BEYOND THE BOLT
We had the chance to sit down with Colleen McFarlin, one of the owners of Beyond the Bolt, a quilt shop and creative studio. Check out the interview below!
Would you mind telling me generally about your business?
We are Beyond the Bolt, a mother/daughter-owned quilt shop in Bristol, right on Metacom. We started in Portsmouth in 2018, and we were just doing our own sewing classes, tucked away in a corner of a plaza. I was going to grad school to be an art teacher at the time – I have a degree in fiber arts, and my mom has a degree in business – and I had been asking my mom, I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we started this business together?” I’ve been asking for years, and she just kept saying, “Let’s see. I don’t know. Let’s wait.” And finally, she said, “Yeah, let’s
kept saying, “Let’s see. I don’t know. Let’s wait.” And finally, she said, “Yeah, let’s look into it.” And so the two of us kind of came together and made a really great team.
We started under a different name, The Makers Art Collective. And honestly, maybe three or four months into it, we thought, “We should open a quilt shop!” because we were starting to teach more and more quilting classes, and people just kept asking us questions. And we’re like, “Wait, we should just do this!” And so, in 2019, four months before COVID shut everything down, we opened a retail shop and classroom in Bristol.
Bristol just felt like the really natural place to be, and it just kind of worked out. Being so close to when COVID shut everything down, though, we’ve had to learn and adjust as we go. The community of Bristol has been so kind and lovely because that’s scary – totally changing your whole business, and then not having people come into the business because they can’t. But my mom said, “Let’s put everything online, just in case something happens.” So the day that COVID shut everything down, we got to switch to online, and it was really great because mask making was huge. And we sell fabric and elastic and things that we needed in that precise moment.
And so people in the community – we were there for them, and they were there for us. It was a really cool bond that we got. How we met all of our customers was through drive ups and different things like that, so it’s been really cool and really beautiful. And we’re very thankful to be here in Bristol and to be able to have been there for the beginning of the pandemic when mask making was so huge, and everyone needed it. And elastic was like gold, you know, we’re very thankful that we all got to be there for each other.
So there’s this big educational component to your business as well?
Yeah, we started off teaching art and sewing, it’s kind of just filtered down to selling because there was such a call for it. A call for quilting, but also apparel selling, mask making, how to work your machine, and how to feel comfortable with it. We mostly teach adults, but we have all the way down to preteen kids come in and learn. When the pandemic happened, like I said, we were only four months into this business, and we switched to virtual classes. And we had classes every week because people were looking for community, looking for some way during quarantine that they could be creative. And I fully taught people how to sew through Zoom, and then they had something to do during quarantine – gifts to make, masks to make – it was really kind of neat. But education is huge. I think the best part of our job is allowing people to have a creative outlet. We still have zoom classes now because people liked the community so much, and we all became friends. It’s been really neat to see that kind of evolve. And now we have a physical classroom and so people can go physically into a class or we still have Zoom.
If they physically go into a class do you have sewing machines set up, and they can learn hands on?
Yes! We have sewing machines available, or if they have a sewing machine, they can bring it – I always think it’s better to learn on your own tools. But if you’re more on the beginner side and you don’t even know if you’re going to like sewing, we have machines that they can use. There are four or five people in a class because it’s still a pretty small classroom. In class, I can teach you how to thread your whole machine. We have people who come in who say, “I want to learn this exact technique,” and we can show them there in a hands on way. So it’s a pretty great setup.
Does Beyond the Bolt do more teaching or more retail? Or an even split?
I think it’s probably more retail, but it having the classroom allows new quilters, new sewers an opportunity to feel comfortable in the retail part. Because then people come in, they’re like, “I don’t even know how to use a sewing machine. I can’t be in here.” And the classroom allows us that opportunity to make them feel comfortable. And the prices are really reasonable for classes. Because I think they should be accessible to people. And you know, you already have to buy the supplies and do all the things. So if I can kind of work the budget in a way that helps it be accessible to people. I’m really thrilled to do that.
