The population of Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania will double this Saturday, October 4th, as more than 2,000 people flock to an unusual and beautiful once-a-year sight. Quilts — hundreds of them — will blanket the streets. The handmade quilts will hang from windows and porches of picturesque Victorian homes and in store displays, flutter from lines strung along the curb and drape over vehicles, fences and bushes. All this beauty — and the influx of business from those who come to see it — is a thank-you from one local businesswoman, her gift to the town where her dream came true.
In May 2001, Jeannette Kitlan was a single mom of four teens working 12-hour swing shifts at Procter & Gamble. “It’s the only place a woman can go out here to earn a wage that can support a family,” she said. Every day, she donned her steel-toed shoes and safety glasses and did what she had to. But inside she held onto a lifelong dream.
As the daughter of a home-economics teacher in the Dallas School District, Kitlan learned her way around a sewing machine early in life. “I was always too tall,” she said, “and the only way to have clothes that fit was to sew them myself.”
After graduating from Tunkhannock Area High School in 1973, Kitlan took her love of sewing to Penn State, where she majored in clothing and textiles. Her senior independent-study project was opening a fabric store, something she was already dreaming of doing for real.
First, though, came work in women’s ready-to-wear in a North Carolina department store and a stint as a teacher, then 14 years as a full-time mother. The dream lingered even as her marriage ended and she found herself working in the factory to take care of her children. It stirred back to life with a hunt for some extra income.
“I was working at Procter & Gamble, and I saw an ad for a long-arm quilting machine,” Kitlan said. Some quilters who prefer assembling quilt tops to the actual quilting pay to have their quilts finished and quilted on the machines. “Since I worked swing shifts, I thought I could do the quilting on my days off to supplement my income,” Kitlan said. But with her mind already on quilting, another opportunity came her way when a Tunkhannock-area quilt shop went up for sale.
At first, Kitlan held back. She had a steady job with good wages and benefits, a tough combination to walk away from with a family to support. The decision came one night when Kitlan realized she was turning her back on her dream. “I knew if I didn’t do this, I would be heartbroken for the rest of my life,” she said.
Fully committed, Kitlan and her family started renovating a house on Route 6 into her store and began ordering inventory. Quilt-shop owners attend annual shows to see new fabric designs, and the shows take place in different cities each year. The 2001 show was in Atlantic City, a lucky break for Kitlan. “This year, it was in Portland, Oregon, and there’s no way I could have gone there,” she said. “But that year, it was in Atlantic City. On a lark, I drove down there. I went to the market for three days and attended classes on how to run a shop.”
While there, Kitlan saw the variety of fabrics available — so many kinds not seen in this area at that time. “I saw that our area was so malnourished in fabric choices, that there was so much more available.” It was then she established her mission statement: to nourish quilters’ hearts, hands and souls. She returned home, ready as she ever would be to start her dream store.
Kitlan left her job on June 1, 2001, and opened Endless Mountain Quiltworks on Sept. 1, 2001. Ten days later, the shop television that normally showed episodes of quilting shows instead displayed the terrible images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center. Images that terrified the entire world shook new business owner Kitlan to the core. “I just stood at the counter watching,” she said, knowing everything she owned was tied up in the store. “I was frightened. I kept thinking about the steady job I left,” she said.
“I’ve always been an overachiever,” Kitlan said, “I just always knew what I wanted, and I went after it.” But she knows she hasn’t done it on her own. All four of her children have worked in the shop in some capacity, along with her mother, Nancy Goeringer, and sisters Leslie Rhoades and Kathy Goeringer. She has a dedicated staff of one full-time employee and four part-timers who help keep the shop humming seven days a week. She even credits lessons learned from former employers, such as the customer call center that taught her to always exceed the customer’s expectations and to use a customer’s name —something she strives to do in her shop, to the amazement of many of them. Even lessons learned from making toilet paper come back to her when she is stocking her shelves. “Cleanliness was key in the factory, and we were constantly told, ‘No product touches the floor.’ Even now when I’m putting out bolts of fabric, I hear ‘No product touches the floor’ in my head,” Kitlan said with a laugh.
A year after her scary start, Kitlan was still in business. To say thank you to the town, she started Airing of the Quilts in October 2002. Modeled after a famous outdoor quilt show in Sisters, Ore., Kitlan said last year’s event brought in busloads of quilters from New York State. Based on the number of seats filled at some of last year’s events and the number of sales in her own store, she said, more than 2,000 people attended in 2007. Kitlan is thrilled all those people will come to Tunkhannock (population 1,911 as of 2000 census), not only to shop in her store but to eat and shop in other local businesses as well. “This is a gift I’m able to give back to the community for the way they have embraced us,” she said.
And the community has embraced Endless Mountain Quiltworks. The shop was moved to a new location in the Towne Plaza and has 4,500 people on its mailing list. The 3,000-square-foot store holds 4,500 bolts of fabric and was named one of the top 10 quilt shops in North America in 2007. But Kitlan said she can’t sit back and relax. “I still work 24/7. There’s always something to be done,” she said. “And this is a very niched business. There’s no bread, milk or eggs in here, and people don’t need anything I sell.”
She keeps that in mind as she strives to make sure every customer gets personal attention. “I draw customers from two hours in every direction, and if they are going to drive to get to me, I want to make sure it’s worth it,” Kitlan said. She helps them with fabric choices and always takes time to admire any projects customers bring in to show off.
What: Airing of the Quilts
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, rain or shine
Where: Downtown Tunkhannock. Quilts will be displayed from businesses and homes along Tioga Street and surrounding streets. A restored trolley will be available for free transportation between event sites.
Related events: “Two Quirky Quilters” comedy show, Dietrich Theater, 11 a.m., admission $5; “A Lifetime of Quilts,” special exhibit of quilts made by Clara Kobeski, BVM Nativity Church, Tioga Avenue; quilt appraisals by Eugenia Barnes, $35; “Harvest of Quilts” quilt show by Quiltcrafters of NEPA, Tunkhannock Middle School, admission $5; quilt display and book signing, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with Sieglinde Schoen Smith and her prize-winning quilt “Mother Earth” at Endless Mountain Quiltworks, Towne Plaza, Tioga Street; three 90-minute train excursions from Riverside Park (The $20 fall foliage tours at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. will benefit Wyoming County United Way.)
For more information, visit airingofthequilts.com or call Endless Mountain Quiltworks at 570-836-7575. Read more about Kitlan and the Airing of the Quilts event in The Northeast Pennsylvania Times Leader.