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Progress: Cherrywood: Small Brainerd business makes colorful global impact

BAXTER--Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics, a Baxter-based business employing only seven women, may be small but it has made an impact across the globe. Cherrywood owner/colorist Karla Overland has taken the hand-dyeing business from Brainerd to New Yo...

Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics owner/colorist Karla Overland smiles as she talks about the business and all the different colors Cherrywood creates at the studio in the Baxter Industrial Park. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch
Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics owner/colorist Karla Overland smiles as she talks about the business and all the different colors Cherrywood creates at the studio in the Baxter Industrial Park. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch

BAXTER-Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics, a Baxter-based business employing only seven women, may be small but it has made an impact across the globe.

Cherrywood owner/colorist Karla Overland has taken the hand-dyeing business from Brainerd to New York City and Houston to overseas to Dubai. Soon, Overland will be adding France and Australia to the list of places that showcase work by Cherrywood.

Cherrywood is a hand-dyeing company that turns high-quality, unbleached muslin fabric into a rich, suede textured fabric suitable for making quilts and clothing. The company has developed hundreds of formulas that make almost every color imaginable.

Cherrywood sells directly to customers across the country through its website. The fabric is sold at Colorz Quilt Shop in Brainerd and at several quilt shops across the country.

Overland is not the original owner of Cherrywood, but when she heard about the company she said she had to become involved with it. Overland's love of quilting began at age 10 when she taught herself how to sew while in the 4-H program in Morris. She graduated from high school and then went on to earn a graphic arts degree from Moorhead State University.

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Overland moved to Brainerd when she got a job a Russell and Herder, an advertising company.

Overland joined a quilting club in Brainerd and that is when she heard about Cherrywood and Dawn Hall, who started the hand-dyeing business in her home 30 years ago. Hall brought her fabric to quilt shows with her aunt and people loved it. The business eventually moved into a dedicated building in Brainerd.

Overland said Hall needed graphic design work done and that's when they began working together. Overland said when she saw the product Hall was producing, she knew what was next.

"I practically begged her to hire me as I loved the product and quilting industry," Overland said. "I was getting burned out of advertising and I knew this was the coolest thing ever. And with school I had color theory courses in college, so it fit."

Overland became partners with Hall in 2001 and learned the trade. A year later, Hall died from cancer. The business fluctuated between two to four employees at an undisclosed location in Brainerd for several years. Overland had two business partners, Linda Arganbright and Hall's husband, Allen, up until their retirements.

In 2015, Overland became the sole owner of the company and more space was needed, so the company moved to its current location in the Baxter Industrial Park on College Road. The new studio is more environmental friendly and efficient. Overland said they were having issues with humidity, temperatures, water pressure and space at the former building.

"This location is one level and is amazing," she said. "We know exactly what our water temperature is going to be because we have tankless water heaters. The water has to be 140 degrees."

The location also has an overhead garage door for shipping things out and bringing in raw material, which is an added bonus, Overland said.

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The dyeing process

It starts with the muslin, which comes in 150-yard rolls. Overland said muslin is a plain, 100 percent cotton fabric made in various weights, where bits of the cotton is visible in the woven material.

The fabric is cut in 2-yard pieces so it can be placed in the washing machines for the dyeing process. The fabric goes through multiple washings, which is one reason why the fabric becomes so soft.

There are four washing machines that prewash the fabric to remove sizing and dirt and nine washing machines that dye the fabric. Each washing machine can dye the fabric a different color.

"After we cut and wash it to get the sizing and any grease out, we prepare it for the dyeing process," Overland said.

The fabric goes into the dyeing washing machines wet. Overland mixes up each recipe for each dye, which is a powered procion dye. The recipe is a well-kept business secret and is not shared with the public. The dyes are mixed up, put into the machine and there are several steps along the way. One batch takes up to five hours to create. It took an entire day at the old location.

"We want to dye evenly and don't want it twisted," Overland said. "We are not going for the tie-dye look.

"After a long process, the fabric comes out ... a solid color. Once it is dry it will have a suede texture, not flat color. It's like a tone-on-tone variation of color and is sent wet to the subcontractors and they finish it."

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There are four subcontractors who work from home. They take the fabric and run it through a mangle, which is a mechanical rotary iron that presses and dries the fabric at the same time. It is then folded, pre-cut to certain sizes, grouped, labeled and priced.

The subcontractors also do quality control, looking for any type of flaws, such as spots or blotches.

"We don't throw anything away," Overland said. "If it doesn't turn out, we cut it up and throw it into grab bags and sell it. We started selling our lint from dryers as they come out colored and we sell them to fiber artists to make interesting art."

One of the subcontractors, Arlo Hill, has worked for the company for 26 years. Hill said it takes her about 20 hours to complete two batches in a week. Each batch is about 200 yards.

"This is a perfect job to do at home," Hill said. "You can go shopping in between and leave for a few hours because it's a process. I just keep track of my hours and when the batches are complete I hand it (the fabric that is sized, labeled and priced) back to Karla.
"I enjoy the freedom of the job and I have a very nice boss."

The entire process takes about three days.

Overland said the overall look of Cherrywood fabric is very specific. The company gained a reputation on its packaging, which hasn't changed for the past 30 years. One of their trademarks is its eight-step gradation bundle. These gradations of color are formulated so when the eight colors are packaged together, they create a "pleasing collection that is irresistible to quilters," Overland said.

