Thursday, November 13, 2014

Romancing the Gnome


Christmas approacheth again, damn it. I was one of those idiots who did it in the spring and produced a child right before Christmas, so I also have to contend with a birthday at the same time as wondering why I ever thought making the children believe in Santa was a good idea. The kids know we don't have a lot of cash on hand, so they figure they'll just ask us for one small thing and Santa will take care of the rest.

Every time we talk about Christmas, my husband says, "Hey, you should do a Christmas sale!" And I say, "A Christmas sale of what?" And he says, "Your book," and I go, "Oh, yeah," because yes I do forget about it sometimes.

But, first let me tell you that I have signed up for NaNoWriMo, which, for those of you that don't know, is National Novel Writing Month. Each year, people pledge to write a 50,000 first draft of a novel during the month of November. You need to average about 1700 words a day to finish by November 30.



I mentioned in my last post that I had been wanting to write something as a sort of practice novel, but my year plus of ennui has gotten in the way. And so many of you responded with OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE WRITE THAT I WILL BUY SO MANY COPIES. If you ever think that commenting on some rando's blog just goes out into the ether and disappears, I am here to tell you you are wrong. Every single comment and email I got meant the world to me, and I read each one over and over. A friend mentioned NaNoWriMo a few days later and I decided to take the plunge and announce it on Facebook, so I'd have some chance of actually doing it. I like deadlines and obligations—I'm weird that way.

I spent the next few days with a notebook and pen, sketching out the details of the plot. After about 15 handwritten pages, I decided to just dive in, even though November hadn't officially started yet I wrote 5000 words by October 31, and I'm already over 15,000 words in as of today. There is indeed a hot fireman, some evil quilters, a garden gnome, a possibly demonic cat, and a lovable quilt pattern/fabric designer with a smart mouth and an intermittent ability to make things move with her mind. The process has already been utterly fascinating, and I can certainly see where I have PLENTY of room for improvement, but there have been moments where I actually made myself laugh, and that's always a good thing. It's a wonderful feeling to go back over something and realize you actually wrote the words, "Who the fuck do you think you are, coming over here and talking shit about my garden gnome?" and know that, though there are many other flaws, at least that one line is just right.

So, thank you. You kicked my butt hard. And I liked it. Do it again.

And just for you, because I love you, I am putting signed copies of my book on sale for the month of November. They won't be on sale at this price anywhere else - just here, because this is for you. (I realize it's not much, but, hey, it's all I have to work with.) Until November 30, signed copies of Quilting Isn't Funny are only $10.00 plus $3.00 media mail shipping ($12 for international - see below). The only caveat is they will not be shipped until after Thanksgiving, so keep that in mind if you order. Also I apologize in advance for how may times I will mention this sale, but that is what you gotta do when you are marketing your own stuff.



International buyers, please go to my shop page to purchase. Thank you!!

And just so you know, if there is enough begging—and the begging is of high enough quality—I might share some longer tidbits from the work in progress.

Friday, October 24, 2014

I'm a Quilting Fan. I think.

Yes, I've been a wee bit quiet lately. Some of that is due to the fact that everybody in the Quilt Industry is currently in Houston for Quilt Market and I am not. This is because I am basically no longer a part of the Quilt Industry, at least not the part that goes to Quilt Market. And this is actually a good thing. I had gone to the last Quilt Market in Pittsburgh hoping to become more comfortable with the whole process (trade shows are no place for introverts) so that I could eventually go and truly market my own stuff (instead of being too embarrassed to do so), but instead it turned out to be a clusterfuck of mega-proportions, and I left feeling unsure of my future in the industry as well as unsure of even my love for quilting. Usually I  come home from Market at least somewhat excited about new fabrics and patterns. But this time? Meh. I really started to wonder if my love affair with quilting was over.

I had been thinking that my articles were starting to get that "phoned-in" feel, and I really wanted to work as an independent artist and not as anyone's employee, so I bid a final farewell to Generation Q magazine and wrote one last column for the September/October issue. I spent the summer mostly hanging out with my kids, but I also started writing a book. I wanted to remember what I love about quilting, and I wanted to impart that love to other people. I won't say much more about the book than that, but I have managed to write over 15,000 words so far. That's not a Stephen King pace by any stretch, but it's not nothing either.

