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Do quilt your day job: Debra Howard on quilting as business and therapy

Debra Howard, owner and quilter at Quilts by the Bay.
Debra Howard, owner and quilter at Quilts by the Bay.

BRIGHTON, NS – The first quilt Debra Howard ever sold earned her enough money to put her three kids through hockey.

That was the moment she first thought of creating a quilt making business.

The profits from quilts she sewed and sold after that then helped put her kids through post-secondary education.

“I thought to myself, ‘well that was easy. Why don’t I start taking more time and making more of these? I love it, and I’m good at it,’” she says.


Quilting through the chaos

Paramedicine and quilting may not seem like two related practices, but the combination has pulled Howard through some tough times.

The combination of high stress, high reward at work with the de-stressing, therapeutic nature of quilting is something that drives Howard to sew.

“I take pieces to work all the time. It’s what I’m known for, when I’m on shift,” she says.

“It helps me channel bad calls, but it’s also something I love.”

After years of avoiding her grandmother’s tradition of quilting, Howard took it up around 24 years of age, creating a quilt for her oldest child, Kourtneay.

Soon after, she began working as a paramedic in 1994.

Howard shows off one of her many spiffy quilting tools. “I sew by hand as well, but it’s fun to try these out as well,” she says.

Her second quilt was less successful – her son, Kierden, cut it with a pair of scissors.

“I couldn’t be mad at him – the little guy thought he was helping!” she says.

After marrying fellow paramedic Wally, Howard’s family expanded to include her stepson, Carl.

Just like Howard, Wally would also bring things to tinker with while at work to help channel the stress.

His tinkerings? Trains.

“I guess some people might see the combination as a little strange, but it does wonders. It’s the cheapest therapy out there,” laughs Howard.


Beginnings of a business

After deciding to make a go of it, Howard needed a location to set up shop.

Wally suggested using the area of their two-car garage as a trial space.

“Wally, as supportive as ever, gave me the garage. Things went really well, and he converted it into a permanent store space for me,” says Howard.

The store and its quilts are now on display inside the former garage, with the two areas previously used as doors converted to giant windows to showcase Howard’s quilts.

The newest addition to the store is a fabric store section, which opened in April.

Howard has also started weekly quilting lessons and annual quilting retreat at Wolfville’s Blomidon Inn.

Quilting since the age of 24, Howard uses it as a form of therapy as well as a way to make money. “It’s the cheapest therapy out there,” she laughs.

The retreat has attracted quite a lot of quilters – this year’s retreat has eight women from Newfoundland coming, along with one potential guest from Yukon.

Howard credits all of her success, even some of the sewing, to her husband, Wally.

“There was this one time I couldn’t get a pattern figured out. I’d made a mistake somewhere, and was getting frustrated trying to find it,” she says.

“He took a look at it and carefully took it apart until he found the one spot I’d gone wrong. I’d never have figured that one out if it weren’t for him.”

His help extends beyond quilts. Wally also suggested the fabric store idea one day, which is now a big part of Howard’s store.

“He’s the most supportive man. I have to make sure he knows that, that I could never have done any of this without him,” she says.

Quilts by the Bay is located at 8779 on Highway 101 in Brighton. To contact Debra Howard about her quilts, or to see examples of her work:


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