Spotlight on Business: Quilt Passions

  • Karen and Robert Barry. (Courtesy photo)
  • Cheri Kull cuts material for a kit at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Quilt Passions sells a variety of goods from fabric to kits, sewing and knitting accessories. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Quilt passions sells premade quilts as well as kits. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • There are surprises around every corner at Quilt Passions like handmade local ties. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Fabric bolts the color of the rainbow are available at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Specialty yarns can be found at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A huge selection of threads can be found at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Knitters can find a large selection of yarn at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Cheri Kull displays a pattern for a dragonfly quilt at Quilt Passions. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — “Most of us were told, at some point in our lives, that we were no good at art, and so we lost touch with our creative side,” Karen Barry, owner of Quilt Passions, reflected recently. “But people who are creative, who still make ‘stuff,’ are happy people.”

Well, happy people, Quilt Passions, bursting with a dazzling array of color, designs and pattern, is the place for you.

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Recently relocated to a new location in Hanama Place at 75-5706 Kuakini Highway in Kailua-Kona, Quilt Passions — named one of the top 10 quilt shops in the U.S. in 2011 — overflows with fabrics, locally designed patterns, quilting supplies and publications, and quilt samples. It’s a visual cornucopia.

You might think of this type of enterprise as the classic example of a business that just naturally grew out of an owner’s hobby; you’d only be partially right. While needlework was a very visible part of Karen’s background — “my mother was an amazing needleworker” — operating a quilt shop was more of a happy happenstance.

“The story is more that we were shopping for a business opportunity,” Karen said. “My husband, Robert, had sold his accounting practice in California and was set to buy another one here in Hawaii in 2007. That deal fell through, however, so we were left with the proceeds from that sale and nothing to buy. We found this business and thought that this was a good match for us. After 20 years of elementary school teaching, I actually thought I was going to take a step backward in my activity level with this shop, not realizing that this would be all consuming. What do they say, ‘you don’t own a business, it owns you?’ That’s true for us.”

Today Karen and Robert both take an active hand in managing the business. While Karen is the face of the shop to customers, Robert, in addition to being the business’ “numbers guy,” handles the ordering from dozens of fabric manufacturers and other suppliers, and the freight consolidation.

“In the first few years, the shipping was killing us,” Karen said. “Many of the manufacturers ship free, but only on the mainland. Then we discovered freight consolidation, and all our orders are now shipped to our freight forwarder in California, who buys up leftover space in large containers and consolidates a lot of our small orders into one big order that gets here in five days. We’re spending a fraction of the shipping costs we used to pay.”

And those manufacturers are shipping to what turns out to be a very active quilting scene here on the Big Island. With six quilt shops and five other places to buy fabric, the Big Island has more quilting outlets than Oahu. While Quilt Passions has a loyal contingent of local customers, most of their business is based on tourist traffic.

“Quilters are funny,” Karen said. “They do their homework before they travel.”

So these crafty tourists plan their travel around places where they can indulge their hobbies. To help guide them on the way here, Quilt Passions relies heavily on shipboard advertising, including running a spot on the shipboard TV station.

Also bringing tourists in are the twice a year quilting retreats the shop puts on, which are held in February and July, and attract quilters from all over the world. Drawing approximately 150 attendees in February (“the Canadians come in February,” Karen said), and a smaller group of around 90 in the summer (“that’s when the Australians come”), this multi-day event has been running successfully for a number of years.

Quilt Passions also participates in a February “Shop Hop,” which is an organized quilting event where customers get their quilting passport stamped at participating stores.

“I’d love to work with other local non-quilting businesses on something like this, too,” Karen said.

You other shop owners listening to this cross-promotional opportunity?

Big news on the horizon for Quilt Passions is the opening of its new quilt museum, the Kona Hawaiian Quilt Museum and Gallery, which will be located adjacent to the shop. While there are some quilts for sale in the current space, “most people who walk in here now want to make it themselves,” Karen said.

But the new museum, in addition to exhibiting historical quilts not intended for sale, will feature new, finished quilts for sale, all locally made. The soft opening for the museum will be in June.

“We like to think that with this new venture, we’re celebrating Hawaiian heritage,” Karen said.

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That quilting celebration started in 1820 with the adaptation of native Hawaiian designs originally done on kapa, into the rich New England quilting tradition. Quilt Passions took that heritage and ran with it over 10 years ago and is firmly laying the ground for the party to continue.

Dennis Boyd is the director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center, funded in part through the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.