I've also been planning a novel, one I have mentioned in the past. I still want to write this, though it scares me and I am still working up the courage to start. I plan for this to merely be a "practice" novel, one to help me get the feel of the process and the structure, but I do have a dream to create quilt-related fiction that isn't all treacle and sunshine and heartwarming tales of friendship and family. No, I think there needs to be hot guys, evil bitch quilters who steal pattern ideas and take the good seats at guild meetings EVERY SINGLE TIME, and it should be GODDAMN FUNNY.

But I still wasn't inspired to actually, you know, quilt. I rearranged my fabrics several times, and even acquired some more, but I still felt no call to actually do anything with any of it. I've been collecting Tula Pink fabrics for a while, and got some more over the summer, and one day while going through some drawers I came across a "fan" ruler that can be used to make wedge shapes, as for Dresden plate quilts. The ruler came with a "Fan" pattern and I immediately thought of making an "I'm A Tula Fan" quilt. I pulled out all of my TP fat quarters and started at them for several days.


Then I selected a group based on the color wheel and cut my wedges. I had no plan. I was making shit up as I went along.



I sewed the tips into points and then tried to decide among several configurations. Just a mix to make it all scrappy? Full Dresdens? Half-dresden fans? Quarter-dresdens? Color wheel? Then, once I got that all worked out, I had to figure out the centers. I had already decided to use two blender prints from Tula's Fox Field line as the background, but I wanted something different for the centers. I played around with circles and squares and hexagons until I finally came up with a hexie/circle combo that I really liked.

I spent the next few weeks hand sewing like a maniac. All those dresdens could have been machine stitched down, but I just loooove the look of hand appliqué and I didn't mind the time it would take to do it. I mean, where the hell am I going, right? But it didn't really take as long as I thought and in a couple weeks (and after watching Outlander A LOT) I got them all stitched down. I finished sewing all the individual blocks together yesterday, and it now hangs on my design wall, waiting for backing and quilting and binding and just looking like a badass motherfucker.

I am so proud of this.


Am I desperately in love with quilting again? I don't know, to be honest. I sometimes feel a bit like I've seen too much of the little man behind the curtain. I do know that writing about quilting was a hell of a lot more fun when I truly was an outsider, and not so much when I was trying too hard to not be one.

So, I don't know where the next couple of years will take me.  I think there will be a lot of experimenting, and some of that will show up here. Because, ultimately, I just want to Make Stuff, and to be proud of what I make.

Even if nobody gives a damn but me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Blog Tour: Quilt Talk by Sam Hunter

It's here, it's here, it's finally here! No, not my Tom Hiddleston fan club membership card. It's Quilt Talk, by my dear, dear friend Sam Hunter.


I've known Sam for a couple years now, but I'd say that it's been within the last year and a half that we've really become close. (But not distance-wise, because the damn woman lives on the opposite coast.) We met in person for the first time at the Houston Quilt Market in the fall of 2012, though before that we had exchanged a few emails and Facebook messages and such.

That following spring, I decided to step down from being the creative director at Generation Q magazine in order to have more time to focus on my own creative pursuits, and when Sam heard about this, she called me up. And the first thing she said to me in that phone call was, "I am so proud of you and I completely support you." She understood—more than anyone outside of my family—my need to spend my creative efforts on work that is mine alone. She got it, and she reached out to me so that I would know that someone in the world got it and would cheer me on, even if I felt like I was disappointing people who needed me. I don't know if she knows how much that conversation meant to me, but I know that it has set the tone for our friendship ever since. I can only hope that I've given her even a fraction of the love and support and understanding she gave me that day.



Over the course of the following year, Sam worked on her book for C&T, Quilt Talk, and I got to hear a lot about the process, which was pretty fascinating, and frankly involved a whole lot of cursing, but lucky for Sam I can handle that kind of thing. The book was developed from a paper-pieced alphabet that Sam designed, with projects that show how the letters can be used in different ways, from the nifty buckets on the cover above, to larger statements:



The book has a Gallery section, where Sam got several people to use the alphabet in their own way to show how versatile they can be for your own designs. AND I MADE A QUILT FOR IT, Y'ALL!!!! This quilt clearly shows how versatile the letters can be in the hands of a smart-ass:


The sewing machine, the flames, and part of the spool are raw-edge appliqué, something I had never really attempted before. The thread, the sewing machine foot, and the wheel are all embroidered. And the quilting was done by the incomparable Lisa Sipes. The sewing machine is my design, one that I've used before on various pieces of merchandise.