What would you say is something that is unique about Beyond the Bolt?
We’re a little bit of a niche market, when it comes to quilting. We’re a modern quilt shop. Our colors are bright and bold, or patterns are really new. I’m trying to find like indie designers, sometimes we’re just coming out with patterns. And I really think the, like, the educational aspect, like people can come in and ask questions at any time. My whole goal is to let people know that like, anybody can sew or quilt, anybody, it doesn’t matter. Like if you’ve done it before, if you haven’t done it before, race, gender, anything like that, like you can sew. And so I really try to pump that into everything I do, and everything like we do as a business. And so I would say that in the community, the community is so good. You know, like, there was somebody in the shop today who was showing their quilt, and then three other people in the shop, were like, “This is amazing. You’re doing a great job!” and the woman’s like, “Look at all my mistakes.” And everyone’s like, “No, this is fantastic!” No, I want to hype people up. And I think that kind of makes us, I don’t know, a little special sometimes. That energy is all throughout the classes, too. I’ve been in classes where I’m nervous to be there. And you know what, if everybody’s in different places with their skills or their projects or whatever, that’s great. I’ll meet you where you’re at. Because we can all learn together and make really beautiful art with quilts.
When you say you’re a modern quilt shop, can you say a little bit more about what that means?
In quilting, there’s a few different sections. The traditional quilts are ones that you kind of think of muted colors, a lot of prints. At BTB, we have a very large selection of solid colors. We were doing a solid challenge right now where we can only use solids to create a quilt, and that’s a very modern concept. No prints, no patterns in your fabrics, just solid fabric. And I think the modern aesthetic means to have pristine white backgrounds, and so a more modern quilt might have a lot of negative space that’s played with, where more traditional quilts or contemporary quilts can sometimes be a little bit more block based: here is a triangle, and I’m gonna repeat the same triangle x amount of times. And so I think it’s more about the style of fabrics and the way the quilts are made. And we’re not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s okay! We have things for everybody, thread and notions and all of these things that they can still do no matter how they consider themselves in the quilt world. We do lean a little bit more towards modern brands of fabrics and bright, bold colors. I’ve always gravitated towards those styles.
And we’re just really focused on being modern, but we’re thankfully surrounded by great quilt shops in Rhode Island – which is great, because if you don’t love us, then you can go somewhere else. And we all kind of support each other. If someone’s looking for something but we don’t have it, we’ll check the other shops to try to get just the right fabric. We have a list of other shops in our window. It’s important because even though I consider myself a modern quilter, I still like going everywhere to shop. What’s also cool about all the quilt shops in Rhode Island is we’re all kind of hyping each other up because it’s about people making quilts because we all love it or they’re doing it for people they love, so it feels like the mindset is really just, “let’s help you make it great.”
What do you think people should know about Beyond the Bolt?
I think they should know that they’re welcome. That they’re welcome to shop. They’re welcome to come in. Even if they’re not quilters, even though they might not even understand what the shop is about, then you’re welcome to come in. They’re welcome to try their hand at sewing. If they don’t like it. At least you tried it. But everyone is welcome. And beyond the bolt my mom and I Lisa, Lisa is the other shop owner. Um, she we both try really hard to make that a priority. You know, and yeah, I think that’s, I think that’s probably the most important thing.
Does your mom quilt too?
She’s actually more of a bag maker. She makes handbags, backpacks. She’s wildly talented at that. And it just happened! When we started the shop, she was like, “I think I want to make a bag.” So she made a bag. And she’s like, “I love this!” She’s made backpacks that look like you could buy them in the store! She quilts too, but I think her passion really is in bag making.
Do you sell what you make, or do you keep it all?
Well, we make so much. More bags than you can carry! So my mom and I both have separate businesses. Hers is called little island sunny arts. And mine is by five studio and we both sell our goods independently. And it’s just kind of like, that’s just a side thing to like, not have 800 products in our own. Absolutely. Or like when we’re learning a new technique, class and make a quilt. So that’s a lot. And every time you bag kind of comes out, like can you test this before we sell it? Because I want to make sure we’re selling things that are doable, right. So we have a lot of things. So yeah, we do. And we’re starting to put them in the shop, but we are still a small shop. So we have to kind of prioritize spaces into the shop. Yeah, yeah.
