Rocky Road to Kansas

Rocky Road to Kansas

<b>Owner: </b>

Dixie Kaufman

<b>Short bio: </b>

I'm from McPherson, a small town in central Kansas. (Rocky Road to Kansas is the name of a four pointed star design that dates back to the 19th century and gives me a nice logo). My background is Mennonite and, as I learned eventually, the Mennonites have a rich quiltmaking tradition. I was the second of four girls. I was fortunate to receive scholarships that took me to the University of Kansas, a graduate year at the University of Exeter in England, then another graduate year at the University of Michigan, where I received a masters degree in sociology. In 1965, I came to the Washington area and worked first as an intern in the Public Housing Administration, then with HUD in urban renewal.

<b>Why did you choose this particular business? </b>

After ten years with the government, I was struggling to feel that my work made a difference. I couldn't conceive of myself growing old and not feeling more accomplishment. In 1975 I took a six month leave of absence from my job, with the hope that I could figure out what I wanted to do. As a pastime, I began quilting. It was then I learned that my mother was an excellent quilter and had lots to teach me.

The timing happened to be good. It was just a few years after a major exhibit of American quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York. This exhibit marked the beginning of a new respect for quiltmaking as an art form and also a recognition that quilts were an important window into our social history. The result was an intense interest in the history and in quiltmaking itself. Many books were written, and a whole industry of new fabrics and quiltmaking supplies developed over time.

At the end of my six month leave, I couldn't face going back to my government job. My sister, Bonnie Wells, was in the area, and we began sewing together, first small patchwork items and then on to the quilts. For about a year, we did craft shows.

A friend suggested that I look into the possibility of a studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. I did, and spent three lean but happy years there. I set up my sewing machine, as well as quilting frame, and worked daily making potholders, placemats, baby blankets, quilts, etc. What I discovered was the warmth and comfort both men and women associated with the quilts. They reminisced about their grandmothers. The baby quilts were especially popular. In recent years, I've met several of the "babies" who still had remnants of those quilts and were taking them off to college. What can be more satisfying than that! The artists at the Factory were fun and stimulating, but in the end I realized that I couldn't sustain myself selling only my own work.

My mind turned to retail. I thought perhaps I could combine what I'd learned about the market for quilts and patchwork with my Kansas background. I might be able to use my hometown area as a source for buying and having quilts made. In the fall of 1980, I moved down the street to my current location and opened my second floor business. My family gathered round to support me. Mother became my best quilt supplier and maintained that position for many years. Her beautiful quilts dot the world. Pop, whom I'd come to think of as a renaissance man, crafted several folk art items for me to sell in the shop. The most whimsical was a series of painted wooden bugs with shoes, and some of them were dancing. My sisters scouted for Kansas treasures, especially the old quilts.

<b>Why did you choose to work for yourself rather than as an employee for someone else? </b>

I love being my own boss. I'm goal oriented and motivated. I like organizing my time and efforts, and hopefully at the end of the day feeling something has been accomplished.

<b>Description of services and/or products: </b>

The older quilts are one of a kind and unique. I generally have on hand 125 to 150 vintage quilts. I hesitate to say "antique," because I carry such a range of quilts and age is one variable. The quilts also vary in size, artistry, needlework, and condition, though I do strive for good condition. Price is another factor, and I'm pleased to offer a wide price range. In earlier years I made regular trips to the midwest and had buying stops along the route. More recently, I depend on Len and what he finds. The early settlements and the strong quiltmaking traditions in this area make it a good place to look.

A few weeks ago I hosted 26 Japanese quilters. What fun! They appreciated the early quilts, but mainly they purchased lots of old feedsacks. These date back to the 1930s and ’40s and were originally sacks filled with grain for the cattle. As a marketing ploy, the manufacturers printed the bags, very colorful and thousands of designs, so the fabric could be reused in quilts, dresses, aprons, tea towels, etc. Sometimes they didn't get used, were taken apart, washed and ironed, and put away. They've captured the imagination of many quilters and become a collectible. They're harder and harder to find, but I have on hand quite a good stash.