And yes, I open the book and lovingly stroke the page my quilt is on (41) A LOT and I am not ashamed of it. Much.

So, let me tell you why you need this book, other than the amazing and beautiful quilt that is on the bottom of page 41, which—though I'm not making any promises here—could in fact change your life.  Sam doesn't just give you a whole bunch of paper-piecing patterns and some projects. Nor does she waste time with the "here's a completely abbreviated lesson on how to make a quilt" chapter (and you all know my pet peeve about that). The whole first section of the book is dedicated to helping you understand typography (you need to know about ascenders and descenders and leading), choosing fabrics for lettering, and working with re-sizing the letters to fit the project you want to make. THIS IS A BIG DEAL. What I love most about this book is that while it does give you projects that you can follow to the letter (heh - see what I did there?), it also gives you the tools and the encouragement to make your own statements. It can be hard to follow your own creative path, especially when there are so many beautiful quilts out there that seem so much better and more interesting than what you can come up with yourself.  But with words, well, just think of all the things you can say! And Sam makes sure that you can say anything you damn well please—in quilt form anyway. Because that's pretty much who Sam is: she's the cheerleader for anyone who wants to create, the person who says, "I know you can do this, and here's some things to help you start."

I am very honored to be the first stop on the blog tour for Quilt Talk. You know those buckets on the cover of the book? Sam has put together special patterns for making the word section of those buckets into color names for sorting scraps (or yarn or FQs or underpants—whatever). You'll still need the book to make the buckets, but each stop along the tour will have a PDF of the letters for each color word. My color is PURPLE, because it is the best color in the world and most expresses my true nature: a royal pain in the ass.



See how lovely they all look?



You can download your "purple" letter section here!

Here are all the stops on the tour so you can get all the color patterns:



NOW - DO YOU WANT TO WIN A BOOK? Of course you do, you avaricious little darlings, you. To win a copy of Quilt Talk:

1. Leave me a comment below telling me what your quilt (or pillow or wall hanging or bathmat) using Sam's letters would say. And remember where you are, people—dirty and profane are TOTALLY FINE.
2. To get an extra chance to win, go to my Facebook page and share the post that links to this one on your own page. Make sure your privacy settings are set so that I can see it, or come back here and tell me.
3. For another entry, pin one of the above images on Pinterest.
4. And finally, for another entry, say something about Quilt Talk on Instagram. Use the hashtag #quilttalk and tag me, @meganzdougherty.

You have until midnight, EST on October 19 to enter. Winner will be announced on Tuesday, October 21.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Super Helpful Amazon Product Reviews



Sew-Rite 6000 Sewing Machine with Extendo-bed
2 out of 5 Stars
I bought this sewing machine because it was the first item that came up when I did a search for 'bestest sewing machine ever in the history of the universe' so I trusted that I would be getting a good one. It even has a picture of a country music star on the box, so that was another indicator of quality. I was impressed with how lightweight it was—I mean, why do they make stuff so heavy you have to ask a guy to carry it and then you remember you don't have a guy and then you get all depressed and eat donut holes and write One Direction fan fiction until you pass out? That's not really serving the customer. I also appreciated the inclusion of a box of Sharpies for 'personal customization.' I drew Harry Styles giving me a foot rub. All in all, this was a pretty great machine.

However, I am only giving it two stars because the country music singer on the box is sleeping with my Harry and I hate her and I hope she dies in a freak sewing machine accident.


Stitch Master plastic bobbins, pack of 100
1 out of 5 stars
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY BOBBINS I ONLY NEED 10 BOBBINS NOT A HUNDRED PLEASE MAKE A SMALLER CONTAINER OF BOBBINS SOME OF US DON'T SEW THAT MUCH YOU KNOW

ALSO THEY SHOULD BE PURPLE. I LOVE PURPLE.

AND CATS


Making Old Quilt Patterns Look Original, by Trudy McQuilterpants
5 out of 5 stars
I was SO excited when my dear, dear friend Trudy sent me a copy of her new book. Since we are such dear, dear friends, I knew this book would be something special. And boy was I right! This book has it all: lots of pictures of quilts draped across sofas, quilt patterns that have been around since time began but are now totally different because they're, like, way bigger and not brown, and writing that doesn't dare to get too interesting. I hope to be famous someday just like Trudy and I totally don't mind that she stole my idea for this book because now I'm sure she'll let me sit by her in our next guild meeting! Call me, Trudy! Love ya!


