Meet the World's Most Famous Quilter

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Jenny Doan with a quilt in progress. (Photo: Missouri Star Quilt Co.)

Every month of the year, the tiny town of Hamilton, Missouri, (population: 1,800) finds itself playing host to between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors. They come from nearby cities and towns. They come from North Carolina and Iowa. They come from South Africa and Australia.

And they’re pretty much all here because of Jenny Doan.  

“People learn to quilt from her and they want to meet her,” Alan Doan, Jenny’s son and one of the owners of the Missouri Star Quilt Company, tells Yahoo Makers.

They’ve been learning from Doan for years actually, via her weekly YouTube tutorials, where the grandmother of 22 can be found wearing her signature black-apron-and-colorful-cardigan combo while enthusiastically giving viewers step-by-step lessons peppered with friendly tips and encouragement on just about every quilt imaginable – from the bordered periwinkle to the flying geese to perhaps her most legendary quilt of all, the jelly roll race (the tutorial for which has racked up a staggering 1.6 million views since it was posted three years ago.)  

(Source: YouTube)

It’s her non-intimidating teaching style, Doan believes, that’s helped attract a following.

“People, I think, love that I’m not afraid to make a mistake, they love that I’m humorous, that I’m easygoing,” she tells Yahoo Makers. “Quilting has always been one of those things that can be super hard. People make it really hard. I try to find ways to make it easy and doable. I realized that if people could see it, they could do it.”

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After learning to sew as a kid, Doan eventually began a career as a theater costumer in California, but once she and her family moved to the Midwest in the mid ‘90s, she realized “nobody needed a costumer” there and began taking quilting classes, developing a true talent. In 2008, her children bought her a long-arm quilting machine (and a small brick building downtown to put the gargantuan thing in). Doan’s plan was to start offering quilting services, while Alan, a former tech consultant, Doan’s homemaker daughter Sarah, and a family friend launched a business selling pre-cut quilting fabric online, with its headquarters and a retail outpost at Doan’s shop.

“We launched the store and didn’t have a single sale. Nobody knew about us,” explains Alan. He soon noticed an unmet need in the market: People wanted to learn more about quilting, but most of the how-to videos online were posted by “weird people with a webcam.” “We were like, ‘These guys are awful,’" recounts Alan. So he approached his mom about doing her own. Her response? “What’s a tutorial?”

They began emailing out a new video every Friday to everyone on their mailing list.  After a year they had 1,000 YouTube subscribers. Two years in, the number had grown to 10,000. Today, the Missouri Star Quilt Company’s YouTube channel has more than 240,000 subscribers and gets a half million views a week.

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Doan with a visitor from England. (Photo: Missouri Star Quilt Company via Facebook)

As Doan’s videos took off, so did the business. The company now employs a whopping 170 employees, and five of Doan’s seven children (along with a few of the grandkids) are involved in the business. While Alan attributes a good portion of Missouri Star Quilt’s success to his and his partners’ business acumen, it’s his mother who’s been responsible for funneling in the customers. “If it were not for her YouTube channel, we wouldn’t be here,” says Alan.

Though the majority of the company’s sales are online (where, not surprisingly, whatever fabric Doan uses in a particular week’s video gets a four-to-five times sales spike), its six retail shops have turned Hamilton into a sort of "Disneyland for quilting.” Several of the shops have different themes (island-style fabrics are sold in one, holiday patterns in another), while Doan can usually be found in the main shop’s studio, often chatting with fans who’ve come to meet her.

"I really can’t go anywhere anymore without someone stopping me. Like today we were having lunch at a restaurant and three people came up and said, 'I just love your tutorials,’” she says.

And if she’s speaking at a quilting event, forget it. “I spend the whole time there autographing and taking pictures, and that’s not something I ever expected, but that’s been really fun.”

Looking back at those early tutorials may not be quite as much fun. “The thing about YouTube is when you’re out there, you’re out there and so those first videos, they’re rough. We had a little tiny camera, I wasn’t sure of what I was doing,” laughs Doan. “But it is what it is. It’s just out there.”

Six years in, she has no plans to slow down. Why would she? “I get to sew, which I love, and I get to talk, which I love.”

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