MADISON — While other children might pen a poem or grab some pastels to sketch, as a young girl Michaela “Kala” Murphy usually turned to a sewing machine to get creative.

Murphy learned how to sew at 7 years old from her mother. She said she was “enthralled with the sewing machine” and would sew drapes and make her own clothes as a schoolgirl on Long Island in New York.

She worked in a large fabric store in high school and college where she was able to learn the sewing business and how to run a retail store.

“I learned a lot during those years,” she said.

That experience served her well as she went on to open The Fabric Garden in Madison in 1978. The store proved successful and remains in operation more than 40 years later. But with time comes change, and Murphy says retirement is awaiting.

The Fabric Garden, one of Maine’s oldest quilt and fabric shops, will close at the end of the year. A Janome sewing machine dealer will take over the space at 167 Lakewood Road (also U.S. Route 201).

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“I wanted to make sure there was a person in place that will offer the same service, support and sales that we’ve been doing,” Murphy said.

She said The Fabric Garden is a destination spot, with many customers traveling more than an hour to tour the store’s fabrics, sewing supplies and sewing machines. A retirement sale, with up to 30% off inventory, began Tuesday and Murphy said the store was “wicked busy,” with a full parking lot and many customers wishing her well.

When the opportunity to open her own shop with her aunt, Marhe Priebe, and her sister, Beth Murphy Swain, came along in the late 1970s, Murphy said it was a no-brainer — although the economic realities of the time were not entirely conducive to starting a business.

Michaela “Kala” Murphy looks over fabric Monday as she prepares for the start of her retirement sale at The Fabric Garden in Madison. Murphy has owned and operated the store since 1978. Her retirement sale runs through Dec. 31. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The family was familiar with central Maine from vacationing by Clearwater Lake near Farmington and found a good location to open their store in Madison, Murphy said.

“We were committed,” she said.

There were challenges when The Fabric Garden launched in 1978, such as the gasoline crisis and commercial interest rates over 16%.

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“It was very much a struggle getting a business going, for years,” Murphy said.

But the store’s reputation and word-of-mouth were key factors in developing the following it has today.

“We built it with sales, service and reputation,” she said.

Michaela “Kala” Murphy, owner of The Fabric Garden, right, embraces Nancy Bishop, a longtime customer Tuesday at the Madison store. Murphy has owned and operated the store since 1978. Bishop said she has shopped at the store since it first opened. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The store is one of over 700 licensed dealers of Jenome sewing machines and products.

Murphy said her business strategy was always to listen to customers and anticipate where trends in fabric and sewing were headed.

“As times changed and what the clientele and customers were doing (changed), we changed with it or were hopefully ahead of the curve,” she said.

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When the shop first opened, she said customers mostly purchased products for garment sewing, home décor, upholstery, clothes, or wedding and bridesmaids’ dresses.

Then there was a shift in the 1980s to crafts, followed by a quilt craze in the late 1980s and early 1990s, where making quilts using sewing machines came into popularity.

“It’s an ever-changing business,” Murphy said.

She said The Fabric Garden has been a longtime sponsor of Maine Quilts, which holds a large quilt show every summer.

In the mid-1990s, Murphy’s sister Beth developed a website, which listed all the inventory and eventually become an online store as well. She referred to the website as “another piece of the puzzle” in building the store’s reputation.

Murphy is grateful to her staff and customers over the years. She said it’s simply time to retire and she looks forward to spending more time with family.

Even with all the changes in the business, she said two things have remained constant: her customers’ creative urge and the sense of accomplishment they feel when finishing a project.

Murphy said one of her favorite parts of running The Fabric Garden was being able to teach people how to create and how to sew, and helping people develop new, unexpected skills that allow them to satisfy a creative urge.

“That’s what I really like to help tap into,” she said.


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