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Published in 2004, The Quilter

This Quilter Has A Taste For Gourmet Fabric

by Patricia Fry

Folks who shop at Heartwarmers Mercantile, in Ojai, California, often leave with a smile and a take-out box containing printed cloth food. In fact, proprietor, Lou Ann Schlichter, serves up a full course meal deliciously designed especially for quilters.

It all started when she discovered that she had an excess of certain yardage. She says, "As many quilt shop owners know, sometimes there's a particular fabric that just won't leave your store no matter how generous you make the sale. I had way too much brown fabric. Nobody wanted brown."

Instead of donating the bolts, she started thinking about how to make this fabric more appealing to the customer. One day she looked at the brown fabric and saw a cinnamon roll. Schlichter says, "I don't know quite how it dawned on me to make food out of fabric, except that I love to cook and eat."

According to Schlichter, she approached the cinnamon roll from the inside out. "It starts with icing in the middle and then I add varying cinnamon colored browns." Looking down on the cinnamon roll, you see four different pieces of plain and print fabric folded so intricately that many people actually believe it is edible.

Once Schlichter perfected the cinnamon roll design, she started researching packaging options. She found clear takeout containers at a restaurant supply store. She bought doilies to place under the rolls. And she made labels stating that the rolls were from "Nana's Pantry." The label also identifies the contents as containing "4 delicious fat quarters" of fabric.

What happened when customers began noticing these rolls? According to Schlichter, "The brown fabric left the premises." In fact, the rolls became so popular that she is now ordering more brown fabric—a lot of it. But she didn't stop there. She started looking at some of her other fabric.

It occurred to Schlichter that orange fabric is also a little hard to move. And with oranges being widely grown in Ojai, orange muffins were a natural. These are made from four fresh squeezed fat quarters. The creative quilt shop owner was having so much fun, she started looking at other shades. Pink came to mind. "Some people just have to have pink," says Schlichter. And she designed raspberry muffins from 4 fresh picked fat quarters.

Today, among the florals and checks at Heartwarmers Mercantile, you'll find a full menu of gourmet fabric foods. There's chicken pot pie made from free range fat quarters, a variety of salads (green, fruit and potato), Valley of the Moon beverages in a multitude of flavors and even a box of cellophane-wrapped chocolate and caramel-colored candies called Teeny Weeny Chews. Quilters looking for lovely Asian and batik prints especially love Schlichter's California roll sushi.

Clever, isn't it? And I'll bet you're smiling just thinking about these unique and yummy items. However, even something this fun comes with its challenges. According to Schlichter, each food item has a different series of folds. She says, "That's what makes it look so real in the container—the color of the fabric and the folded shapes." Since Schlichter originated the folds, she has to rely on memory to recreate them. She says, "Sometimes I have to take something apart to remember how I did it."

In fact, there's quite a bit of research that goes into making each food item—most of it at the local grocery store. She explains, "I lurk late at night at Vons looking at the pastries. I wander around the store—in the bakery section and the packaged mix aisle—looking for ideas." She's currently researching something new for her Nana's Pantry line. She says, "I'm trying desperately to figure out chocolate cake folds. I tried for about three hours the other night and couldn't get it to look like a slice of cake."

She overcame a similar problem with the chicken pot pie, however. She says. "I was originally looking for little individual containers for the pot pies and I couldn't find them. I found a little bigger one, though, and decided it would work even better to put the chickens in the middle and the crust around the edge." The chickens, in this case, are printed on the fabric and wrapped in a crust colored cloth forming a ready to bake pot pie.

Who buys the food items? According to Schlichter, "Men and women mostly buy them for gifts, but I think sometimes they keep some for themselves. The mystery is, will they ever unpack them and actually use the fabric? I'm not sure about that."

When asked whether her designs would spark a trend of having food items in a quilt shop, Schlichter says, "It was always there. We just weren't packaging it in food containers."

Delectable delights from Nana's Pantry fit right in with the dry goods, notions and cookbooks at Heartwarmers Mercantile because merchandise charmingly fills four rooms of a 1870s home. In fact, some people stop by just to tour the building. Schlichter explains, "I get men who want to see the house and women who follow along. I had a writer come in recently. He was writing about a home this age in Kansas and needed some details about the house to finish his writing."

Even Schlichter is there by design. It all started about eight years ago. She had lost her job with a nonprofit organization. She says, "They ran out of money as nonprofits are known to do." And she began contemplating what she would do next. She had years of experience operating a florist shop in Ojai, but decided she didn't want to do anything involving perishables. It was important to Schlichter, however, that she worked at something she enjoyed. And she asked herself, "What would I like to do every day?" She responded, "Sew." And the rest is history.

Schlichter will be busy this fall making hand crafting a large supply of her delectable culinary delights in preparation for a quilt show she's sponsoring in Ojai January 25 and 26. She's fairly sure that a good number of the 2000 people expected that weekend, will be looking for flavors of orange, raspberry, cinnamon and watermelon fat quarters.

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