Death-defying shop owner says she couldn’t have survived sitting in a chair doing nothing

Published on Sunday, 27 October 2013 23:33 - Written by FAITH HARPER fharper@tylerpaper.com

Prev  1 of 8  Next

CANTON — Sew n’ Sew is not the average quilting store, with remnants from its roots as a dressmaking shop and vivacious owner who has circumvented death twice.

About 1,500 bolts of cotton fabric are displayed in the converted home at 22390 Texas Highway 64 in Canton.

The fabric spans four rooms along with an assortment of other supplies, such as colored thread and batting. One room is almost entirely devoted to marked-down fabrics.

“I have a lot of little retired ladies, and they are on a limited income, so they go to that because of financial (reasons), and I try to keep about 300 bolts marked down to help them out as much as I can,” shop owner 77-year-old Thelma Barker said.

Ms. Barker said that when the shop was started about 75 years ago in Terrell, it purely made button holes for people’s clothes. It was later sold and became a dress-making shop.

Ms. Barker said she became the store’s fourth owner in 1984 and has been in operation for 29 years, with 12 of those in Canton.

The shop has carry-over items from its days as a dress-making shop, including zippers, elasticized sequins, bias tape, bridal lace, ribbon, braid and fringe.

“What they classify as a quilt shop does not have a lot of this stuff, and they won’t ever carry it,” she said. “I’m a quilt shop, but I’m also a dress-making shop because that’s what I started out as.”

The shop has an impressive collection of buttons. Ms. Barker estimated there are more than 10,000 buttons on cards, and some of them date back to the shop’s first owner. There also are countless buttons in boxes and tubes.

“I have a lot of accumulation of stuff,” she said. “You accumulate a lot when you’re in this kind of business.”

She sews every day in what was once the home’s kitchen and does alterations, quilts and hand embroidery.

Ms. Barker said she grew up in a small town in South Texas, and “there wasn’t much else to do but sew.” She was making her own clothes by the time she was 9 and was 16 before she ever owned a store-bought dress.

“I’ve sewed all my life,” she said. “I don’t know no different, and I love to sew. I like to see new things made.”

But of all the colorful and interesting things in the shop, the most interesting is Ms. Barker herself.

The self-proclaimed “oldest shop owner, anywhere” is as active as they come. In addition to sewing every day, she is a member of two quilting guilds, goes out dancing regularly and does most of her own lawn care.

In April 2011, her mobile home in Ben Wheeler was struck by a tornado. Her home was destroyed, but miraculously both she and her dog survived.

Her right leg, ankle and three vertebrae in her back were broken in the storm. She was knocked down for about three months, but the store stayed open.

“I belong to a … quilt guild, and the women volunteered to come up here, and two of them came everyday and kept the shop open.”

Several years before the storm, she narrowly lived after a bull trampled her. She was helping move cattle when two bulls got into a fight.

The incident broke all of her top teeth, her sternum and five ribs; her lungs collapsed in the hospital.

“I’ve done a lot of things that people don’t do, and the doctors told me the reason I lived was because I was an active person,” she said. “If I had been one who sat in a chair and didn’t do anything, I couldn’t have survived.”

Ms. Barker said she believes she was spared because of her charity work.

“I make quilts and pillow cases for abused kids,” she said. “Van Zandt County has almost 400 kids in foster care, and I belong to two quilt guilds. … Our thing is to do charity work for kids.”

So far this year Ms. Barker has made 400 pillowcases and 22 quilts for donation, with another 60 quilt tops that are ready to be put together.

“One guy came in here and said, ‘You give away more than you sell,’ and that’s probably true,” she said.

Ms. Barker said she loves what she is doing and has no plans on retiring as long as her health holds up, although she anticipates running the shop for another four or five years because selling the reins to someone else.

“I’ve worked all my life …” she said. “I never did stay home. I worked all the time, so I don’t plan to retire anytime soon unless things to where I can’t handle the fabric.”