The craft and art of quilting is alive in this Alabama shop

The craft and art of quilting is alive in this Alabama shop
A lot of quilting gets done inside the19th-century walls of Ashville House Quilt Shop, by beginners and veterans alike. (Brittany Faush-Johnson/Alabama NewsCenter)

Visiting Pat Drake’s quilt shop is like stepping back in time.

That’s because Ashville House Quilt Shop is no ordinary place of business. The shop, owned by Drake and her husband, Lavon, is in the ground floor of a historic 19th-century Victorian home in the heart of downtown Ashville.

Commonly known in the area as the Box House, it was home to one of the town’s most prominent citizens.

Construction began on the house in 1890. But Circuit Judge Leroy Franklin Box lived in the house for only a short time before his death. Box was a teacher, attorney and judge. He also served in the Alabama Legislature and as state superintendent of schools.

“We passed the house every day on our way home. When it went up for sale, we were the first ones to grab it (in 1994),” said Drake, who worked with her husband to restore the old home to its original grandeur. “It has a lot of history, and I didn’t want it to die.”

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Because the house is situated beside a busy highway, the couple found it impossible to live there and began considering other options. With its architecture and historical significance, they decided the house would make an ideal setting for a tearoom and gift shop.

In 2010, Drake was ready for a change, having grown tired of the long hours and grueling hard work that are an inevitable part of the restaurant business. The Drakes transformed the business into a shop catering to customers who create heirloom quilts (made with a sewing machine instead of by hand).

“Quilting has really taken off since the invention of the rotary cutter,” said Drake. “Where Grandma used to have to cut out the fabric with scissors, now you can use a rotary cutter. It’s accurate, it’s fast and it’s easy.”

The shop offers high-quality fabrics, sewing machines and notions. It has also become a social center for quilters throughout east central Alabama. On Wednesday mornings, quilters and crafters from the Ashville, Gadsden, Birmingham and Jacksonville areas work on their latest projects while chatting with their sewing buddies.

Teaching the craft

Drake and several area quilters teach beginning and advanced classes to help others learn the age-old skill. She created the Block-of-the-Month program as a fun, inexpensive way for beginners to make their first quilt.

“It’s a learning process,” Drake said. “The ladies get a block every month to work on at home, and then they bring it back the next month to show us. By December, they have made an entire quilt. They really like it because they end up with a quilt that costs $40 instead of $300.”

The program has become extremely popular. In January, 80 aspiring quilters signed up for this year’s Block-of-the-Month group, Drake said.

The shop provides quilting services to make the process more convenient for customers. They can bring their completed quilt top and backing, along with the batting, to the shop. Using her sewing machine, Drake will quickly stitch together the pieces into a finished quilt.

“Modern quilts are nothing like grandmother used to make,” Drake said. “We do have a few purists who make quilts by hand. But most people don’t want that. They would rather use a sewing machine. They want pretty things they can make fast.”

While Drake sells supplies, hosts classes and puts the finishing touches on her customers’ quilts, Lavon handles the bookkeeping for the business and repairs sewing machines.

Drake said she rarely sells finished quilts. But she often displays quilts that customers have made for donation to local charities.

“The only quilts we sell are those we make up to use as samples to help sell the fabric,” Drake said. “When I first started, I was making quilts. But I’m so busy now that I pay a couple of my customers to do it.”

A big, dirty job

The Drakes have owned Ashville House since 1994.

For the first three years, they worked together to uncover the beauty of the old Queen Anne-style home, which features seven gables with gingerbread ornamentation, arches, a wrap-around porch, two upstairs verandas and bay windows. Over the years, the home mostly remained intact except the when the old detached kitchen burned in 1950. The Drakes turned the carriage house into classroom space after they opened the quilt shop.

The couple spent hours after work and on weekends restoring the two-story house. They repaired and painted all the exterior and interior trim, added a new kitchen ceiling made of copper-colored tin and refinished the heart pine flooring wherever possible. Drake made by hand a stained-glass door and overhead transom, and added new wallpaper throughout the house.

“We bought the house with the walls half torn out,” she said. “We tried to put everything we could back to the original way it was.”

“The biggest aggravation during the process was that every time you hit a nail, soot would come out because the house was heated with coal for so many years,” she continued. “It was messy.”

Drake said it’s the quilters who make their new business so meaningful.

“Quilters are special people,” she said. “Quilting is a hobby, and they love it. It’s addictive. They work really hard on their quilts, and then they give them away.”

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