6.5-inch square acrylic ruler
4 out of 5 stars
This is a great ruler, but I just got a new pattern and I need 4-inch squares. So now I have to buy a new ruler. They should come in a set of ALL the sizes, not just one. Also, does anybody know where to get purse-shaped rulers?


Blankets-n-Bulges 2015 Calendar
1 out of 5 stars
THEY ARE QUILTS NOT BLANKETS. ALSO BULGES APPARENTLY MEANS MUSCLES NOT WANG. DISAPPOINTED.


A Quilt to Remember, by Lavinia Havisham-Toshington
2 out of 5 stars
Perhaps Miss Havisham-Toshington is unaware of the long, long tradition of quilt-related fiction into which her novel falls, but someone needs to inform her that in this tradition, people simply do NOT do naked, dirty things with each other. I purchased this novel assuming, as anyone would, that I would be reading yet another wholesome account of how a quilt brought together a community or a family and that my heart would be warmed by a tender account of friendship and potluck suppers. Instead, the only thing warmed was an unmentionable place and I feel violated. I did not appreciate being subjected to several long chapters devoted to extremely energetic couplings between Lance, the gorgeous ne'er-do-well farm hand with a shady past, and Sasha, the beautiful eldest daughter of a cruel man who inherits the family farm and vows to show her father that she can grow corn and milk cows and save the land from foreclosure while lusting after a man she knows she shouldn't want but does anyway. The only reason there's a quilt in the title is because there's an old one in the barn and they keep explicitly fornicating on it instead of quietly going into a bedroom after getting married and then not talking about it like normal people. I had to buy the entire series just to see if they were all as bad and they certainly are. In fact, I have to keep reading them over and over because I honestly can't believe people like this stuff and maybe I'm missing some redeeming aspect of the story, but it's all just bosoms and buns and hay bales. I would have given this zero stars, but I imagine some of those "modern" quilters might like this.

••••••••

You can read a whole book of my humor columns from my years at Quilter's Home and Generation Q magazines, Quilting Isn't Funny. Get a signed copy or a PDF here or order from Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions available.)


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Favorite Shops

Being a kinda-sorta small business person, I pay a lot of attention to how other (real) businesses work. Turns out most of them do not use my "hope money miraculously shows up in my mailbox" method of self-marketing. (I still think that might pan out for me someday.) After writing about the difficulties many people find shopping and working at one of the big chain fabric stores, I wanted to counter that with something a little more positive, and I thought I'd tell you about some of the places where I buy fabric and why I like them so much.

I would love to shop more at local quilt shops, but the two that are nearest to me just don't serve my needs well. For one thing, they don't have The Avengers running on a continuous loop over large screens all over the sales floor. (Yes, I need that to shop—don't judge.) But they are also clearly serving a different target market and don't carry the kinds of fabrics I like, and they don't tend to move the fabric they do have very quickly. I went into one shop last year around this time and again just recently, and found the exact same fabrics, and discovered many bolts from lines that are 2 or 3 years old at full price mixed into the color walls. I suspect that the fabric that moves well in these shops are batiks and who can tell when there are new batiks? They're lovely, but it's not exactly an event.

So, online shopping works well for me, plus I can do it with no pants on while eating cheese popcorn. Honestly, I shop at a lot of different places, depending on what I'm looking for and price, but for this post, I wanted to focus on online shops that also have a brick-and-mortar storefront. It seems to me that these days, in order for a store to be competitive, they have to extend their reach as far as possible, and these three are all doing that in different ways (at least different ways that I have seen). They also all three have very friendly and responsive service, and our recent conversation shows just how vital that can be when trying to stand out in a crowd.

And this is the first time I have ever reached out to any businesses to see if they wanted to offer readers a little something to go along with all this love, and to my surprise they all said yes! I was pretty sure they were going to back away quickly when they saw it was me, but no! (This list was made well before I asked and would not have changed even if they had said no.) I'm not going to question that any further; I'm just gonna go with it. Each store has offered a coupon code for readers, so check the bold type at the end of each listing for the details. (Each one is a little different).



