Nicholas Turcan (he/him), is a professional quilter who owns Mystery Stitch Design on Granville Island.
How did you become a professional quilter?
It was serendipity. When I came from Manitoba to Vancouver and moved in with my partner Trevor, it was rainy and miserable that first winter. We had two little blankets and needed something bigger to cuddle under. I watched a YouTube tutorial on how to quilt and fell in love. I loved every step of the process: the math skills, the precision, the meticulousness.
When I became a professional quilter, I started by providing quilting services for other quilters; they would piece together a quilt top and I would stitch through the top, batting, and backing to create a finished quilt. Eventually I bought a longarm quilting machine, which can create things more beautiful than what is manageable on a domestic machine. It’s unwieldy to sew through multiple layers on a sewing machine. Straight line quilting is manageable, but anything with more fanciful designs is very difficult.
How many quilts would you say you’ve made?
I’ve lost track! In the first year when it was just a hobby, I made 12 quilts. Before the longarm machine, when I was just making personal quilts, it was upwards of 100. Professionally, I’ve made 1500 or more.
The length of time varies on the pattern and size of quilt. For a baby quilt, it takes about 45 minutes. More complicated quilts can take multiple 8-hour days.
I’m happy to say that most of my customers come back a second time or more. In fact, I would say 90% of people who come to me are repeat customers. Of course, sometimes there is a 1-3 year gap between their first and second quilt. Some people bring in 6-12 quilts per year, but most people finish 1-2 quilts per year with me.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
The creativity; I know what it takes to make a quilt sing. Half of my customers don’t know what they want. They bring the quilt and say, “I trust your judgment.” I have to think about finding the correct theme, the scale of design, the texture and the right thread colour. It’s a lot of pressure. They’ve already invested a lot of time and money in piecing the top before they hand it off to me. It’s like asking someone to finish the last 10% of a painting you’ve spent time and love on.
A lot of people don’t realize how diverse quilting can be. Quilts can be anything you want, as simple or intricate as you can imagine. I have seen silk quilts with over 1,000 pieces in a 14 inch square. It’s a work of art. On the opposite end of things, you can also make a queen-size quilt with one piece of fabric – it’s the quilting itself that matters. There is an unimaginable combination of things in between with thousands of techniques like hand paint, hand dye, appliqué, hand piecing, and more.
Before the pandemic, you traveled for speaking engagements at quilting guilds. What was that like?
When I speak at a guild, they want to hear my story; how I got into quilting and what inspires me. I usually take twenty or so of my quilts to show work spanning my career. I also travel to teach free-motion quilting. Even though I have a longarm machine, you can teach the same techniques on a regular size sewing machine. At a class, there are things you can do that you’re afraid to try on your own. People want to try, but they need permission to make mistakes. I teach them how to either fix or hide their mistakes.
You started renting retail space on Granville Island recently. How are you enjoying being a small business owner?
I bought my longarm seven years ago. For the first year, I didn’t do any customer work on it. When I started quilting professionally, I kept a part time job because I kept worrying: What if I hit a dry spell? What if I don’t have enough customers? Then I was laid off because of the pandemic, and I saw it as an opportunity. I took the gamble to be a full-time professional quilter. It really took off; I flourished.
In January 2021, I found out about some available retail space, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is my dream.” I took the chance, and moved operations out of my West End apartment into a wonderful retail space on Granville Island. I still struggle with what I want it to be; originally it functioned as a studio space where I could expand into new techniques with a door open to the public so they can ask questions and talk to me. Now I’m expanding in a couple new directions.
What has your experience been as a queer quilter/ business owner in Vancouver?
I’ve only been a business owner for the last six months, and in that time, I have only felt supported by the other business owners on Granville Island. I think they just see a young, ambitious person who wants to be successful.
As a queer quilter, I have met some wonderful queer people without a community who want to carve out space for other queer crafters. It’s not always easy. The quilting community is dominated by a certain sort of population, and being a man (gay or straight) in these spaces comes with a set of challenges. On the positive side, you stand out, so it’s easier to get noticed and get famous. However, you also get judged as being not technically capable because people assume you’re there because of your token status. That is very frustrating. I’ve been dismissed when walking into a quilt store and an employee asks, “Are you lost? Are you here to buy something for your mom?”
When I’m at guild talks and quilt shows, I always tell my origin story. When I say, “my partner, he,” some people flinch, turn away, or dismiss me. Then I know that there are some homophobes in the crowd. I’ve never felt severely put down or harrassed, but I have felt that icy coldness. I’m equipped to deal with that, because I know there are going to be those people no matter where you go. Still, it’s disheartening, because you know…there are going to be those people no matter where you go.
What is next for Mystery Stitch Designs?
When I first took this space, I moved in to use it as a studio. Now that I’ve been there for a while, I realize I have the potential to do whatever I want. I struggle to know exactly what that is, but every day I see that potential changing and growing. I have started to sell readymade items, including Mini Monstrosities from Roar Cat Reads. I am also transforming it into a classroom so it will be a social environment to learn, buy, and socialize. I’m currently developing the schedules, so check my website for updates. I will likely have beginner sewing and beginner quilting classes, as well as a more advanced freeform quilting class. I will have a couple machines available to rent; otherwise, people can bring their own machine, and I will show you what it is capable of!
I want my store to be a safe space for crafty people. I want people like me to feel comfortable there. I started quilting as a 24 year old gay man; I am not a stereotypical quilter. If I can make a safe space for someone else who feel like they don’t fit in to traditional quilting/crafting community, I will be happy.