I don't go to market, but there are a few special items that I've carried for many years. Just the other day I received a supply of cathedral window potholders made by Mrs. Eby, who informed me that she'd recently celebrated her 96th birthday. She's so happy that she's now in assisted living with meals provided and has more time to sew! They're great hostess gifts, especially for overseas travel. The fabric treasure houses, designed and made by Mary Morine, have been a staple here for more than twenty years. They're beautifully made, with incredible detail, and their roofs open. From my Kansas supplier, Bill Hatcher, I get napkin rings and key chains made from old silver plate. The napkin rings make a nice wedding gift and the key chains a good stocking stuffer.

I still have a group of loyal customers who come in for the newly made baby blankets. Many of these are tied or machine quilted and with simple designs They're priced accordingly, and I know they're a much appreciated gift. I've made many myself and a core group of quilting buddies has provided many more. Several of my suppliers have come from quilting classes I taught years ago. I try to have a few hand quilted crib quilts as well, more complex and more expensive, what perhaps a grandmother might buy. Still, the babies don't stop coming, and at times it's been hard to keep up.

<b>What have you learned from being in business? </b>

Most important is that you have to be flexible and adapt your business to changing times. The obvious example for my business was the introduction into the American market of quilts made offshore. This happened in the late eighties and was the direct result of how popular quilts had become. I thought it compromised a great American tradition and was thus a sad commentary, but where there is money to be made.... There was no way that American made quilts could compete with the prices of imported quilts. It had a huge impact on my business. I began to focus more on antique quilts. They could not be made in foreign countries!

I looked to other products. In 1988 I first offered to my customers the "Vera Bradley" line of handbags, luggage, and accessories. They are the very colorful and handsome fabric bags that you can't miss seeing on the streets. The company has enjoyed overwhelming success. New fabrics, styles, and products are regularly introduced. Soon I'll have the "pet collection," which includes carriers, collars, and leashes in some of the most popular fabrics. Later in the fall, in time for holiday shopping, other new items will arrive including belts, watches, an IPod case, even padded hangers and more. As the "Vera Bradley" company has grown and expanded its product line, I've increased my inventory accordingly. I try to keep a great selection and reorder frequently. The "Vera" items display nicely with the quilts.

<b>Share an anecdote of a challenging or humorous experience or biggest surprise learned from working your business: </b>

Well, there was the gentleman from Scotland who purchased two very good antique quilts and then packed them with a bottle of booze for the trip home. It turned out to be a bad idea, because the bottle broke. He was back the following year, confessed, and bought two more.

<b>What have been the advantages and/or disadvantages of operating a business in Alexandria? </b>

Alexandria has been a great location for my business. It's a destination for tourists, for business gatherings and for visitors from the greater Washington area, and that's been very helpful to me. Even the proximity of the airport has been a plus. A large part of my customer base has always been from outside Alexandria, many from out of state, and many from overseas. They are often repeat customers, although there might be years in between visits. I surmise they are quilt lovers, attracted by the large inventory of quilts and also being able to buy something "made in America." I've been told repeatedly that my quilt inventory is unique. The fact the embassies are nearby and that there's a significant foreign population in the metro area has been a benefit. Quilts are associated with America and appreciated world wide. I've found that often it's the one item a visitor would like to take back home.

<b>Manager: </b>

I tend the shop myself, with the help now and then of some very good friends. Most often of late this has been Virginia Vis. Virginia has a business of quilt restoration, cleaning and repair. I'm asked about these services frequently and refer people to Virginia. She meets clients in my shop.

<b>Key staff: </b>

In the mid ’80s, I began doing business with Len Vaughan, who had taken an early retirement. He became very interested in the antique quilts and also in attending auctions, which traditionally have been the market place for the older quilts. Through the years he has traveled, mainly day trips in the region, and has been the main source of my extensive quilt inventory. He also buys old quilt tops and patches, feedsacks, other textiles and an assortment of collectibles and just fun stuff which I have in the shop.

<b>Professional affiliations/associations: </b>

I've belonged to the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association since it was established in 1996.