ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Good quilts have personality, and when the right personality is selling them, a whole town can benefit. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on the power of pre-cut fabric squares and a woman who lights up YouTube.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Just a few years ago, downtown Hamilton, Mo. looked like a thousand other forgotten rural towns. Abandoned, forlorn buildings marred the main drag. And that's why Dean Hales, who's lived here 77 years, is so delighted now.
DEAN HALES: I've lived here most all my life and I can't hardly believe what I'm seeing. When you got people coming from all over the world to a little town of 1,800 people, you've got something pretty special.
MORRIS: They've got Missouri Star Quilt Company - fifteen freshly remodeled buildings in Hamilton full of fabric, sewing machines and customers. Della Badger drove in here from Victorville, Calif.
DELLA BADGER: I just looked on my map and asked Siri, how do I get to Hamilton, Mo.? But, it was my dream to get here and see Jenny.
MORRIS: Badger's talking about someone she knew only through YouTube, Jenny Doan.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "JELLY ROLL RACE! A QUILT TOP IN LESS THAN AN HOUR!")
JENNY DOAN: Hi, I'm Jenny from the Missouri Star Quilt Company, and I have such a fun project for you. This is easy and quick, but it looks like you've just worked so hard. So let's take a look...
MORRIS: Doan's how-to quilting videos have drawn millions of views.
J. DOAN: I know. It's some crazy thing like that. (Laughter). You know, so just so you know - I can't hardly even use the bathroom in a restaurant without somebody saying, I love your tutorials. (Laughter).
MORRIS: Doan says it's because she takes an easygoing approach to what's traditionally been a daunting and tedious craft.
J. DOAN: Quilting has always been something that's like, really for the elite. And I'm like, just whack it up, we're going to put it together, this is going to be awesome.
MORRIS: She says women from around the world visit Hamilton or write to thank her for getting them into quilting.
J. DOAN: This has absolutely been the sweetest, most serendipitous thing that has ever happened to me.
MORRIS: And this business would not have happened if Jenny had been a better financial planner.
ALAN DOAN: My parents have always been bad with money.
MORRIS: Alan Doan, Jenny's son, says the recession cost his folks their savings and threatened to take their house.
A. DOAN: And, so me and my sister were looking at it, we said, we got to put something together so that mom can make a little extra cash.
MORRIS: So in the fall of 2008, Doan and his sister took out loans and set their mom up with a business sewing other people's quilts together. Customers kept asking for fabric, so Alan built a website to sell it.
A. DOAN: World, we're open - and you expect somebody to care, right? And so we launched the website. And I still have my Facebook post. I went and looked at it the other day. It's like, hey I launched this quilt shop for Mom, you guys should check it out. It has like, two likes.
MORRIS: Doan was selling - well, trying to sell - a relatively new product, pre-cut fabric. The pieces come bundled together from the factory in a pack with different complementary prints, making it much easier and faster to make good-looking quilts. But one year in, business was terrible.
J. DOAN: Alan came to me and said, Mom, are you interested in doing tutorials? And I said, sure honey, what's a tutorial? I mean, I had no idea. I had never been on YouTube.
MORRIS: Well, the videos featuring pre-cut fabrics eventually took off. Sales exploded. And now, Missouri Star Quilt employs more than 180 people sewing, staffing stores, and like Mindy Lloyd, shipping thousands of packages a day from the company's huge new warehouse.
MINDY LLOYD: This one's going to Australia. (Laughter). Isn't that neat?
A. DOAN: We had to learn how to do this from, like, watching YouTube videos on how Amazon does it or something, right?
MORRIS: Success has pushed the company into publishing, even food service. They're renovating more buildings, and by mid-summer, plan to double the number of quilt shops in Hamilton, even to add a man's land to give their customers' husbands something to do.
The Doans aren't the first people from Hamilton to make it big in retail. James Cash Penney, Jr. landed his first sales job here almost 120 years ago. Penney left Hamilton a teenager, came back years later and opened his 500th J.C. Penney store here. It's not likely the Missouri Star Quilt Company can match that, but it has transformed this once sleepy little town into a quilting mecca. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.