Pink Castle Fabrics — A World of Creation and Joy

Last issue, Crazy Wisdom profiled Maker Works, a local business offering space, tools, and teaching about woodcraft, metalworking, and other hands on skills. This issue, we are profiling another business offering space, tools, and teaching, but in a very different medium. Pink Castle Fabrics has a small retail space on the West Side of Ann Arbor, and may seem modest to outsiders. But with a global reach through their online community, retreats, and Instagram feed, Pink Castle Fabrics invigorates and innovates in a uniquely modern format.

Entering, my eyes drink in the vibrancy on the shelves, each an explosion of color and softness.

Pink Castle Fabrics sits in a plain building behind the main post office on Stadium, adorned with a small sign. Primarily an online retailer of modern patterned quilting fabric, their physical space is modest yet appealing. Entering, my eyes drink in the vibrancy on the shelves, each an explosion of color and softness. Silky deep magenta fabric with gold circles, gossamer thin lawn fabric popping with pink and yellow crocuses, textured vibrant orange canvas with a tracery of the periodic table in yellow. The inventory is small and selective, and I note that the quality and variation exceed what I have seen elsewhere. This clearly isn’t your grandmother’s quilting style. Brenda Ratliff, co-owner of Pink Castle Fabrics, agrees.

It’s definitely grown, especially with the modern stuff. There’s a modern quilt guild out there now. We have one in Ann Arbor that I founded four and a half years ago, before we started our shop. Quilt guilds have been around for a long time, but the more modern national guild has grown over the last five years to international status, and they have a juried show.

Ratliff, a woman in her early 30’s with a sleek cap of light brown hair, greets me in the retail area and guides me into the back room. There I meet her husband, Jason Elliott, who manages the finances for Pink Castle Fabrics, and their son, David, who is busy coloring at his desk. We seat ourselves near David, while other employees move back and forth on their way to errands between the front retail area and the office areas behind.

Pink Castle Fabrics began as an online store four years ago, two years after Ratliff began quilting. She had been working with a business incubator in Detroit called Bizdom, when she explained:

David was born with a heart condition, so I wasn’t able to move forward with it. I tried to get a corporate job, but it’s hard to get back into work when you’ve been away, even for a few months. I learned to quilt from tutorials online. My mom and my grandma both sew, but they sew garments, neither one of them quilt. So I knew how to use a sewing machine...I knew just enough to be dangerous! [she laughs]

Elliott went to art school, focusing on 3-D animation, and did graphic design jobs and 3-D modeling for Daimler before moving over to Pink Castle Fabrics. Ratliff’s degree is in sociology, but she also went to school for marketing.

 [The] only reason our business is so big is because of the marketing we do. I’m an early adopter on social media. In 1995–96, in high school, chat rooms were just beginning, and I would skip class to chat. Lots of quilters [are] on Instagram. We’ve got 19,000 followers on Instagram.

 Brenda Ratliff, Co-Owner Pink Castle Fabrics

Brenda Ratliff, Co-Owner Pink Castle Fabrics

After opening online in February of 2011, Pink Castle Fabrics held their first sewing retreat in December that year. The retreats have grown to 200 people, are held twice a year, and sell out months in advance. They opened their first physical space in 2013 near the airport, but have since moved to Federal Street off Stadium Blvd. Given their origins, I asked them what differences they noticed between an online community and a physical one.

“It’s very different,” Ratliff began, “like two separate businesses, with online being very visual, using Instagram, Facebook. With social media you get instant feedback. Manufacturers and designers inform the community as a whole of different fabric and lines, so online buyers know what they are looking for months ahead of time.” Comparatively, with the in-store customer, “They have a purpose or project in mind when they come in; it’s a different type of buying. They are tactile buyers, they need to see what it looks like. On the computer screen color shows different. We are getting the hang of both.” Physically, “We do better with our retreats, which are a great way to learn, but they aren’t as often.”

This clearly isn’t your grandmother’s quilting style.

Explaining the sewing retreats, Elliott offered:

We call it Glamp Stitchalot. It’s just like actual summer camp. I was there at the end of the retreat, helping them tear down and taking stuff back to the shop, and a couple of the campers were like, ‘Is it done, do we have to leave now?’ They’re sad to see everyone go and they are sharing addresses, they all wanted to keep in touch. We’ve got people coming to the retreat from all around the world.

“We had one lady, Sonia, she told me two years ago: ‘My family doesn’t get it, they don’t understand how fun this is for me. I try to talk to them about fabric, about quilting, and they don’t want to hear it. It’s the first time I’ve found my people,’” said Ratliff. “It’s cool to hear that, to see them making friends with each other and keeping in touch.” 