1. Fabricworm: Advertising Works

Fabricworm was one of the first online shops I took notice of when I started quilting, and that was because even back then, in 2008, they were advertising everywhere. So many blogs had that cute little worm somewhere on the sidebar, so of course I clicked on it. Back then, as I recall, Fabricworm was an Etsy shop, and they specialized in creating custom bundles of fabrics from different collections that worked well together. This was a big deal for a new quilter unaccustomed to choosing her own fabrics beyond what came in a collection. It wasn't long before Cynthia opened a brick-and-mortar shop, called Birch Fabrics,  and moved the online store from Etsy to a stand-alone site. Continuing her juggernaut, in 2009 she started her own line of organic quilting cottons, knits, and other fabrics, also called Birch Fabrics. Birch fabrics are freaking gorgeous and well worth the cost.

Seven years later, Fabricworm is still going strong and they have not let up on advertising, which I think is a very good thing. Back in 2008, after making my first purchase from her Etsy shop, I offered Cynthia an ad on my blog (even though nobody read me back then) and she eagerly took it, because even a free ad on an unknown blog will get seen by somebody. Fabricworm still advertises all over the quilternet, making sure they stay visible. (I am a big proponent of advertising, based on my experiences as the manager of a small, boutique business some years ago.) I recommend getting on the mailing list for them, as that is how you will get notice of their frequent sales and specials. Their selection is truly outstanding, and the sale fabric section is a great place to scout out some stuff you may need to complete a collection, especially when there are extra specials going on.

Fabricworm is offering $5.00 off a purchase of $25 or more with coupon code stitchb until December 15th! Big thanks to Andrea and Cynthia at Fabricworm!



2. Sew Modern: Kona, Kona, Kona - Sale, Sale, Sale!

Sew Modern's shop is located in Los Angeles, and pictures always show a bright and airy space that looks utterly inviting. Sew Modern is where the LA Modern Quilt Guild meets and so is really Fabric Central for the heart of the modern movement (heh, heh - movement). I first looked up Sew Modern when I heard that they stock every single color of Kona solids. Every. Single. One. I use a lot of Kona solids in my quilts and nobody around here carries much. Searching online for a specific color gets frustrating, especially if you need several colors and find yourself having to buy them from different places. With Sew Modern, I can get them all from one spot. And they are so fast!! I have never yet placed an order that wasn't shipped out the same day, and if they are low on a color, they let me know right away and work with me to get what I need.

After I discovered the Kona, I found the sale pages. Tons of great fabrics at great prices, with new stuff added all the time. This is where I go when I need to beef up a certain color in my stash. (Which reminds me, I'm always low on red for some reason.) Again, getting on the newsletter mailing list is a must because there are frequent sale codes and they are worth using.

And speaking of sale codes, Sew Modern owner Lauren Hawley is offering my readers 20% off until September 30!!! Use the code BITCHY20 at checkout to receive 20% off your purchase. Thank you so much, Lauren!!! Seriously, go check it out—you're going to love them. And remember the Laughter Quilt? Well, here's where you can get some Kona White to make your blocks. Now you have no excuse.


3. Quilter's Square: Social Media Masters

Quilter's Square is located in Lexington, Kentucky and from what I've seen in pictures, it's a biiiig shop. Quilter's Square first came on my radar when I realized one of the owners, Kela Curtis, was also a reader of mine and she friended me in real life on Facebook. Shortly thereafter, I began following Quilter's Square on Instagram, and this is where things got interesting.

Instagram, for those of you not familiar with it, is a social media app for phones and tablets (it also has a web-based interface) that is based on photos. You post by uploading a photo, which you can then say something about, and people who see it can "like" the photo or comment on it. If you are a quilter, I highly recommend jumping down this rabbit hole, as the quilting community there is active and very, very friendly. Many swaps and bees have sprung from Instagram relationships (a current Dr. Who-themed swap is called Make A Dalek - Make  A Friend).

I quickly noticed that Quilter's Square posts a LOT on Instagram, and many of those posts are about new fabrics that have just arrived, or they contain coupon codes (and they are sweet ones, let me tell you), or they might highlight some aspect of the shop such as CUSTOM JELLY ROLLS. Yep, want a selection of solids in a jelly roll, maybe in a specific color palette? Kela will pull the fabrics for you from Kona and Bella solids, photograph the pull for your approval, and cut your strips for you. Did I get one of these? Oh, hells, yes I did, in my favorite purple, blue, teal combo (along with a few other goodies):


Kela has been asking questions on Instagram and getting feedback and just generally using social media like a boss. In fact, her efforts paid off to such a degree that they were able to afford and purchase a POS system for the shop, which means they can now put their whole shop online! Woo hoo! Kela often does transactions through Instagram—tell her what you want and if she has it, you give her your Paypal email and she invoices you.

