University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Rural Cooperatives, May/June 1997, pp. 12-15
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Security Blanket

West Virginia Quilters Stitch Together New Marketing Plan

Patrick Duffey
USDA Information Specialist

    She sits in a high-back cane rocker in the front room of her home. Sunshine drifts in over her shoulder from the front window. Her grey hair is neatly pulled back into a bun. The glasses propped on the bridge of her nose help with the closeup detail work. The thimble protects her finger as she quietly wields needle and thread in stitching patches of cloth into a portion of the quilt collected in a square wood frame propped on her knees. The rest of the quilt cascades across her lap and onto the floor.

    She is a member of the Cabin Creek Quilters Cooperative, following a long-standing tradition handed down through families and friends living in the coal-laden hills and hollows of southern West Virginia

    The extra earnings from her quilts have helped to keep her family and others like them alive in this community, both during the hey days of the mines and later when the coal supply played out. When Cabin Creek was formed in the early 1970s, the state had 75,000 people working in the mines, but today employment in the mines has dwindled to 25,000.

    Like the quilting traditions passed down by their parents and grandparents, the younger co-op members have heard many tales of the early days of the cooperative and the people in it. Early quilters in West Virginia included Lena Hawkins and her sister, Grace Jackson, and their great aunt, Victoria Haggerty. Then there was Sharon Ford, Carla Mae Hall, Ada Thompson and Stella Monk. All of them were skilled quilters whose craft is a true folk art of the Appalachian region. All were in their 70s when the cooperative started. Only Clara Mae Hall, age 95, survives.

Turning Craft Into a Business

    Another early key figure who helped bring the traditional craft cooperative to life was Jamie Thiebeault. He contributed business and marketing skills rather than a needle and thimble. In 1970, Thiebeault was a long-haired young man from Massachusetts assigned by Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) to survey air and water pollution in the small mining community of Cabin Creek, where acid from the strip mines had seeped into the water of home wells.
    He lived in an apartment above the U.S. Post Office in Cabin Creek. It had no running hot water. Members of the community opened their homes to him so he could bathe. Some people said the polluted waters around Cabin Creek would never be cleaned up. As Thiebeault made his rounds from home to home, the older women began to show him the quilts they and their ancestors had made. The meager income they earned from the quilts helped make ends meet when checks from coal mining were lean.

    Seeing the beauty of their work and the low prices they were receiving prompted Thiebeault to search for a business structure for a quilting enterprise. It seemed that a quilter-owned cooperative, complete with member-governance structure, would fill the need to invigorate the incomes of these rural Americans.

    "The ladies broke all the rules in forming the cooperative," he said. "They understood the need to produce the highest quality crafts and they were hard on themselves in doing so. There were few television sets in the community at the time," he recalls. "So much of the time was spent spinning verbal yarns of the early quilting days. These people impressed me. They had an historical connection to pioneer life. Their fascinating oral traditions were woven into their quilts."

    Soon, Thiebeault became the cooperative's representative. "They were so appreciative of the opportunity to help themselves and receive help from others."

    Today, the cooperative claims 300 members. However, in practical terms, only 40 to 100 are active at any one time and receiving checks for their work. "It's often seasonal work for many," he explains. "Many work on quilts during the winter. Some make only one or two quilts a year. Others are looking for $100 to $200 a month to supplement Social Security income." Still others produce many quilts each year. For instance, a piecer (someone who specializes in producing quilt tops) can produce one full-size patchwork quilt-top a week. A full, double-size quilt will take two to three weeks.

Co-op Sales Soar

    By the mid-1970s, the cooperative was thriving, helped considerably by the extensive national publicity and additional business it garnered when Jackie Kennedy purchased two quilts and later ordered more. Suddenly, the cooperative was propelled into the national market. Sales soon climbed to $250,000 per year, and then to $500,000. The cooperative included nearly 200 people. "The interest in crafts continued into the early 1980s," he noted. Thiebeault left the cooperative in 1976, yearning to use his graduate degree in education.

    Prices for top-quality, hand-made American quilts soared from the $150 to $200 range during the early years of the cooperative to the $500 to $800 range in the early 1980s. The higher prices meant greater profits, long overdue, for West Virginia producers, who had received paltry payments prior to the cooperative. These higher returns to producers were more in line with the intense labor and superb craftsmanship involved in producing the quilts.

    However, the higher prices effectively put the cooperative's product beyond the affordability range of many people. Competitors began searching for cheaper sources of material and labor, which were found in overseas factories in Haiti, the Philippines and China.

Cheap Imports Invade Market

    Members were in deep trouble as cheap foreign imitations began to flood the market and American discount houses and department stores undercut domestic producer prices. The cooperative was suddenly catapulted into competing in a tough global market and was on the verge of folding.

    The global market for quilts was evidenced by Chinese products that soon lined store shelves not only in the United States,
but also in Canada and Australia. "That's just the way the world is. China is a supply/demand country. The American market wanted a cheaper quilt with that patchwork look."

