deb luttrell 2
deb luttrell 2

How Deb Luttrell Built Her Quilting Empire

Texas dynamo Deb Luttrell woke up the quaint world of quilting in 1996 when she opened her quilting supply shop, Stitchin’ Heaven, and built it into a game-changing phenomenon that produces $5 million in annual revenue and employs a team of 20 (and counting). “I had a vision to build a premier quilt shop appealing to those who love to quilt and sew and to offer the very best fabrics and supplies,” Luttrell said.

The ancient needlework technique known as quilting entails sewing together layers of fabric and padding and it is a craft that has been traced to ancient Egypt. Traditionally practiced by women, quilting was introduced into Europe by returning Crusaders in the 12th century. Quilting became popular in the United States during the colonial era. 

Originally used to provide warmth to clothing and bedding, over time quilting became known for its decorative qualities. The 2017 survey “Quilting in America” reported that there are seven to 10 million quilters in the U.S. and the industry generated $3.7 billion in sales.  

Luttrell was introduced to needlework in her early teens. “My Mom taught me to sew when I was about 13,” she remembered, “It wasn’t until I was about 40 when I learned how to quilt, from an aunt.” Luttrell bought a quilting book or two to do some self-study and before too long, she made her first quilt.

In between those defining events, Luttrell built a corporate career at GTE Directory, a forerunner to the telecommunications giant Verizon, where she managed a team of salespeople who sold advertisements for the local yellow pages business directory. Married and the mother of one son, Luttrell was a dedicated and energetic manager who in 1994 led her team to win a prestigious Malcolm Baldridge Award in the Customer Service category. Other Malcolm Baldridge Award winners have been FedEx, the premier retailer Nordstrom and Ritz Carlton Hotels. 

Following that exhilarating but hard-won victory, Luttrell asked her employer if she might be able to take a short leave of absence. She said, “I wanted to take the summer off from work and spend more time with my husband and son.” When her request was denied, she quit the job.

It was a pivotal moment. “We left Dallas and moved out to the country, to Quitman, TX, population 1,895, ” she said. ” I decided to open a quilting shop. I found a place that was 1000 square feet. I had made only one quilt before opening the store. 

Her little shop prospered, despite the long odds. “Most quilting shops are mom ‘n’ pop operations and they don’t make it,” Luttrell said. “In order to grow, you (the founder) need a business background. You need to understand your customers. You need to make the customer feel at home.” To build a successful business, Luttrell recommended that aspiring entrepreneurs  “Put yourself in the customers’ shoes and build your business around their needs. The culture here (at Stitchin’ Heaven) is built around the customer.”

She said many businesses say they have good customer service, but they don’t. “[The owner] sits there in an ivory tower. You need to be willing to be vulnerable. I empower my staff to make the customer happy, to make things right, up to $300 before they need to get approval from me. We take things back. We have a 100% guarantee,” She explained. “I run my business by saying to myself, ‘how would I want the store to respond?’ You need to communicate customer service policies to your employees.”

Luttrell and her son, COO Clay.

As would be expected of a business that caters to a quintessentially female craft, Luttrell noted that Stitchin’ Heaven’s core demographic is 95% women who are over 35 years old. “But,” she noted, “we have a growing number of men, because their wives bring them to quilting. A man who is a retired engineer is now quilting.”

The customer service philosophy has paid off handsomely and has contributed to the development of a new and lucrative line of business for Stitchin’ Heaven. In 2009, a customer asked Luttrell if she’d consider organizing a cruise for the customers. The customer had previously taken a cruise sponsored by another company and she loved it. Luttrell recognized a good idea when it fell into her lap and she sprang into action. 

The cruises were initially handled by a travel agent but they became so popular that the company spun off a subsidiary, Stitchin’ Heaven Travel, devoted to promoting and managing the cruise business. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines is the exclusive carrier. Nationally recognized quilting instructors lead the lessons. Bernina sewing machines are provided for use by the quilters. The cruise business is handled by Luttrell’s son Clay. Cruise launch locations include Galveston, TX, Seattle, Miami and New Jersey. Ports of call have included Juneau, AK, Bar Harbor, ME, Grand Cayman Island, St. Maarten and Cozumel, Mexico. 

On a ship of 4000 to 6000 passengers, 75 to 100 will be Stitchin’ Heaven customers and their non-quilting guests. Stitchin’ Heaven cruise fans hail from all corners of the U.S.A. and have been known to include quilters from Canada, Australia and Great Britain. The cruises historically have had a repeat business rate of 40 %. Cruises frequently sell out and wait lists are common. While the coronavirus has led to some recent cancellations, cruises are scheduled into 2022. 

Stitchin’ Heaven has also been carried by the resurgent craft movement in America and beyond. Handmade goods symbolize the locavore movement that began to flourish in the 1990s. The revitalization of long-overlooked traditional crafts practiced by indigenous or disadvantaged groups, as well as economic empowerment initiatives for women that have risen in many societies, are examples of that esthetic. 

Women in Bangladesh who needed to finance at a fair interest rate the cost of materials for the bamboo furniture they made by hand led to the creation of micro lending and the awarding of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to the banker and economist Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank.

Like every CEO, Luttrell has an expansive vision for her company. “We recently moved into a 17,500 square foot building that makes Stitchin’ Heaven the largest quilting shop in Texas. That was Phase I. Phase II will be an 8,000 square foot retreat center, with 10 cottages adjacent to the center, that will host a quilter’s getaway,” she said.

Beyond that, plans for a distribution center are also on the drawing board. According to Luttrell’s son Clay, who is also COO, “The overall goal is just to be able to provide a place for quilters … and a good community of people … and provide that exceptional sewing experience.”

About the author

Kim L. Clark

Kim L. Clark is the founder of Polished Professionals Boston, a business strategy and marketing consultancy. She is also an adviser to small business owners and develops workshops and classes that provide instruction in writing business plans. Kim has lectured at the Lesley University Seminars, the Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce.

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