Do you and your mom sell online, like on Etsy or another website?
Yep. My mom’s on Etsy. I just have my own website because I find Etsy overwhelming!
How is it, being business partners with your mother?
I could not do the business without her. She’s the backbone of it because I have no idea anything about the business end, and so I’m very thankful that she said yes and that we’re doing this. And it’s cool because we both have the same kind of vision for the shop. We’re both about the community and creating an environment for people, because we both know what it’s like when we’re sewing or doing anything. Sewing is very isolating. You’re in your sewing room, and you’re just sewing by yourself. You’re done with a quilt you’re like, “Who do I show? What do I do with this cool thing that I spent so long on?”. And so we created a place where people are just like, “Hey, I just wanted to bring a quilt that I wanted to show you.” And we hype them up because they’re so good, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We both wanted a place where people could come and create and find people who liked the same things they did and hype them up.
Earlier, you mentioned a summer solid challenge – ?
We’re doing a summer quilt challenge! We thought we were gonna put it out there like, “Hey, if you wanted to do it, it’s free. We’re just doing it to keep you sewing in the summer.” And we have 60 people signed up. The other day, four different people were showing off their quilts in the shop, and they didn’t even know each other. And they’re like, “you’re in the challenge, too?!” And there’s a Facebook group for the challenge, which is really cool. And I think the quilting community is very much like that, so we’re super thankful to be a part of it.
What’s your favorite part of your work?
The people. I love the people. I love being able to help people problem-solve, like, “Oh, you’re making this quilt for your son, and he likes these eight things. Like, let’s find it.” And if I don’t have it, then I’m gonna hunt it down somewhere else in Rhode Island where you can go get it. And I just love seeing people who feel like, “Oh, I can’t make a quilt. Or why would I make a quilt?” Then they make one, and you see the accomplishment on their face and the creativity that they felt. And it’s just, it’s the best feeling.
A lot of people think of sewing and they think, like, “Home Economics class.” And they remember not being good at it or hating it. But they were really just thirteen in a boring class, right? The teachers told you to make something. Now, though, we’re making things with intention, and you’re picking your colors, and your fabric, and it’s so, so personal. And I think that’s a misconception about quilting. It’s actually an entire world full of creativity that we’re super thankful to help people explore. They come in, and they’re like, “I don’t know if I can use neon pink, but I want to.” Yes, you can!
We have some people who are just like, “I just want to make a couple quilts for gifts,” and all of them are incredible and valid and creative. And it’s so special when you give someone a handmade gift. It’s cool that we can be a part of that for people, even if it’s just supplying fabric or thread. I think that’s fantastic. That is fantastic.
And we have quilters who are art quilters, who make incredible art pieces. Art quilts are normally a little bit smaller in size (but they don’t have to be), and the range of techniques really, really go outside the box. We have someone who dyes their fabric and then appliques on top of it. We have someone who does needle turn applique, where you cut the shape and then you slowly tuck it under, making these incredible, abstract shapes.
There’s a gallery in Providence, the Sprout CoWorking Gallery, and there’s a whole exhibit full of art quilts up right now. And they’re quilts – they’re made out of fabric! But most times they’re hung on the wall. It’s really incredible. And I think artists like that are putting their work out in more public places, and it’s becoming a little more visible as these real artforms. It’s not just “oh, here’s a blanket,” there’s so much more to it.
Is there anything else that you want to share?
I don’t think so. Oh, I think everything in our shop is on our website to buy, so that makes shopping really easy if you can’t come into the shop. And we ship all throughout the U.S! We have some regular online shoppers from like, Oregon and Arkansas, which is kind of neat. Like, we’re a small shop, but we can kind of reach all over.
Check out Beyond the Bolt at 500 Metacom Avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island!