Love of needlepoint turned Lexington woman into entrepreneur

Employee Caroline Greathouse, right, helped customer Nicole Davenport with a belt she was making, and customer Susan Donovan, background, worked on her belt. "Belts are always big," owner Meredith Willett said.
Employee Caroline Greathouse, right, helped customer Nicole Davenport with a belt she was making, and customer Susan Donovan, background, worked on her belt. "Belts are always big," owner Meredith Willett said. Herald-Leader

A two-story brick house near Woodland Park is home to a retail and wholesale business that's the passion of a Lexington businesswoman.

M's Canvashouse has a cozy needlepoint shop on the first floor, where you'll often find students taking classes or shopping for their next beautiful canvas. Upstairs, thousands of orders are being filled from a needlepoint wholesale collection.

Owner Meredith Willett, a native of Versailles, had always dreamed of having her own needlepoint shop.

"I stitched all through high school and all through college," Willett said. "I wanted to work hard for myself and I wanted to do what I loved."

The Western Kentucky University graduate opened a small retail business — only about 400 square feet — in 1990 on Clay Avenue.

"The thought of owning my own business seemed appealing to me," said Willett, who grew up in a home of entrepreneurs. Her mother owned an art gallery, and her father owned his own business.

She took to the idea of running a business "by the seat of my pants," equipped with a strong "belief in the trial and error approach," she said.

After a few years, she moved to her current location: 131 Kentucky Avenue.

Shortly after buying that building in 1997, she bought into the wholesale needlepoint canvas company Elizabeth Turner Collection. The collection was named for one of the first people who started hand-painting needlepoint canvas.

"I've always taken money and put it back into the business," and it was a good business move to buy the collection she was familiar with, she said.

The collection consists of more than 8,000 needlepoint canvas designs and let her add a wholesale business to her retail shop. More than 900 belt patterns are offered in the Elizabeth Turner Collection.

"Belts are always big. I've been in business for 24 years, and belts never stop; they've been a constant for me," Willett said.

The wholesale part of her company is very different from the one she runs downstairs, Willett said. Downstairs, in rooms filled with thread and yarn of every color imaginable, she sells canvases and materials to customers who stitch needlepoint projects while their kids swim at the pool or when they have a new addition to their families and want to give a handmade gift.

What has kept her business going, she said, is the habit that needlepoint can create in someone. Even though the thread, canvas and finishing to make one needlepoint belt can run about $200, many people will continue to stitch because they are creating mementos for family members.

"We're not crafty, we're artists," Willett said.

Upstairs, she sells Elizabeth Turner Collection canvases to retail shops all over the nation. The canvases, which go out in daily shipments, feature Christmas, geometrics, sports, floral and animal prints.

The third component of her business is needlepoint finishing.

"I couldn't do what I do without my incredible staff," said Willett, who employs local artists to finish the products. Most of them work out of their homes. Finishing includes turningi needlepoint canvases into belts, purses, rugs and ornaments.

"They can work in their own homes and fit their own lifestyles," Willett said of her finishing team.

Sugar Slabaugh has worked for Willett since she had her store on Clay Avenue.

"I work, not because I have to, but because I love being with her," Slabaugh said.

"She is so talented and she relates so well to customers. That's why her business has grown by leaps and bounds," Slabaugh said. "She has the touch."

Donna Lail, 33, another employee, met Willett when she was 8 years old and Willett gave her her first needlepoint keychain. She finished it in a day, she said.

Now Lail hand-paints canvases for the company.

"It's very much a family; we're very close," Lail said.

In addition to her store, Willett teaches needlepoint designs nationally, internationally and online. She also teaches classes in Lexington and at her Louisville shop.

In 2003, she published Knots, Fur and Turkey Work, a book highlighting intricate stitching. She said she wrote the book not only to teach but to encourage people to try stitches they might be afraid of.

Willett has studied at the Royal School of Needlework in London, England, and she plans to return to England to teach at Lady Anne's Needlework Retreat in September 2014.

"All I do is work. It takes a lot of time, but it all works well together," Willett said. "It's been an amazing life for me."

Her advice to other entrepreneurs after 25 years of stitching every day is to be passionate about whatever they decide to do.

"It takes over your entire life," she said, "but go for it if you love it.

"I've done a lot in 25 years, and it has made such a huge difference in my life. I'm able to do my passion every single day, and I get to share it with others. When I get up and go to work, I'm happy."

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