Photo: Kathy Scobey (left) looks over the wall hanging she and Mike, her husband, purchased from Dave and Shirley Shenk. The wall hanging, Winter Silhouette, appealed to Scobey because of the maple leaves in the design. Photo by Tyler Klassen.
When Shirley Albrecht Shenk was a girl growing up in Morton, Ill., she remembers a time when her grandmothers sat together at a frame, quilting. “They were lamenting the fact that quilting was dying. Younger people weren’t interested. And they were right. I had no interest in quilting.”
She didn’t know then that quilt making would become her life’s work.
Shirley attended Goshen (Ind.) College, where she met her husband, Dave, who was from Souderton, Pa. The two majored in education, graduating in 1971. From there they moved to Chicago, where Shirley was an elementary school teacher for two years. Dave, who wasn’t quite ready for the classroom, worked as a bus and taxi driver.
Expecting their first child, they moved to Elkhart, Ind. “In 1976, I made my first quilt,” Shirley says. “I was married, had a 2-year-old and was making a quilt for our bed. When I was out of the room, our son decided to help—with scissors. You can imagine how that went.”
In 1981, while planning a family vacation to the West Coast, Shirley had the idea of pulling a trailer with antique furniture to sell, since the price of gas had just tripled. She knew the prices of antiques there were higher than in Indiana.
“It was quite an adventure,” Dave says, “but we sold everything and paid for our trip.”
The next year, the Shenks repeated the strategy on a six-week trip to Texas. This time they included quilts in their inventory. The quilts were a hit, and people placed orders for more.
Shirley began organizing quilts in their basement.
Local Amish and Mennonite women did the construction. She started with the traditional Lone Star and Double Wedding Ring patterns but soon tired of them and began designing her own quilts. Quilt Designs was born and later moved into an 1837 two-story log cabin at the Old Bag Factory in Goshen.
By this time, Dave was working at Oaklawn Mental Health Center as director of the Adolescent Day Treatment Program. He didn’t quit his job for six years after the business began.
“We tend to make vocational and business decisions much like an inchworm that keeps its hind end firmly attached while reaching out to be sure there’s something secure ahead to hold its weight,” Dave says.
The Shenks have worked together full time since 1986. “To make it work, we needed to divide responsibilities. I do the designs and the color coordination,” Shirley says. “Dave handles marketing, sales and business responsibilities.” Although the couple does not have a business background, they did what made sense to them. One of the practices that made sense is something they call ‘selfish generosity.’ Simply put, they allow people to buy on a payment plan, and they don’t charge interest.
“We always tell our customers that if unforeseen expenses arise, simply skip your monthly payment. Groceries, rent and electricity are much more important than a quilt,” says Dave. This policy created loyalty, and many families ordered additional quilts, also with payment plans. The practice benefited both parties.
The day I spoke to the Shenks, a neutral quilt with more than 1,500 yards of hand-quilting hung in the shop. “Late in 2010, a woman was visiting from Hawaii. She saw this quilt and loved it. She felt it was the most beautiful she had ever seen,” Dave said. When the woman asked if the shop did layaway, Dave suggested paying $600 a month so she would have it paid off in seven months. She said, “Oh, I can’t possibly do that. I could only pay $100 a month.”
Dave agreed to her terms. Because the Shenks intermittently displayed the quilt, they took several additional orders. Although the woman had to miss a few payments along the way, she recently made the final payment of $12.50 for the quilt she loves. The Shenks were ready to ship the quilt to her, but the woman asked them to wait until after the hurricane season. She doesn’t want to take the chance that something will happen to her quilt.
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