Hayley Grzych, a 24-year-old Ann Arbor, Michigan, resident, became a quilter five years ago when an aunt introduced her to modern quilting, showing her Tula Pink’s and Kaffe Fasset’s fabrics. She fell in love.
“Quilting has pretty much taken over,” Grzych told me last week, while on break from her production job at a screen-printing shop.
Standing 6 feet tall with pink hair and visible tattoos, Grzych describes herself as “unusual, not intimidating, but striking” and perhaps not what you’d imagine when you think of a typical quilter.
There have been times when other quilters have made assumptions about her that Grzych found offensive. While walking the aisles at an American Quilter’s Society show a few years ago, Grzych pulled out a Burt’s Bees chapstick to rub on her lips when a woman approached her. “She stopped me and told me not to draw with chapstick on the quilts,” Grzych remembers. “I thought, ‘I’m an adult!’”
Hayley Grzych hand quilting a project.
Photo courtesy of Haylay Grzych
Indeed she is. Grzych is a millennial — someone between the ages 18 and 34 who came of age at the turn of the 21st century. According to the United States Census Bureau there are now 75.4 million millennials in the U.S., making millennials the largest living generation. As such, they are increasingly important for businesses to reach. A recent article in Forbes reported that millennials have $200 billion in annual buying power.
Yet, for many brick-and-mortar craft shops, reaching millennials has proven to be a real challenge. Traditional advertising doesn’t seem to be as effective as it was with older generations, and many people assume that millennials aren’t brand loyal.
Cheryl Adlrich, the manager of Ann’s Fabrics and Sewing Machine Center in Canton, Massachusetts, explains her perception of millennial shoppers: “The younger sewers, they want things quick and fast and they don’t need the tactile experience of coming into the store like many of the older quilters do. If they’re looking for something with arrows on it and they see it online — perfect. They have it in their head, found it, done.”
How can craft shops reach millennial customers, then?
To learn more, I had conversations with four women who ranged in age from 24 to 30 and live in different parts of the U.S. All of them enjoy crafting as a hobby. I asked them where they purchase supplies, how they learn new techniques, and what kind of craft media they’re buying. Although this study isn’t large enough to make data-driven conclusions, the conversations are rich with information about what makes millennial crafters tick.
One defining aspect of the millennial generation is the way they access information. While older generations of crafters relied on magazines for inspiration, none of the women I spoke with subscribe to or regularly purchase craft magazines. In contrast, all four use Instagram — checking in multiple times a day to seek inspiration and information about the crafts they enjoy.
Michelle Berends, a 30-year-old attorney in Des Moines, Iowa, who is taking time off from her job to stay home with her baby, says she peruses “the crafty world of Instagram” at night when she’s nursing. Berends also reads blogs. Recently, she purchased the book “All Points Patchwork” after seeing it reviewed on several of the craft blogs she frequents.
Although Berends has enjoyed using the quilting technique known as English Paper Piecing for more than a year, she’s never been to a local quilt shop.
“The local shops are more traditional and don’t have the designers I prefer. I called around to see if any had Heather Ross fabric in stock, but they didn’t,” Berends says. “Anyway, the closest one is an hour away.”
Instead, Berends buys fabric on Etsy or from other Instagram users by searching the #fabricdestash hashtag.
The millennial crafters I interviewed do value the ability to touch and see craft supplies in real life, however.
“I’m on Intagram a few times a day to see who is making what,” says Grzych. “It’s fun to connect with friends all over and feel you’re sewing and working together.”
“Let’s not all get lost and think that the only way to talk to a millennial is through the phone,” says Beth Knaster, a 30-year-old project manager in Chicago, who enjoys practicing hand lettering and creating string art in her spare time. “Remember that people who are using these [craft] products do want to touch them. I almost never buy craft supplies online. Shopping for them is a sanctuary moment for me.”
Knaster says she enjoys supporting local business and buys groceries and alcohol at independently owned shops, but she’s found it tough to support her local craft stores, despite her best intentions.
“There’s a calligraphy shop one block away from me, but I’ve only ever stood outside,” Knaster says. “They’re open 11 to 7 every day. Well, I work full time and commute on a train and then I have to pick up my 10-year-old at school, so I can never get there when they’re open.”
Knaster says she’s had the same difficulty with a local fabric shop that has window displays she finds “drool-worthy.” Instead, she shops at Paper Source, a national chain store that has hours better suited to someone who works full time.
Samantha Howard, 28, lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, and commutes into New York City for her book-publishing job on weekdays. An avid knitter since she was a teenager, Howard recently added quilting to her suite of crafting skills. A few months ago, she took a hand-quilting class at Kanibal, a community maker space and shop near her home.
“It’s a young, hip store and was a good environment for me to learn to quilt,” Howard says. “The instructor was 30 and she does all hand quilting. I thought, ‘Here’s a peer of mine who makes her livelihood this way.’ I felt so welcomed.”
In contrast, Grzych visited a quilt shop not long ago and was thrilled to find several bolts of fabric designed by Luke Haynes, one of her favorite quilters. However, when she brought the fabric to the cutting table “the shop owner didn’t have kind things to say about the designers I was interested in,” Grzych says. She purchased the fabric, but left feeling deflated.
“I understand I’m walking into an established craft,” Grzych says. “I’m receptive to people who have been involved longer, and I’m interested in learning from them. I respect the history, but I often don’t get that same sense of respect reflected back at me.”
When we spoke, she was eagerly awaiting a package containing 12 yards of fabric she’d bought from Hawthorne Threads, an online retailer, to make a quilt for a friend’s wedding.
“I appreciate buying from people who honestly and truly know what their customer wants and care about their customer,” Grzych says of shopping online at Hawthorne Threads.
Tip from Millennials for Running a Millennial-Friendly Craft Business
- Keep work-friendly hours: Many millennials work full time. If you have a brick-and-mortar store, set hours that make it possible for a working person to shop and take classes.
- Reach people where they are: Recognize that traditional advertising is not an effective way to reach a millennial audience. Instead, meet them where they are. For crafters, that means Instagram.
- Don’t assume: Many young people are interested in learning about crafting traditions. Instead of being judgmental of their tastes, be open to teaching them what you know.
- Be welcoming: Help millennial crafters feel welcome by hiring young teachers with whom they can more easily relate. Be excited about all of the merchandise you carry, including new products that have a modern aesthetic.
- Embrace the new generation: Crafting is a timeless pursuit that people of all ages enjoy. Engaging younger crafters takes some creative thinking, but the millennials I spoke with are eager to learn and have money to spend. Working to include them in your customer base will ensure that your business stays vital for years to come.