If you’re a fabric aficionado/addict, you probably have your dream fabric shop all planned out in your mind. But what is the life of a fabric store owner really like? Cia Blum has been running the popular online shop Cia’s Palette with her husband Mark for four years now. Cia’s Palette is a favorite among quilt/craft bloggers because of her focused selection of modern and reproduction cotton prints, Cia’s indie business spirit, and of course her wonderful customer service. She took the time to answer my questions during a rather busy time — tax season, filling a gazillion orders for Denyse Schmidt’s new line, and moving into a brick-and-mortar storefront for the first time …
Whip up: How did you come to sell fabric online?
Cia Blum: My name is Cia, and I am a fabriholic. *:o)
I blame it on my mother, mostly. My mom is one of those people who can make anything at all without a pattern, in no time at all, and have fun doing it. When I was little, she made most of my clothes and we were always making little toys and fun things together. She would take me shopping for fabric and point out which were the really fabulous ones, and even though she says I was mostly bored with the whole thing it’s obvious that a lot of it really sank in because now I am totally in love with fabric. Obsessed even. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, Mark (my husband and business partner) and I went to visit friends in Winona, which is a town in southern Minnesota, and we spent an entire day raiding tiny little fabric shops out in the country, looking for “finds”. Even on my days off I’m looking for fabric. It’s sort of sick, really. Luckily, Mark is now interested (and surprisingly knowledgable) so it’s not a pain to have him along like it used to be. We used to live in Portland and I loved to go to the Daisy Kingdom (now closed, sob). In those days, he would have been one of the many husbands you’d see sleeping in a car out in front of the store. I suspect now he might actually come in (sort of a scary thought for some reason). He’s constantly cracking me up by knowing *anything* at all about fabric. I don’t know why, but I find it hilarious that he knows about fat quarters and toiles and can pick out an Amy Butler print in a fabric shop. Are guys supposed to know these things?
WU: What’s your personal stash like?
CB: Way too huge. I tend to focus on vintage stuff and nice repros. And I love Japanese prints.
WU: Are you a quilter yourself? If so, what kind of quilting do you do? What was your evolution as a quilter? What are your influences? What kinds of quilts do you admire most?
CB: Yes, I love to quilt! I really prefer hand piecing but I also have a Singer Featherweight that can stitch really really slowly, which I find very pleasing for some reason. (I think I must be a throwback to some pre-industrial age.) When I was first learning to make quilts, I completely immersed myself in the huge variety of patterns you can make using just squares and triangles. That eventually led me to a fascination with quilts from the 16th through 19th centuries — especially since I was starting to see so many amazing reproduction fabrics on the market around that time. Now I’m just into any quilt or fabric piece that’s artistic and well-executed — especially the quirky ones. If someone’s doing something unusual or slightly eccentric, chances are I will adore it. I love Chris Roberts-Antieau, the Lubbesmeyer twins, Nancy Crow, Denyse Schmidt, Jane Sassaman, Gwen Marston, Cheri Saffiote-Payne, B. Michele Maynard — there are so many. I’m always looking.
WU: What did you do before Cia’s Palette?
CB: Oh, a little of everything. I’ve done the standard restaurant thing, worked in a toy store, played drums in an indie rock band, worked in another fabric shop (which shall remain nameless). I was even a cabinetmaker’s apprentice for awhile when we lived in New York. Mostly just regular job jobs. Whatever it took to pay the rent (and feed my fabric addiction).
WU: Do you run Cia’s Palette full-time?
CB: More than. It’s one of those jobs where you take an hour or two off at a time. We’re often up until 2 or 3AM, answering emails and generally taking care of business. I’d love to get away for a week or two, but it hasn’t happened since we started the business and I don’t see it happening any time soon. Owning a business requires a time investment that I could not possibly have imagined before we started doing this.
WU: Is it just you, or do you have staff?
CB: I guess we have sort of a temp staff. Mark and I try to handle as much of it as we possibly can and get people we know to help out when we’re swamped. It’s looking more and more these days like we might need to hire someone full time, though. After four years of doing this, we’re hitting that point where we’re just too busy to handle it on our own some days. I guess that’s a good thing, right?
WU: Do you work from home or do you have a shop?
CB: Funny you ask–we just signed a lease on a storefront last week. Before that we were sort of half and half: We did part of the business from a home office but the fabric has always been in a warehouse. We tried doing it all from an office when we first started, but we only had a couple of computers at that point and we quickly realized that going to the office every time we needed to use a computer was not working out too well. Soon it will all be from our brand-new location in south Minneapolis where, for the first time since we started this business, we’ll be open to the public. I’m very excited about that because it means I’ll finally get to actually meet some of our customers. We officially move in on May 1. It’ll probably take a few weeks to get the place ready before we open.
WU: How would you characterize Cia’s Palette?
CB: Not too big. Hopefully easy to shop. Geared toward people who are looking for something out of the ordinary. The kind of fabric store I’d want to shop in if I didn’t already own the place.
WU: What are the biggest challenges and biggest rewards of being a fabric merchant?