I really, really love Kela and her shop and if the physical store were anywhere near me, I'd probably move in and there would be cops involved and things would get ugly, but the depth of my love would be clear. They have both modern and traditional fabrics, though they mainly push the modern online. But don't be afraid to ask for what you are looking for—they are super helpful and if they don't have it, they often know who does.

Quilter's Square is also offering readers a coupon! Use code whatastitch to get 25% off your purchase from them until this Friday, September 19. The online shop doesn't show all they have (and they have a TON), so if you are looking for something specific don't hesitate to call or email or contact them through Facebook. Thank you, Quilter's Square!

Did I miss one you love? Tell me about your favorite place to shop in the comments.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thank you

I'd just like to take a minute to thank everyone for the overwhelmingly positive response to my last post. The last two days have seen all kinds of records broken on how many visits this blog has seen, plus the Facebook post that linked to it has been seen by over 20,000 people and has been shared over 200 times. The discourse in the comments has been mostly civil, and most of the people who have not experienced bad service at Jo-Ann's have expressed their contrasting stories calmly and without resorting to all caps. Most.

I was nervous about posting something so serious on my quilting humor blog, but I felt it was important. I do believe it is okay—great, even—for corporations to make money, but I also believe that it's important to understand how that money is made, and for consumers to understand that the workers at the front lines are not always the ones at fault when your shopping experience doesn't go the way you'd like. Sometimes they are, yes, but understanding what they often go through just to make it through a single shift can change your perspective a lot. I've been the person behind the register at a bookstore, the cashier at the drive-thru at McDonald's, the salesgirl on the floor of a chain clothing store, and the well-trained manager of a high-end optical store. It's all hard, hard work, and so often you are treated like dirt by customers simply because you are in a service job. Personally, I think that staying on your feet for 8 hours or more, serving customers who often think that you are beneath them, while trying to keep up with 800 other tasks is pretty freaking superhuman and deserves more than we as a society have decided those jobs are worth. In my idealistic little noggin, I imagine a world where all work is valued, not just the kind of work that requires suits and desks and degrees that are getting harder and harder to pay for.

ANYHOODLE. On Tuesday, as promised, I'm gonna tell you about three places where I love to buy fabric and a little bit about what they are doing to attract and keep business in a changing and competitive market. This is just a short and completely subjective list based upon where I shop and what my experiences with them have been. But, two of the shops have already agreed to offer coupons to my readers! Woo hoo! So, after I tell you about how awesome they are, you can go and find out for yourself - at a discount!

Then we'll get back to our regular fart joke routine. Promise.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Behind the Bolts





We all go there. It’s usually convenient; sometimes it’s the only place nearby to get that certain thing we need to finish (or start) a project. Sometimes the coupon does make the price pretty attractive. So, we go. And then we bitch about it after. Naturally, I’m talking about Jo-Ann Fabrics, the retail chain we all love to hate. There is one just minutes from my house—I could walk there on a nice day—and I have purchased tons of thread and batting and pillow forms and elastic and other things I really wanted to buy without ordering online or traveling many extra miles to my LQS to purchase. And on occasion, when I have made these trips, I have walked in, found what I needed, paid for it and walked out. Other times? Not so much.

 When people discuss Jo-Ann Fabrics, they tend to have two main complaints: you can’t find anyone to help you, and, if you do, they are cranky. Recently, I posted this photo on Instagram with the caption: “Hello? Helloooo! I just wanna buy one thing. It’ll only take a minute, I swear! Hello?”



 It just so happened that one of my Instagram followers was an assistant manager at a Jo-Ann Fabrics store, and she responded, “That’s what happens when they don’t let us have the coverage we need and want cashiers to do more and more further away from the registers. This happens on a default basis in my store, despite desperately trying to prevent it.” I asked her if she’d be willing to talk with me some more about working at Jo-Ann’s and the policies they have in place for employees, in order to get a better sense of what makes our experiences there so universally bad, and just who is responsible. And she agreed.

I worked many years in retail (though almost always for small business owners) and so I know how difficult the work can be, and how company rules can create insurmountable problems for both the shopper and the retail employee. It seemed to me that there is a general assumption that shopping at Jo-Ann’s is so bad because they probably don’t pay well and so can’t keep enough employees on hand or can’t keep good employees very long. What I learned is more complex than that, and truly opened my eyes to some of the realities of big chain business practices and how that affects both consumers and employees.

