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Enjoy San Joaquin Valley Living

Thimble Towne Offers Quilting Opportunities For All

Apr 27, 2015 10:47AM ● By Brandi Barnett

Bursting at the Seams

May 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Josiah Alter

Whatever you think you know about quilting, you can go ahead and leave at the door. The hobby has come a long way since covered wagons and bonnets were the rage, when grandmothers quilted patchwork fabrics by candlelight from the comfort of a rocking chair.
All technological advances aside (and machines costing in the tens of thousands of dollars), the face of quilts and quilters has drastically changed. “Sewing and quilting is like the top hobby,” insists Jeremy Swaim. And that’s coming from a guy who’s tried it all. “I’ve had jet skis, I’ve had quads, I’ve done just about every hobby out there, but quilting is the only one that lets me leave the world behind.”
Quilting has become so popular that the once casual hobby has become downright competitive. No, not a rivalry a la “West Side Story,” with knitters and quilters rumbling on the streets. We’re talking national and international competitions, quilts on display like pieces of art. There’s even a large competition held annually in nearby Lindsey.
Surprisingly, Visalia has become something of a quilting hotspot, with local quilting store Thimble Towne right at its center. Just last year, Thimble Towne was a top-10 dealer of Baby Lock sewing machines among nearly 500 retailers nationwide. And while Thimble Towne’s success has a lot to do with quilting’s popularity, it also has a lot to do with its owners, Swaim and husband Greg.
Swaim first learned to quilt from his mother about 11 years ago. She had opened her own quilting store in Bakersfield, where Swaim also worked. She had taught him how to use a long-arm quilting machine “when I really fell in love with it,” says Swaim.
He loved it so much that nearly five years ago, Swaim moved to Visalia and purchased Thimble Towne. But if Swaim came only for the business, he soon found himself in the midst of a thriving, tight-knit community.
“I love Visalia,” Swaim says emphatically. “You’d probably have to drag me kicking and screaming from here. I love the people, the sense of community… The quilting and sewing community welcomed me with open arms. I’ve probably made more friends in the last four-and-a-half years in Visalia than I did my entire life in Bakersfield.”
“There’s just a different mentality to quilters,” he muses. “They’re extremely friendly.”4
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It might have something to do with the quilting process, or maybe the quilts themselves. Traditionally, a quilt unifies patchwork materials – basically, quilts are a ready-made metaphor for community. But whatever they are, just don’t make the mistake of calling them blankets. “Quilting is just so much more. So we don’t use that word,” Swaim says.
Take Swaim’s quilts as examples. Vibrant colors and intricate details swirl outward in geometric patterns, like a blossoming flower, like a Tibetan mandala. They really aren’t just blankets – they’re works of art.
“And there’s a huge variant to what a quilt can be,” says Swaim. “But I also love the creative process. I love starting with a pile of fabrics that get cut into pieces that are assembled into blocks and then turned into a quilt that’s given to somebody else.”
That element of quilt making, giving, is basically sewn into Thimble Towne’s fabric. As a quilt shop, they not only sell the essentials to make a quilt – from fabrics to patterns to sewing furniture – but through classes they also teach their customers how to make a quilt. And that’s the gift that keeps on giving.
These classes break barriers that might otherwise prevent people from giving quilting an honest shake. Quilting can be pretty intimidating if you’ve never used a sewing machine before. It’s no different than going to a gym for the first time in years – and maybe even worse. Without the proper teacher, quilting patterns are just as complicated as architectural blueprints.
Thank goodness for instructors like Swaim. “We do our best to take the intimidation out of it,” he says. And for first-time sewers, “if you don’t have a machine, take a class. We’ll lend you a machine during classes,” he adds.
Thimble Towne offers week-long classes for kids twice a year, like a sewing camp, where kids learn to sew pillowcases, bags, even clothing. It’s all part of Thimble Towne’s approach to make sewing and quilting accessible to everybody and anybody.
No, quilting isn’t just grandma’s business anymore. “It used to be,” Swaim agrees, “but there’s a whole movement to modern quilting…. Since the invention of Etsy, people are sewing their own kids’ clothes and blankets and selling them.”
“Even my service tech  became a stay-at-home-dad, and decided to learn to sew to make his daughter’s clothes,” Swaim says. “And then he started his own sewing and embroidery business.”
Swaim’s point: sewing and quilting is a booming hobby that’s practically bursting at the seams. That’s just a metaphor, of course, but if you ever are faced with an actual bursting seam, or just have an itch for a new hobby, Thimble Towne might just be the needle for your thread.