Liz Riddle's quilt row depicts some of the hometown's attractions. Local painter Larry Dodson helped her with the artwork. It's part of Row by Row, a quilt tourism program--quilters plan their summer vacations around which panels they want.
Dade County is already a tourist mecca for your leaf-watchers—Cloudland Canyon State Park has some of the most spectacular fall colors a flatlander could hope for; your hikers—the Canyon is also famous for its trails, which link up not only with Chattanooga greenways but are part of the Great Eastern Trail, which runs from New York to Alabama; and your hang glider crowd—Lookout Mountain Flight Park attracts pilots from all over the world.
Now one crafty small business owner is making Dade a destination for yet another type of tourist, one you may not have known existed: your quilter.
Liz Riddle (left), who with her husband, Lee, opened The Lily Pad garden center on North Main in Trenton four years ago, purely loves to quilt. “You can sit down at your sewing machine and lose yourself and end up with something like this,” she says, holding up a quilt. “You’re taking something simple and turning it into a masterpiece.”
The Riddles originally ran The Lily Pad as a place to buy plants and seasonal decor. (You will have noticed it driving by even if you never had occasion to stop. Liz makes sure of that with her eye-grabbing displays of mums and pumpkins in the fall, cheerful red Santas in the winter and collision-inducin’ oh-my-God-look-at-all-those flowers in the spring.) Then they turned one room of their building, a former old-fashioned gas station, into a small food store where they sold local produce and Amish dairy goods.
But Liz was already doing contract quilting at home with her long-arm quilter, which she described as a great hulking machine that will have to stay there for the time being. “It would take up half of this room, probably,” she said.
Quilting began to take up more and more of her time, and a few months ago, Liz decided to change the food-store part of the building into a place for the quilting business instead. Thus The Lily Pad became The Lily Pad and Quilter’s Garden. “It was a way to bring it all together,” said Liz.
How do you make a business out of quilting? For those unfamiliar with the quilting process (here The Planet’s own hand is in the air), quilts are made in three layers:
the top, which quilters piece together so lovingly according to patterns they buy or make up themselves;
the bottom, or backing, which can be any material plain or fancy but: “I use a color because you can turn this over and you’ve got two quilts,” sys Liz;
and the batting, the fluffy stuff that goes in the middle to make the quilt thick and warm.
These three layers make for a pretty bulky “quilt sandwich” and it takes a heavy-duty sewing machine to stitch through it. That’s the long-arm quilter, and part of Liz’s business is charging by the square inch (1.5 cents subject to certain minimums) to sew quilts together with this behemoth.
(Photo: Liz's granddaughter Desirae Riddle displays a quilt at the shop.)
Quilters can bring their own backing and batting but The Quilter’s Garden also sells these, plus quilting patterns and all kinds of materials, notions, doo-dads, fripperies and kickshaws used in sewing. That’s another part of the business. “It’s a full fabric store,” said Liz.
Liz also gives lessons at The Quilter’s Garden, with mysterious titles like Block of the Month, Marty and Me Club and Twenty Blocks. The classes are attended by both virtuoso quilters and rank beginners, she says. She even has a couple of spare sewing machines to lend those without them, though quilting class standard is to bring your own (a point Liz says everyone knows, and The Planet did not).
And finally there’s this new phenomenon of quilting tourism. Who’d have thunk it? Liz makes it clear it wasn’t her idea, though she was pleased to jump aboard. This business of quilt vacations, embodied by something called the “Row by Row Experience,” was dreamed up by a clever quilt shop owner in Syracuse, N.Y., to improve business in the summertime.
Quilting, like knitting and soup-making, is something you think of as being done in cozy, fire-warmed homes in the winter. Then, one presumes, practitioners spend the summer months water skiing, gardening or traveling around the globe on vacation. That’s hard luck for someone running a quilt shop, who has to eat and pay rent 12 months a year. Why, thought our smart New York quilter, shouldn’t quilters spend part of their vacation visiting quilt shops?
So she teamed together with a few other shop owners in other states and started Row by Row. The idea is, a quilt shop comes up with a pattern for one row of a quilt, unique and significant to its geographical location. From Memorial Day to Labor Day the shop gives away that pattern for free. The catch is, you can’t get the pattern online or by mail, or any other way but walking into the shop.
Quilters collect eight of these patterns and from them make rows which they sew together in any order they please. The first to bring a completed Row by Row quilt into any quilt shop wins 25 “fat quarters” – a fat quarter is a quilting term for ¼ yard of fabric—with an additional prize if the quilt contains that shop’s row.
“The first year,” said Liz, “there were only five states participating. From year 1 to 5, all of the United States, Europe and Canada had begun participating. Some of my rows are in Germany.”
(Photo: Liz sells kits for the two Row by Row quilt rows she designed. Last year's theme was "Home Sweet Home.)
Quilters have embraced the Row by Row concept with wild enthusiasm, says Liz, planning their summer vacations around which shop’s patterns they wish to collect. Liz has already had European visitors in her shop to collect this year’s Trenton, Ga., quilt row.
This Liz designed herself, getting help with the artwork from none other than local painter Larry Dodson (right). The Row by Row theme for the year was “On the Go,” and her quilt row depicts hiking at Cloudland Canyon, hang gliding at Lookout Mountain Flight Park, then pausing from all this frantic motion at Wilderness Outdoor Movie Theater. (See photo at the beginning of this article.)
Liz gives the pattern away for free, but kits are a different matter. Shops sell these kits with all the makings for putting their row together, another income opportunity from the Row by Row tourism.
Liz stays too busy with the business, the lessons and the job—did we mention that she still works full-time at Parkridge Hospital?—to worry whether the quilt shop will make money. “If it’s supposed to make it, it will make it,” she said.
She just loves the whole process of quilting, she loves sharing it with the crafters who come to her shop, and she loves sending them home with a row they can sew into their quilts to remind them ever after of Trenton, Ga.
“It’s a tribute to our town,” she said.
Editor's note: Liz Riddle will be displaying some of her quilts at the New Salem Mountain Festival this weekend.
Portraits of Liz Riddle of The Lily Pad courtesy of Jerry Wallace.