    Ironically, the Chinese have been able to use the patterns of the West Virginia quilters due to some quilts the cooperative donated to the Smithsonian Institution. An import firm from Ohio paid the Smithsonian to photograph craft items in its display, including Cabin Creek quilts. The Chinese later used those photos to create cheap reproductions of Appalachian quilt designs without identifying Cabin Creek as the original source.
    The Chinese quilts sold on the American market effectively undercut the cooperative. One of the first Chinese-produced quilts marketed here was based on the cooperative's Harriet Beecher Stowe Bible quilt. "It depicted Afro-American women in their work environment," Thiebeault said. "It became a symbol of shipping the jobs of economically depressed American women to an even more depressed area overseas. The deceptive advertising used to promote those imported quilts avoided any mention of Cabin Creek Cooperative as the originator."
Co-op Seeks New Business Plan

    By this point, the quilter's cooperative was hanging on by a thread, but core members were determined to fight back. They decided they needed a new headquarters/store and marketing plan to lower the costs of their products. After an absence of about 15 years, I Thiebeault re-entered the picture as the I cooperative's director in 1991. "I was involved in historic preservation in West Virginia at the time," Thiebeault recalls. He soon was working with the cooperative to help them find a headquarters that would befit such a vital link to West Virginia's past.

    "We identified an historic house that might fit the cooperative's needs, but it was beyond their financial ability to purchase it." The local historical society furnished the down payment to cover the cooperative's $12,000 bank loan. A grant from the Benedum Foundation of Pittsburgh covered the balance of the $65,000 acquisition price.

    The house, vacant for 10 years, had been owned by Dr. John P. Hale, a local author and newspaper owner who had served as mayor of Charleston. Hale was the grandson of Mary Ingels, a pioneer heroine who, in 1775, was captured by the Shawnee Indians and later escaped to return to the Blacksburg, Va., area. Her "Follow the River" book is an accounting of her experience.

    This historic, teal-trimmed, pink house in the community of Malden, near Charleston, now serves as the shop/headquarters for the cooperative. "We needed a new strategy. The move to our new historic setting complemented our efforts to draw more tourist business.

    "We knew we had to offer a lower-priced product that would attract people to buy from West Virginia. So, in 1992, we developed the all-American quilt as a joint venture with two other craft cooperatives, Freedom Quilting Bee in Alabama and Lakota Quilters from the Sioux Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota.

    "All of us were facing the same nationwide problem of being edged out of the market by cheap-copy imports. So, we decided to make this symbolic product and market it through Land's End, the Wisconsin mail order clothing house. Their 50 quilt order brought attention to our home-based American cooperatives. When you produce for the wholesale market, you need twice the inventory." The arrangement continued until 1995.

Reinventing Product Lines

    "Like other American textile cooperatives, we continue to face a flood of offshore production. We are redesigning, recoloring and reinventing our product line to stay ahead of competition and make our quilts more difficult to copy" Thiebeault said. 'It just makes the cooperative's job a bit more difficult."
    Another marketing strategy is to better tap into West Virginia's growing tourism trade. The state of West Virginia built the $60-million Tamarack crafts/tourism center in 1993 at Beckley and invested another $30 million in highway improvements to attract more tourists. The goal was to produce 2,000 tourism-related jobs.

    "It was a quality project aimed at pumping up the economy," Thiebeault said. "It points to the direction we need to be going, although we might have gained more exposure from several smaller projects located around the state. Tamarack is an attempt to package local traditions with lots of money. It tells who the people of West Virginia are, going back to their historic roots. But we must be on guard not to let the presentation go overboard. We don't want cultural strip-mining.

    "People who produce these crafts are not factories. Their lives and rural communities become involved. We need to tell the story via the cooperative and the historic ties of its members. They started as artisans, grew into a business and are now turning more to tourism. What we have to offer will attract people to West Virginia. We need to build a relationship between marketing and tourism."

    The cooperative has been slow to embrace the information super highway as a marketing tool. It uses computers extensively on the operational side of the business, Thiebeault explained, but it has yet to harness e-mail or the Internet for marketing. But this may come, he said.

    This summer, members produced 2,000 tote bags as a West Virginia promotion to be given to participants from 17 states attending a southern state legislative conference at Charleston. "We're also studying the New York and California craft markets for new ideas to see what's available in new seasonal products. We must learn to operate like a large manufacturer but remain small so a lot of people can complete five or six steps in the quilting process," he said.

    Thiebeault is an ardent advocate of all cooperatives with rural ties. He has been asked by ACDI/VOCA, the international development arm of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, to export his knowledge to Slovakia in September. "Slovakia needs to retrain its people, much like we did in Appalachia in the 1970s. If it comes together for Appalachia, it can be done in Slovakia. Tourism in eastern Europe is increasing and people want to return home with a souvenir symbol from that area. This presents an opportunity tied to cooperatives."

Directory Lists Craft Cooperatives

    West Virginia's Cabin Creek Quilters Cooperative is among nearly 100 arts and crafts cooperatives listed by state and by craft in a national directory published by USDA's Rural Business-Cooperative Service (RBS). To obtain a copy of Service Report 40, send a check for $5 made payable to USDA to: Jon Hall, Stop 3257; USDA/RBS-Cooperative Services; 1400 Independence Ave. SW; Washington, DC 20250-3257.

    RBS assists and guides groups interested in forming production and/or marketing cooperatives, including craft cooperatives. For further information, contact John Wells, USDA/PBS, Stop 3254, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250-3254.

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