Kevin Stilwell is very clear about what led him into the purse-making business.
“That sewing machine,” he said, pointing to the Elna 9006, a high-end sewing machine that his wife had bought.
“It was sitting at home and not being used. I was sort of in a job I didn’t like, so I taught myself how to sew.”
That was 15 years ago.
Today, Stilwell owns the Old Town Purse Factory, where he makes and sells purses in a variety of styles. There are simple totes with magnetic closures, messenger bags with long handles, leather bags with zippers and purses built around spring-lock metal frames. There are diaper bags and computer bags.
“My claim to fame is pockets,” Stilwell said. “When people come in and look at these purses they go, ‘look at the pockets.’ Everything has eight pockets.”
Stilwell credits his wife, Robin, for his trademark feature.
“She said they’ve got to be quality and they’ve got to have pockets.”
His wife had been taught to sew by her grandmother, who had worked in New York’s garment district. But Stilwell said she lost interest in the craft, although she occasionally helps with the sales aspect of his business.
Stilwell served an apprenticeship of sorts by working three years for Jo-Ann Fabrics.
“The real reason was I got a 15 percent discount on fabrics.”
He started by selling items out of his home and at craft shows. Back then he was making easier items such as vests, pillows and blanket tops, using patterns created by others. He decided to focus on purses because “they sell.”
“When I was making pillows and vests, they didn’t seem to be selling. When I started selling purses, they did.”
In 2003 he stopped working out of his home and rented space in the rear of Mead Street Gallery & Gifts.
“There’s always more to do at home than what your business is,” he said. “And we have cats. They’re like, ‘You don’t need to be doing that.’ ”
He works among scissors, pins and lots of cloth and thread. He has the Elna 9006 overhauled once a year.
Stilwell makes many of his own designs and also fills special requests by customers, such as a leather “man bag” for one. Flowers and animals are popular patterns.
“Cats have been very good to me,” he said. “A cat lover will buy just about anything with a cat. A dog lover will buy their (dog’s) breed.”
His purses sell for $45 to $65, with leather costing more. Larger bags go for $100 to $125.
Stilwell said the Final Friday art crawls have been a big boon to his business. He sells purses online but says “99 percent” of his business is done in person. He does one large craft show, the annual Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, where he loads up on tie-dyed purses. Otherwise, he tries to keep his inventory to a couple of dozen purses because, he said, “I never know what’s going to sell.”