When I remark on the exponential growth that social media and online communities have had on crafting, Elliott replied, “It’s a hobby you can do with your friends outside your house, even though you are staying home. Brenda and Dave can be in her sewing room, he’s watching TV, and you,” he gestured to Ratliff, “at the same time, are sewing and talking to your friends, who are sewing at their house with their kids.” Ratliff joins in:

Or let’s say you are working, this time of life, early 30’s part of your careers, sometimes you have to work a lot. I have a friend, she is an attorney, she doesn’t get a lot of time off, but when she does, she browses social media. It’s worldwide. First thing I do when I get up is see what people have been doing overnight, in Australia and England, it’s really cool to be able to see it. The U.S. is the biggest quilting country, but in Australia and England they do brighter colors. In Asia they do a lot of different substrates, they add in a lot more linen and lawn, they do small zaka projects, things for the home, a little basket. It’s fun to see the different projects, the way it differs, and it doesn’t really differ.

Ratliff continued:

In fact, lots of people like to do quilt-a-longs (a round robin quilt where everyone does a piece). Online, a quilt-a-long [happens such that] ‘I’m going to make this pattern this day. If you want to join, with this hashtag, quilt-a-long.’ It started three years ago with Scrappy quilt-a-long: use your scraps, use what you have, right after Christmas, [and] like 3,000 people were making that quilt that weekend. It got so big they wrote an article about it in American Quilt Retailer and other magazines. Really crazy. You can immediately start it. You can click on the hashtag and see what everyone else is doing. You can give them encouragement, you can ask a question and get an answer, especially if you’ve got the hashtag right there. It was really cool that that kind of thing started. Now people will do ‘Saturday night sew along’ and use the hashtag.

When I ask about the collaboration she witnesses within the community of her store and its retreats, her face lit up.

Quilters are just nice people. With the quilt guild retreats, we meet once a month and there’s a lot of sharing. If I’m stitching and my seams don’t match, someone may say, ‘Oh, let me show you a trick I do,’ and there’s a lot of that going on even when there’s no formal instruction. I know in some crafts some people don’t share what they learn, but this is not that type of community. With quilters, people are all about free content on their blog. If you have a question, they are very open about ‘here’s how I do this’ because that helps everybody. I’m not going to steal your technique, it’s just a technique.

We’ve got people coming to the retreat from all around the world.

Community is a tangible asset of quilting, but other, intangible benefits, also accrue. Elliott reflected, “I think some of it is so many people these days have jobs where they don’t actually produce something. They have jobs where they work at a computer, or they answer phones. They don’t make anything and this is something they can make.” I noted that it also gives the fulfillment of completion, which causes Ratliff to sit up in agreement.

Right, my email box will never be empty. I think that’s a lot of it. I think the people who quilt now, some of them are women who went to college and have a degree and are used to doing something and now they are staying home. That’s what happened to me. ‘I have no idea what to do and I’ve gotta do something or I’m going to go crazy.’ You have all of these intelligent people with time to do it and then, like you said [gesturing to her husband] there are other people who have these jobs they are never going to get to the end of and now they’ve got all these beautiful finished projects. I think people are missing out on trying out those types of things in school. We don’t have the home economics requirement anymore. You aren’t required to make your own clothes; don’t know how to make napkins, or something that is really, really easy. 

Elliott added, “Or what do you do when a button falls off?”

In the book Shop Class as Soulcraft (Penguin, 2010) philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford muses on how his work in his motorcycle shop feeds and supports a different consciousness: how being able to do — to pack a ball bearing with grease properly and make a wheel function — creates a sense of agency and accomplishment in the wider world. Physical action then supports the nonphysical world of values: struggle, skill, problem solving, and completion. He argues that we need the trades — wood shop, home economics — more now than ever. Work is no longer one job until you retire; many of us will hold many different jobs over a lifetime and those jobs demand a different skill set. Flexibility and adaptability are skills in themselves, helping us to accommodate the changes in our workplaces, and, Crawford argues, can only be learned through doing with the body. 

When I mention Crawford’s theory to Ratliff and Elliott, they both pause. “I don’t think people think about that when they are going into it, but yeah, I’m definitely more confident after I’ve finished projects,” said Ratliff. “I used to knit, and frogging your knitting is a sad thing; definitely easier to un-sew something than un-knit. With making a garment, it has to fit, but with quilting, sometimes you can just leave it in, that’s a mistake but it’s a design element now.” Making also creates a different relationship to your objects. Ratliff explained:

My attitude definitely changed since I learned how to quilt and learned garment sewing. I’m definitely pickier about where I buy my clothes. I’m pickier about what I purchase, I want it to be a piece that will last a long time. It may be my age, but that’s kind of a trend I see with a lot of people I know in the sewing community: less but nicer. [You] grow up, want a nicer couch. I think it’s an important thing people should learn, is how long things take to make. Now there’s like a big movement: who made my clothes? Like fashion exposed; the conditions of people working to make clothes for Walmart. I don’t think people realize, until they start looking into it, just how long it takes to make clothing and quilts and these kinds of things, even to knit a sweater. I think in Ann Arbor we see this more than in some cities, where people are over-shopped.