Overland said customers appreciate that the fabric has been prewashed and preshrunk; there is no right or wrong side; it has a high thread count; and has subtle tone-on-tone variations, which creates richness and depth.

Almost half of Cherrywood's fabric is sold online, going straight to the retailer. The fabric also is sold at quilt shows across the country, including ones in California, Texas and New York. Overland attends about 10 quilt shows a year. Traveling to quilt shows around the country has helped the business expand its customer base. The Cherrywood studio has a map on the wall with colored tacks in place for each location that carries the product. The tacks are marked all over the country, from as close as Brainerd to as far away as Dubai. This summer, a tack was added with a quilt shop in Oregon now carrying Cherrywood fabric.

Overland said their retail customers are like a family. At the quilt shows, they meet their customers and talk to them about projects they are working on, helping them with colors. After the shows, they reorder through the Cherrywood website.

"We have a big following in California because we go to two quilt shows there," Overland said. "We pick up customers at the quilt shows and they tell their friends. It is word of mouth and is really how we have gotten to where we are today. We have a cluster in Houston, as that is the largest quilt show in the country and it is international. We have people from all over the world and these shows are where we have gotten our pockets of international customers."

The company also is a wholesaler to high-end fabric and quilt stores. Overland said this is the most rapidly increasing part of the business now that production has expanded.

Overland said she heard Minnesota has the highest amount of quilt shops in the country, but every state in the U.S. has quilters. She said people don't realize quilting is a $4 billion industry and it continues to grow.

Overland said her biggest competitor is the commercially printed fabrics people purchase off bolts at retail stores. She said all the large companies have a line of solid colors.

"They will never have the same texture as (our) hand dyes, as they have been washed so many times," Overland said. "Our fabrics are very soft. ... A lot of award winning quilters love to use our fabric because it really shows off their design work."

Overland said people may see a fabric at a big commercial retail store one month, but it may only be available for a few months. Overland keeps the Cherrywood colors for up to five years for the quilter to purchase

"For some quilters it takes a long time to make a quilt," Overland said. "You start a quilt and stop and finish it 10 years later and we will try to come up with the color and be pretty close."

Overland started a quilting challenge in 2014 that ended up being a hit sensation and helped the business grow even more. Overland wanted to have something fun for quilters to do and said quilting contests are common. She created rules and a theme with specific colors.

The first theme was "Wicked," based on the Broadway play Overland saw in New York City that year. Quilters who participated in the challenge would purchase a packet filled with the fabric-in the first case, it was lime green and black -and they would use their imaginations to create their masterpiece. Every quilt had to be the same size, color and theme.

"When I started this challenge, I was hoping for 25 quilts," Overland said. "To my surprise, there were 114. We kept them all and made a special exhibit (of the winners) and it traveled all over the country. Everybody loved it and wanted to know what was next."

The theme of the second challenge was "The Lion King," which required permission from Disney to use the name. In this challenge, there were 304 entries-tripled from the first challenge. Cherrywood could only keep 120 of the entries, and used outside judges to decide on the winners. The exhibit for "The Lion King" has traveled around the country since August 2016 and will continue to travel through February. Disney chose 24 quilts to display in the theater featuring The Lion King on Broadway at the end of this year.

The third challenge has started with entries coming in this past Aug. 1. The theme for the challenge is Vincent van Gogh, a Dutch impressionist painter, and the color is blue.

There were 465 quilts submitted. Three judges spent days sifting through all the online images. Quilts that made the first cut were sent to the Cherrywood studio to be judged in person.

The Cherrywood challenge has been booked by show organizers for the next two years, regardless of the theme, Overland said, because of its popularity.

"This has really put us on the map even globally because these displays have a high impact, everyone is talking about them," Overland said. "It's the buzz (in the quilting world). I was approached by a needle company in France who want to display these (van Gogh) quilts in some of their art space.

"People doing these quilts are from all over the country (and world): Switzerland, New Zealand and I had an email today from Spain, asking about this contest. It's been amazing. I'm working on next project, but it is hush-hush."

• Business: Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics.

• City: Baxter.

• Number of employees: Seven, which includes Overland. Linda McQuaid, customer service, shipping and inventory; Donna Anderson, is the administrative and production assistant; the four sub-contractors who do the finishing work are Arlo Hill, Darla Grotzke, Lorrene Maroney and Betty Jo Franzen.

• Interesting fact: In a one-year period, the company dyes 20,000 yards of fabric; goes through 8 tons of salt; ships 6,000 pounds of fabric with freight companies to quilt shows; and produces about 350 yards of dyed fabric a week. The Lion King exhibit was seen in front of as many as 250,000 people in 24 venues. National quilt show attendance can range from 8,000 to 40,000 visitors.

Upcoming event

Cherrywood Hand Dyed Fabrics will take part of The Weaving Waters Fiber Art Trail Sept. 22-23, a self-guided tour of businesses and artisans through cities from New York Mills to Brainerd to Little Falls. People will stop at art studios and shops and learn about the art and do some shopping.

Cherrywood will offer ongoing tours of the dyeing facility from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days in Baxter. Overland's personal fiber artwork will be on display.

The night of Sept. 22 is a social gathering at The Landmark Inn in Staples, with music, wine and appetizers. Overland will give a slide presentation at 7 p.m. about the journey she has taken with her annual Cherrywood challenge.

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