 For obvious reasons, my interviewee preferred to remain anonymous, so we’ll call her Employee X. Employee X has worked at Jo-Ann’s for 9 months and she is an assistant store manager. She was hired on in this position and works full-time. She is one of five full-time employees (four managers and one full-time worker) and she tells me that most stores have this many full-time employees. Her store also has 18 part-time workers, and part-time means they each work less than 28 hours per week. However, she says, a store might have more if the sales volume for that particular location warrants it. Her store is one of the large ones with custom framing and classes, so it has more employees than a store that doesn’t.

 If Employee X is working the opening shift, she arrives before the store opens and, among other tasks, walks the floor doing what is called a “daily store tour,” where a list is made of all the things that need to be done such as dusting, straightening displays, and cleaning up the stuff customers spill and leave on the floor just before closing the night before. Each of these tasks has to be ranked in importance and then assigned to an employee along with an estimate of how long each task should take. The list “gets added to as the day goes on, and can often span a few pages,” she says. After that, the manager on duty opens the registers, counts money, and does the daily deposit. The beginning of the day is also when any price changes are made, which usually happens twice a week.



 The management team has a LOT to do, and each manager may be a “lead” for a different aspect of running the store. There is the operations lead, who handles “audit(s) and charitable donations/discard, among other things.” The merchandise lead has to make sure all the displays are set up the way the diagrams (called planograms) sent to them from the corporate office dictate. Employee X says that whoever designs the planograms (she imagines his name is Roger) is on crack because there is always something wrong with the diagrams, which might not be evident until you are halfway through and you have to start over. There is also a store lead, and a freight coordinator (who handles unloading the truck, organizing the stock room, and stocking the store) plus another full-time person devoted to stocking. “Some stores have a full-time framing specialist; some have a full-time cashier—it all depends on their need and their volume.” The store lead, Employee X tells me, has, among other tasks, the job of “making sure we make payroll.” “Making payroll” is a phrase that crops up often in my emails with Employee X, and so eventually, I ask her to explain—and this is where things get really interesting.

 Each store has a fiscal week, and those weeks each have budget goals, both daily and weekly. The goals are determined by the corporate office and are a prediction based upon the previous year’s sales and an estimation of the cost to run and staff the store. Each daily goal added together gives the weekly goal, and a portion of the weekly goal goes toward payroll. So if the prediction is that the store will make X amount of money in that week, then a portion of that money is allowed to be used for payroll. “Every morning we do a calculation ((sales this week x scheduled selling hours) / earned hourly wage) to tell us how many staffing hours we have used. The summary tells us how many hours we have used vs. the calculation of how many hours we have earned.”

 So, if you have ever wondered why Jo-Ann’s doesn’t just staff every store with someone always at the register and someone always at the cutting counter and someone always available to help you find stuff (or multiple someones in any or all these places), this is why. Each store is only allotted a certain amount of money that can be spent each week on payroll, but the number of things that have to be done in a given day doesn’t also go down if the payroll budget goes down, nor does the budget for payroll increase if there is more that comes up to be done. On top of this, the payroll budget is somewhat tied to store performance, but is an esoteric calculation that is based on older sales numbers, not recent ones. So a store could have a suddenly busy season, but not get more payroll hours to use.

 Employee X says the corporate office “cares about payroll over everything.” Each store is pressured to come in “under payroll,” which means that they have to try and use fewer staffing hours than they have the budget for. And when I say “pressured,” I mean that they might get “written up” when they fail. Getting “written up” is another phrase that Employee X uses a lot, because apparently it’s a tool that is used a lot. Getting written up is a black mark on your record that can quickly add up to getting fired, so naturally everyone tries to avoid it. But that isn’t always easy at JoAnn’s.

 Because each store has to try to come “under payroll,” and thus keep staffing very lean, and because each staff member has a list of tasks that have to be done each day, it often happens that the staff on duty, and particularly management, has more to do than can reasonably be completed in one day. Jo-Ann’s doesn’t want to keep someone at the register all the time, because she could be doing one of hundreds of other things that need doing when there are no customers. Problem is, she has to get those things done by the end of her shift, or risk getting written up. Work overtime to get them done? No, because then the store would not make payroll. Clock out and do it on your own time? Nope—you can get written up or even fired for that. Employee X tells me she often goes with no breaks or meals for an entire day because of this, signing something called a “meal period exception” to keep corporate butts covered.

