By Amy Eddings
Alice Essinger has her hands full. Right now, it’s full of fabric. She stands at the cutting table of her shop, Fresh Modern Fabric in Bluffton, and rolls out a yard of brown fabric, cutting it deftly with a rotary cutter.
“It’s pretty steady,” said Essinger, 39. “Overall, I have a hard time keeping up.”
Her hands, it seems, are also full of business, but her clean, bright second-floor store is devoid of customers on this weekday afternoon. In fact, it’s empty most days.
That’s because Fresh Modern Fabric is, first and foremost, a web-based fabric shop. She started selling fabric on the artsy-crafty retailing website Etsy six years ago. Her brick-and-mortar store, which opened two years ago, exists primarily to support that online enterprise. One Saturday a month, she hosts an open house. It’s only then that the Bluffton shop’s aisles are filled with shoppers.
Walking into her shop is, for a quilter, like walking into a bakery. Everything looks delicious. Bolts of colorful cloth delight the eye. There are metallic fabrics offering a sophisticated sheen. There are fabrics from Japan, with rich, bold patterns that look like origami paper. There are fabric bundles from Moda in squares, called “layer cakes” and thick strips, called “jelly rolls.” Precut and packaged together in patterns designed to complement one another, they attract quilters with their beauty and the promise of an easier, faster project.
The aesthetic and the virtual nature of her store put Essinger and Fresh Modern Fabric firmly in the camp of modern quilting, a movement that started to find its voice and its footing in the 2000s through the work of quilters like Denyse Schmidt and Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle.
“Modern quilters use a lot of solids,” explained Essinger. “They like to use an irregular framework. They may use blocks, but they’re not going to use them neatly in rows, they’re going to scatter them around and have one in this corner, one in that corner, maybe have a lot of negative space.”
“Traditional quilters will use a lot of traditional blocks and a repeating pattern, but modern quilters will turn things like that on their head,” she added.
Social media was, and remains, a key aspect of the movement. While quilters once learned from their ancestors and connected with others at quilting bees or classes at the local fabric store, modern quilters learn and network online.
That’s how Essinger got started, following the Fresh Modern Quilts group on Flickr, which birthed another virtual quilting community, the Modern Quilt Guild, in 2009. Essinger also followed blogs for design inspiration and quilting help. And she turned to the internet when she couldn’t find the fabric her mentors were using.
“A lot of times when you’d look at what people were doing on blogs, I’d see what fabric they were using and I thought, ‘Oh, I’d like to use that fabric too, that’s really cute,’” she said. “But by the time they bought it and made something with it, the fabric line [was] kinda old. So it would be hard to find the fabric that they were using.”
She often found them on Etsy. And that’s when it hit her: she, too, could sell fabrics online. The idea resonated with Essinger, who, with husband David, had two young children (her daughter is now 9; her son, 6). Essinger, a librarian, was looking for a new line of work.
“It was an 8-to-5 job, it wasn’t flexible, it didn’t work for me as a new mother,” she said. “I took a part-time library job and did that while I started up this business, so for several years, I was trying to balance both. Eventually I was so busy selling fabric that I’m doing this full time now.”
She keeps busy doing what Moda and other fabric houses don’t have the time to do: cut fabric and ship it to quilters across the country.
“I think Moda keeps busy enough sending bolts out,” said Essinger of the service she provides. “They don’t have time to cut it up into a half yard or a fat quarter.”
Meeting the needs of those at the forefront of the new quilting movement keeps Essinger so busy herself, she rarely quilts anymore.
“I still buy fabric, I still buy patterns, I just don’t have the time,” she said softly, with an embarrassed laugh. “If I’m going to do something now, it’s going to have to be a small project.”
This time, she won’t have any trouble sourcing the very latest fabric.
FRESH MODERN FABRIC
103 1/2 Vine St., second floor, Bluffton, OH 45817
Hours are varied. An open house is typically held once a month. Check Fresh Modern Fabric’s Facebook page for details.