Elliott added, “It’s easy to throw away when you don’t know where it came from.” He also points out that it’s hard to value something when you don’t know anything about it. “People ask if you sell your quilts,” he said, gesturing to Ratliff on the sofa. “It took a hundred hours, so I’ll sell it for $2,000, and people are like, ‘You are crazy, I’ll give you $50 for it.’ The raw materials cost more than that! But if something is mass produced, you don’t know that.” Ratliff added:

There are people that do appreciate quilting as an art form. And there are art quilters out there, they are a different skill set all together. The modern quilts are meant to be used. It doesn’t mean they aren’t pretty. That’s a definite trend, people are like, ‘I’m not making this to put on my wall, on my couch, but I want someone to be warm.’ I probably have about 20 quilts in my living room.

Elliott related a story from their recent trip to Quilt Market, the major national event for quilting retailers, which emphasizes Crawford’s theory. “We were walking with Sara, and she had made her dress and people are asking her, ‘Oh, I like that dress, where did you get the fabric?’ And we go outside the market and people are like, ‘I like that dress, where did you buy it?’ It’s the same information, but a different question altogether.” Ratliff finished the story, “As soon as they found out she made it, they were like,” throwing her hands up in the air, “Forget it! Like, ‘There’s no way I could make a dress that beautiful.’ She’s 33! It’s not like she’s been sewing forever.”

While quilting cotton is stiffer than garment fabric, the skills with sewing machines are versatile, allowing for cross-pollination and experimentation. “We did a dressmaking retreat in May 2015, which is a little out of my wheelhouse,” commented Ratliff.

[Mostly] they all knew how to use a sewing machine. It was quilters who were trying garment sewing for once. A couple of the girls had never made a dress before, so we made a dress, a really big confidence booster. We focused on fit. It was kinda fun, we got to measure each other, find out what your actual measurements are and modify the pattern. We had a girl who was six feet tall — she had to lengthen it. 

Who participates and comprises their community? “[The] age range, with retreats, I thought it would be my age [early 30’s], but it’s people who are older, they have the time, the means to go. It’s harder for me to get away, I have a five year old,” Ratliff said. Added Elliott, “It’s not that the younger crowd doesn’t sew though, it’s that they don’t have the time to go. It’s a lot of new moms.” 

“I’m pickier about what I purchase, I want it to be a piece that will last a long time. It may be my age, but that’s kind of a trend I see with a lot of people I know in the sewing community: less but nicer.”
— Brenda Ratliff, Co-Owner Pink Castle Fabrics

Both express regret about the lack of gender diversity in the community. “If you are a male quilter, you are kind of instantly famous,” related Ratliff, “because there aren’t that many of them. In our society we look down at men who quilt, because they think it’s women’s work. I think there are a lot of men who would be interested; it’s geometry, it’s math, there’s men out there who like that sort of thing but who won’t do it because its a women’s thing.” Elliott added, “Woodworking is not a popular hobby for women, and I think it’s more accepted for a female woodworker than a male quilter.” 

Ratliff would love to see more men at the machine: “[It’s] kind of sad, I wish there would be more men quilters. I think it would be really nice to have more men’s take on it.” She hands me her phone with a photograph of a white backed quilt with colorful triangles creating a circle, echoing the spectrum of visual light, and said:

One guy, his wife is an author and quilts in the U.K. He made this design, elaborate triangles in a curve on a computer, because that’s his day job. And his wife taught him the skills to do it with cloth. He’s taking math and making. These guys make really cool stuff. There needs to be more variety.

Propelling all of this — quilts, making, and creating — is joy. “Those ladies,” said Ratliff, referring to the retreat goers, 

are there to have fun, that’s the thing. It’s a happy occasion for all those people. It’s a happy [craft], you think of quilts and you think of weddings, babies, birthday. Quilters do a lot for charity — do charity quilts for Mott Hospital and the VA. 

“It’s a very social hobby,” added Elliott. 

Ratliff continued: “When I say I quilt, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s nice, let’s talk about the football game.’ When they see what I actually do,” her eyes open wide and she mimics surprise, “they are like, ‘Oh, you don’t just have a store on Etsy.’ No, it’s a legitimate business with employees and taxes.” Elliott interrupts, adding, “I get that a lot, too, being a man who works in a quilt store. You always think of quilting as a grandma’s hobby, not as a younger modern thing; the perception of what it has been in the past versus what it is nowadays. Then when my friends see the fabric, they are like, ‘That’s not so bad.’”

And the future? Elliott replied: “More exporting. Countries that can’t get the fabrics that we have here and they see it through English speaking channels. Online, they are filling the need they have, but it’s hard to help them finish the project if you don’t have the tools.” Ratliff, who debuted her first fabric line in 2015, said: 

I’d like to expand to more than one physical place. More importing and add sewing machines into our shop. The Pink Castle empire. One reason our online shop is so successful is people who don’t have a quality quilt shop, shop online. Quilting is a whole world. I’d like for people to at least have the knowledge of quilting, to gain appreciation, to see it come more mainstream. 

Pink Castle Fabrics is located at 1915 Federal Boulevard, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48103. To see a calendar of classes and events, connect on social media, and browse their amazing collection of modern quilting fabrics, visit www.pinkcastlefabrics.com.


Posted on December 22, 2016 and filed under Art & Craft, Winter 2017 Issue.