So, when you walk into a Jo-Ann’s and there’s no one at the register or at the cutting counter, it’s not because the person assigned to those places is lounging on the fleece bolts and taking a snooze. She has a long list of tasks to get done, and when there is no one at the register, she has to be working on them and they might not be located anywhere near the check-out. If you need help finding some particular item, and the person you ask doesn’t seem interested in guiding you to the correct area and discussing the relative merits of item A and item B with you, her shift may be almost over and she hasn’t been able to finish what she has to do and she’s worried about being written up. It doesn’t take being written up too many times before one is fired, and that’s a specter that hangs over everyone’s heads, even more so recently.

 A few weeks after working on this article with Employee X, she informed me that she had quit. Recently, corporate had started implementing something called “coaching documents,” which, she told me, “are basically mini write-ups to document when you talked with a team member about not using the right procedure to sell the item of the day, or ask for coupons, or sell tote bags (which is our new thing, and they’re awful), and I’m not about that. It goes against basically every study about productivity and behavior change. You don’t get real, genuine change by having your employees feel scared to not do it or get written up; you get change by making them feel empowered to do better and focusing on positives and building them up.” She had already decided to leave, but told her boss she refused to implement these changes for her last two weeks. Her health was suffering from the schedule and from never getting meal breaks, and she’s looking forward to getting her system back in order.

 It is very easy to assume that the way most businesses hope to attract and retain customers is through a policy of superior customer service (combined with competitive prices and selection), and that when the service we think we are owed is not forthcoming it must somehow be the result of employees just not caring enough to do their jobs properly. But that is not always the case, and especially when we are talking about very large, national chain stores. The daily and weekly tasks and goals that each store must meet preclude the employees spending a great deal of time with customers. When employees are skipping meals in order to complete their daily tasks, they simply aren’t allowed the luxury of taking time with customers. It’s not necessarily an issue of someone with a bad attitude who doesn’t “get” customer service. It is an issue of how large retail chains keep costs down in order to also keep prices low, while still maintaining expected profit levels.

 Add to this a chain-wide system of “write-ups” that document each time you fail to do something you are expected to do. Imagine having so many things to accomplish, and no way to add time or people to get them done, plus being worried that you’ll get written up for not finishing them. Or for forgetting to ask for coupons. Or for not using the right language to sell a tote bag. On an empty stomach.



 The takeaway I hope you get from all this is that Jo-Ann’s simply isn’t set up to be the place you go in order to interact with employees and get tons of advice and hand holding. And that it isn’t necessarily because the people there don’t want to help you, but because the staffing and payroll system prevents them from spending the time to do so. And demanding that they do when you go won’t change anything, but may end up getting someone written up. “Asking us to plan, design, sketch out, or otherwise be involved in your project is well beyond what we get paid to do, and can actually get us in trouble,” says Employee X.

 I believe there is a place in the quilting and sewing world for stores like Jo-Ann’s alongside independently owned shops (and yes, I prefer to shop with independents whenever possible). I have had a lot of quilters tell me that were it not for the cheap fabrics and thread they can get there, they would not be able to quilt at all. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a local independent shop close enough. However, we need to stop thinking of Jo-Ann’s as a place that should function exactly like those independent shops, just on a larger, and cheaper, scale. They don’t. And it isn’t necessarily the fault of the people on the sales floor.

 That’s not to say that I don’t believe places such as Jo-Ann’s can’t or shouldn’t change, only that the people on the sales floor are not the ones who can directly change it. If you think a large, corporately owned chain needs to change, you need to let the higher-ups know, not the workers. Write them. Don’t tie your comments to a particular store or employee, because that could result in unintended consequences for them, but let the big wigs know that the system as is stands makes customers angry and employees miserable.

WRITER'S NOTE: For what it's worth, I do understand that this is not the story for every single employee in every single store. I am happy to hear from anyone who enjoys shopping or working there, and I have approved every single comment I have received that tells the good side of things. I may even contact some of those people to get their side of the story for a follow-up post. If you wish to tell me about how well your store is staffed and run, please do so, but not while insulting the people who have not been as lucky as you or implying that they must be lying. Read through all the comments and you'll see too many corroborating stories for that to be the case.

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To counter all this misery, I'm working on a post that tells you all about some of my favorite online places to shop for quilting stuff and why I think they're so great. And what the hell, here's some Tom Hiddleston, too. See, I do love you.