Mammaw's Thimble: Patchwork Proprietor

Vivian Ann Wright runs Mammaw's Thimble to suit a swelling group of quilters

She's operated it for eight years come November, some weeks single-handedly, but Mammaw's Thimble quilting supply store off Papermill is not Vivian Ann Wright's dream. Not even her idea, she says from behind the counter of the 3,500 square foot storefront bursting with bolt after bolt of fabric, striking jumbo quilts in daffodil and blue covering the front wall, and rainbows of thread lining a whole aisle. Three women in pressed jeans and carefully coiffed hair finger the bolts, concentrating.

"I had no desire to start a quilt store, this was all my husband's idea," says Wright, a neat, petite woman with denim skirt and slate-color hair that's starting to gray, whom everyone addresses by both her names: Vivian Ann. "He said the definition of a good husband is a happy wife, and he knew I wasn't happy doing what I was doing, which was working at a bank."

And so it was that at age 44, Wright, a "country girl" from Black Star, Ky., and her husband, James Hodge, then a deputy sheriff with the county, created a little quilt store in the bottom floor of their house on Woodsmith in Northwest Knoxville. "We scraped together every little bit of savings, and started out with 300 bolts and his dream," Wright recalls. "Our first month, the entire month, we had two customers. We were living on mud and grasswater. I would say, ‘We didn't have anybody today.' And he would say, ‘You can make it work.'"

He was right. Today Mammaw's Thimble is thriving, carrying an inventory of more than 30,000 "fat quarters"— quilter's parlance for the 18" x 22" fabric squares that are a mainstay of the craft, which these days is about 95 percent machine quilting, 5 percent hand. Patterns range from realistic chicks, to ice-skating dinosaurs, to autumn-orange paisley on a forest green background, to neon magenta batik—and many thousands in between.

A recessionary economy may actually have benefitted Mammaw's Thimble. It had a 10 percent increase of business during the holiday season of 2008, which Wright attributes to quilting being a comforting ritual in troubled times, and an increased yearning for self-sufficiency. And Knoxville's hosting of the American Quilting Society Expo July 22-25 was a windfall.

"We had probably a thousand people a day coming in, and an average 300 purchases per day, compared to... well there really is no comparison," says Wright. "Normally we have maybe 20 or 25 sales on a good day. I wish Jim had been here to see it."

The remark brings a tear to Wright's eye; Hodge died from unexpected heart failure in 2003, just a month after she'd opened in a commercial location on Papermill. "At least he got to see us make it into the storefront," she says, musing, "It's still really hard to be the one who's left behind."

But she's persevered. "Jim passed away on Tuesday, and I went back to work on Friday," she says. "It's only possible because quilters are wonderful. They wrapped their arms around me and kind of became my mom."

Her customers have even taken over sales at times. "When we were still at the house, I broke my arm in four places—wet grass, landed in an azalea bush. The bone literally went to surgery separately, on ice. My first three or four days I was on morphine; no way I could be at the store. My good friend Tom Russell, who now designs quilts from Katy, Texas, went by the store the day before and left a note, and the quilters volunteered for me. They knew if I closed down even for a week it would put me out of business."

There were the 27 floods in seven weeks at her first Papermill location. "The storm drain collapsed at Knoxville Wholesale Furniture's parking lot, and we were down from them. When it rained, there were 50-100 gallons of water a minute surging in front of my store. I chinked the cracks with paper bags, and duct taped over it. I literally slept on the floor of my shop for seven weeks, just to be ready. There was no insurance, because I had a $5,000 deductible, and each flood was considered a separate incident."

All that seems so long ago, now. Wright moved into her current location in August 2004, and even before the AQS Expo, she says quilting was a growing interest among locals. "And there are more and more younger people coming through the door looking for what we have—the one-on-one, the face-to-face, the ‘Attagirl!'"

She's giving out more "Attaguys!" too. "We have one young man who is 12 in our $5 Quilt Club, and he gives these women a run for their money. Now, he doesn't want to do anything girly-girl. More like blue plaids."

However the array of quilting customers shifts, Wright says she'll adjust to their wishes. "This business is only here because of the people who shop with us and my staff," she says. "It is the quilters who are the phenomenal part of this. I just try to be a good steward of their money. It's their shop."