Photo by Daniel Hendley
Tiny Warrenton, population about 850, may seem an unlikely spot to start a thriving niche business. But since opening her first quilt shop six years ago in a former dry cleaners, Susan Harris has amassed about 4,000 customers, many coming from 100 miles away, she says.
“Quilters are like Harley-Davidson owners or bass fishermen — they know where the good shops are, and they want to go,” says Harris. Revenue has grown 30% annually since ringing up $200,000 in first-year sales, Quilt Lizzy has expanded to two other downtown buildings and a second location in Wake Forest, and the business became the first quilt shop in the U.S. to franchise, she says.
Harris, 59, learned to sew as a young girl growing up in east Raleigh. “My mother parlor-trained us,” she says. “We were taught to cook; we were taught to sew. My mother was Depression era.” When she was about 11, Harris starting making clothes for her Barbie dolls and later for herself. “Kids picked on me for wearing homemade clothes,” she says. “But I sewed because I loved it.”
Her sister introduced her to quilting in the late 1990s, but it never occurred to her to turn her hobby into a business until her mother’s death in 2011. Working as a paralegal since 2003, frustrated dealing with disgruntled clients, she opened Quilt Lizzy — the name is a derivative of her middle name, Elizabeth — later that same year.
Harris’ original ambitions for the business were modest: She wanted to “finish” quilts — sandwiching the completed top and bottom pieces of fabric with batting between — for hobbyists and have a small online store. But to offer the Handi Quilter gadgets she wanted to sell — rulers, patterns and such — the company required her also to sell its quilting machines through a storefront.
The old dry cleaners was “covered up in vines and had birds living in it” when Harris found it in downtown Warrenton, about 55 miles northeast of Raleigh. After buying and renovating the 1,800-square-foot building, she opened for business on Oct. 1, 2011. Adding Brother sewing machines in 2014 proved to be a shrewd decision: Machine sales account for 65% of the business, and Quilt Lizzy is now in the top 10% of Brother dealers in the country.
Harris had been renting banquet space above a local restaurant for sewing classes when she heard about another old building in town that had originally been a medical clinic. “The plumbing was gone, the HVAC was shot, the basement was leaking — you couldn’t even turn the lights on,” she says. The owner, a local foundation, planned to list it for sale for $50,000. “I told my husband, ‘I don’t have $50,000. I maxed out my credit cards to start my business, and I’ve spent my 401(k). But I’ve got $10,000.’”
She eventually bought the building for $14,750. The state awarded the town a $100,000 redevelopment grant for renovations, and Harris borrowed $150,000. Before the work was finished, she spotted a third vacant building and bought that one, too, aided by another $50,000 state grant, providing enough space to accommodate the large machines used for finishing quilts.
The nostalgic quality of the historic properties helps draw people to Quilt Lizzy, says Warren County Manager Robert Davie. “It really works well in a quaint, little small town.” Warrenton, the seat of one of the state’s poorest counties, has shown signs of revitalization as new businesses fill up empty storefronts. “Lots of time you see startups, they don’t even have a business plan together,” Davie says. “Susan was different. When that comes along, you try to hang on to it.”
In August 2016, Jacqui Pritchard drove up from Jacksonville to buy a sewing machine after another retailer wouldn’t take one out of the box for a quick look. A couple of hours later, Harris and Pritchard were discussing plans for a franchise over lunch. Pritchard opened the first Quilt Lizzy franchise in April in Jacksonville.
Though she didn’t complete her degree, Harris says economics classes at N.C. State University and her experience working as a controller at Raleigh-area construction companies have helped her build the business. Many quilt shops she had visited didn’t use point-of-sale systems to track inventory and sales. “And I knew that places I liked to shop turned their inventory, moved it around, kept things clean,” she says.
Despite two expansions in Warrenton, Harris has already outgrown her classroom space, which accommodates 40. Last fall, driving back from the beach after Hurricane Matthew, she wound up in Ayden when her usual route through Kinston was blocked. The downtown district dotted with empty buildings reminded her of Warrenton just a few years ago. Aided by a $500,000 state grant for renovations, Harris plans to buy a 9,000-square-foot building with event space for as many as 100 people. She envisions it as a training center where she can bring in national educators.
“I can walk in that building in Ayden, and I can see it finished. Vision is my thing, and I get that from my dad,” the late William F. Andrews Sr., a former president of Wake Medical Center who was hired in 1957 to oversee the Raleigh hospital’s construction. “He was a vision guy.”
Earlier this year, Quilt Lizzy was named among the top 10 U.S. quilt shops by Better Homes and Gardens’ Quilt Sampler magazine.
“We’re going to take 2018 to make what we have better and better,” she says. “If you’re passionate about what you are doing, it makes it easy.”