure. I love that. I love the customer experience side of being an online retailer, but not being a faceless online retailer, right. Yeah. Like you are present, you are the business still, even though it’s online.
[00:21:19] Spencer: Okay. So as we kind of continue to talk about this, I’m curious you know, what have you noticed about customer shopping behavior in the last couple of years, and particularly around, you know, garment fabrics and fabric shopping. You know, obviously I really like to talk about the industry and kind of keep my finger on the pulse of the fabric and sewing industry and from your point of view, you know, being a dead stock, not exclusively, but you know, a big part of your business and in a garment fabric retailer. What’s your feel on, you know, kind of customer shopping trends?
[00:21:51] Karleen: Well, I think Covid was certainly an anomaly. That first March of 2020 was definitely the biggest month sewing studio has ever had. People kind of hunkered down and said, okay, what am I gonna do with my time? So since then, I think we’ve gone through some ups and downs where, you know, summertime tends to be a little bit slower just because people are able to be outdoors, not hiding behind the snow, But I think the community that I cater to still is all about natural fibers. They want to do whatever they can that’s sustainable. And the natural fiber world is kind of where home sewists definitely seem to be focused. I don’t tend to carry any, if all anything, and it’s all polyester and sometimes they have a poly blend in something just to add a little bit of structure. But yeah, I think people just really, it’s my customer base anyway, they really are focused on sustainability and the dead stock appeals, but also the natural fiber piece definitely appeals.
[00:22:51] Karleen: I also sell a lot of indie patterns, so people tend to support the indie pattern designers. I don’t sell any of the big four. They can get those pretty easily from a million different paid places. So I support some of the indie designers and some of the, you know, notions that go with sewing. So in theory, they should be able to buy most everything they need for the project. A lot of home sewists are in areas where they don’t have access to any sort of reasonable space to go get interfacing or thread or buttons. So having kind of a little bit of everything helps them.
[00:23:29] Spencer: That’s really interesting and it’s interesting to see how, you know, becoming or, you know, participating in more environmentally sustainable products is actually bolstering your business to a degree, right? That has kind of created this niche in which you’re, you know, have really found great success.
[00:23:48] Spencer: Okay let’s keep going here. Kind of one of my last questions. I know there’s a lot of people who listen to this podcast who probably have a few questions for you, but if I were to guess that one of their main questions would be, how did you grow your newsletter to a place where it is a major source of. you know, consumer buying for you, right? Like you mentioned that a lot of times, you know, your fabric goes at least exclusively first to that newsletter group. But if I am, you know, if I just barely opened a quilt shop or I’m trying to grow my fabric store, I am probably wondering, how do I even get started collecting email addresses, right? Like, it’s not that you could just go buy an email list, like it doesn’t really work like that in this space, right? You have to really cultivate that. So tell us how you got there.
[00:24:37] Karleen: Well, I did start with Lou Ann’s original list. She did have an email list.
[00:24:41] Spencer: It does help to start from somewhere.
[00:24:43] Karleen: Yeah. I’m not sure how many of those people were still sewing when I took over the studio. And again, she had passed away a couple years before I took over. So there was a gap, which I’m sure they, some of ’em had left the space or my email addresses weren’t valid any longer. But after that it was literally word of mouth, Instagram, Facebook, more probably Instagram for garment sewists than Facebook.
[00:25:07] Karleen: I sponsored or co-sponsored a event called Portland Frock Tails, which is where people sew a garment and they come to an event one night in the year and everybody shows up with our homemade garments and we celebrate, have some raffles and some food and some treats and things like that. So getting out in the Portland community helped a lot and just being available to, you know, people, when they ask questions, they send emails. Again, that is kind of my, I guess my niche is customer service and just being helpful.
[00:25:39] Spencer: Yeah. I love that. I think that’s a great lesson in being a part of the community, even as an online retailer, you can still, you know, have a face and be a part of a community and build that kind of sense of, okay, I know who Karleen is. I don’t go to or shop to see her, but I know who she is. I know who I’m interacting with on the other side of this purchase.
[00:26:04] Spencer: Well I just wanna say thank you so much Karleen, for being on with us today. I learned so much about your store and I hope that all of our listeners as well will take away some really some valuable insights. Before we go, tell us where we can find you your website, your socials you know, and where we can hear from you.
[00:26:22] Karleen: Sure. My website is sewingstudio.com. And on social, I am pdxsewingstudio. So at Instagram or Facebook, it’s pdx, which is the Portland Airport Code. So pdxsewingstudio. There’s other sewing studios, I think on Florida area, but we’re pdx sewing studio.
[00:26:42] Spencer: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for being on with us today, and I hope you have an awesome day.
[00:26:47] Karleen: Thank you so much.