The past has come full circle for Wanda Coley, owner of the Old South Fabrics in Cleveland, Tennessee.
That past includes childhood hours spent at her grandmother’s home, where a pot-bellied stove would warm the room. Wanda watched as her grandmother and the neighbors would lower a quilting frame from the ceiling and gather round. “My grandmother always said quilters were the salt of the earth, and no one would put that much time into making a quilt if they didn’t have a heart of gold,” says Wanda. “Those times made such an impression on me.”
So great was the impression that when it came time to retire from her years as an office administrator, it was quilting that called her name. Wanda’s mother was a professional seamstress and Wanda herself was skilled at garment-making. But after taking quilting classes in the Nashville area, she was hooked. “I loved the interaction in the classes and I wanted to go back to what my grandmother instilled in me,” she says.
So in 2013, she opened Old South Fabrics as an online fabric store. In 2016 she added a brick-and-mortar shop in Cleveland, Tennessee, the town where she and her husband Gary landed after moving from Murfreesboro to be closer to three of their five grandchildren. “We didn’t intend to open a shop, but quilters who knew our online business said, ‘What do you mean you’re not going to open a shop?’”
The shop, which is off the I-64 bypass between Knoxville and Chattanooga, delights both local quilters and those from farther afield. Wanda says they’ll drive from as far as two and three hours away to visit Old South Quilts. “I’m humbled by that,” she says. “We also get a lot of snowbirds who are on their way north or south and who may have met us at one of our shows.”
Old South Fabrics vends regularly at AQS shows, as well as at shows at Pigeon Forge and other places. Wanda also meets quilters when she travels to guilds to teach classes based on her original designs and to share her trunk shows.
A dream quilt shop, Wanda says, has rocking chairs on the porch and hot tea and “all of that.” Though Old South doesn’t fit that mold yet, it does have rows and rows of Moda fabrics and precuts galore. “Anyone who has sewn with Moda knows the quality,” she says. “We built our reputation as the Moda site and the Moda store.” Wanda appreciates the great customer service she gets from Moda and her appreciation extends to her Moda rep, Kathy Skomp; Chelair, who sends trunk shows of Moda quilts and is “fantastic”; and even Mark Dunn, the president of the company. “I met him in Ashville and you could not meet a more down-to-earth, quality man,” says Wanda. “We were touched and humbled by the way he took the time to talk with us and listened to us.
A passion for fabric fuels Wanda’s enthusiasm for her shop—she loves unpacking the boxes of fabric when they arrive and envisioning original patterns to use with them, which she kits and sells—but it’s the interactions with people that bring her the most joy. “I don’t think of them as customers, I think of them as family,” she says. “I want them to feel like they matter and they count. We are privileged to have them come in.” She and her employees make customers comfortable—“If they just want to look around and not be bothered, we let ‘em go, but if they need help with something like choosing fabrics, well, I thrive on that.”
Wanda’s delighted to excite those customers about the art and craft of quilting, just as her grandmother did for her, all those years ago. “It means a lot to me to keep quilting alive for generations to come.”