CB: For the last couple of weeks, the biggest challenge has been filling all the orders for the Denyse Schmidt collection! It’s been really, really crazy around here ever since we put her stuff up on the website. Other than that, I’d have to say learning to run an e-business on the fly has been both very challenging and extremely rewarding. It’s been a real learn-as-you-go process. Mark and I have both worked in retail, but doing an online business is so different. For one thing, you never really get to meet your customers. That can be a little frustrating. It’s very odd knowing that many of my relationships these days are email-only, and that I’m good friends with a lot of people I’ve never actually met. On the other hand, I’ve formed relationships with people all over the planet–people I never would have met in the first place if it weren’t for the Internet–and that’s pretty incredible. And I’d have to say it’s one of the biggest rewards. Our customers are the greatest people. I feel so honored to be included in their lives and their projects. People send me photos of the things they’re working on, stories about their families and the people they’re making things for. When I’m cutting fabric, it’s fun sometimes to think about what the fabric might be used for. It may end up in a kid’s favorite blankie or some work of fabric art or a beautiful quilt that will be in someone’s family for generations. No matter what it is, I know it’s going to be a special part of someone’s life. And when a customer sends me a photo or a story, I get to share in that in some small way, and I love it. I know it’s silly, but I still get an enormous kick out of seeing a photo of something someone made from fabric they bought in our shop and being able to say, “Hey! I know that piece of fabric!”
The other great reward is seeing this business actually work. I’ve never done anything like this before and it was a total unknown for both Mark and I. We started with very little money, no experience in running a business, and no real reason to think we could actually pull it off. If we had been a little smarter, or we’d known in advance what was involved, I seriously don’t know if we would have attempted it. For one thing, neither of us knew much about computers. We didn’t even own a computer until about five or six years ago. Neither of us had really ever even used one. So it makes perfect sense, then, to start an online business, right? :) Our life has been completely changed by computers and by the Internet. And to be able to do this is just extraordinary. The first couple of years were so scary. We were right on the edge of poverty much of the time. The day I quit my regular job, I felt like I had just jumped off a cliff. You’d think it would have been one of my greatest days, but I seriously thought I was going to have an ulcer. But it worked and it’s working and I love it. It’s been the scariest, most difficult, most expensive and most time-consuming thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’d do it again in a second. And I am proud as heck to be able to call myself an entrepreneur. Some days, Mark and I look at each other and go, “Hey! This is a real business!” It’s been a great experience.
WU: What are current trends in cotton prints? How have the trends evolved since you’ve been in the business?
CB: When I first started working in this business, Kaffe Fassett had just introduced his first fabric line. Most everyone I worked with thought it was an amazing collection, but it really didn’t sell very quickly for the first year or so — at least in our shop. Thank goodness Rowan knew enough to stick with it and make it available for several years (very unusual in this business) or a lot of people would have completely missed out. The quilting craze has really caught on with a younger group since that time and the fabric industry is changing to reflect that influence, but slowly. Amy Butler was truly a breath of fresh air and now I think Denyse Schmidt is also having a profound effect by providing what a lot of quilters and crafters have been looking for. The big Spring fabric show [in Minneapolis, MN] is just around the corner and I can’t wait to see what’s new from all of my favorite designers. It seems like the Shabby Chic thing is fading and we’re moving on to more interesting prints in unexpected new color palettes (hooray!). More and more lines are being designed by recognizable artists with a real flair for color and graphics. The trend toward not-so-solid solids, pioneered by Ginny Beyer and Patrick Lose, continues with lots more amazing (and highly usable) tonal prints (so much so that actual solids are starting to seem almost exotic!). And we continue to be totally spoiled by the sheer range of prints available in every style imaginable. When you think of the few icky little calicoes they had to work with in the ’70s, it’s a wonder quilting ever became so huge!
WU: You say on your “about” page that you only sell fabric that you love, and that you’re not trying to be all things to all quilters — will you talk more about that? Why not expand?
CB: We’re expanding all the time, but our “About” page sort of states my mission statement, which is to stay focused on the fabric and try not to get too diverted by the fact that it’s a business. I got into this because of my love of fabric and because I was inspired by a few great online shops that I thought were exactly what an online shop should be. There’s a tendency in this business to try to stock everything in the world, and of course some shops do that. But when I first started shopping online, I found most of the huge online megastore places weren’t all that convenient to shop. Shopping online isn’t like walking into a fabric store, where you can sort of take it all in at once. Online, if a shop has 20,000 fabrics, it quickly turns into information overload. I don’t find it fun to browse at that point–it just becomes a chore. Especially when most of it is stuff I would never want to buy in the first place. I’d much rather find a smaller shop that has a smaller, more focused inventory and is more dependably in tune with my tastes. I like it when a store has a personality–not merely a huge selection. I want our site to be fun to shop. That’s very important to me. So the idea was to skip the stuff that either I knew everyone in the world would be carrying, or stuff that I thought was just plain boring or ugly. I try to concentrate on things that are useful and special and perhaps a bit out of the mainstream. Of course we’ll expand and evolve like any other business, but I’m sure we’ll always be smaller (and hopefully a bit more focused) than the “big guys.”