COLUMBIA — Paul Statler didn’t know a trip to a state fair would result in a life-changing discovery.
Statler, a Columbia resident, went to a fair in Sedalia in 1989, and for the first time in his life, he saw a longarm, hand-guided quilting machine. Statler, who worked in computer maintenance, suddenly realized he could do something different.
“A computer can do that,” he said to himself.
In the early 1990s, Statler made the first computerized longarm quilting machine. The machine allows users to digitally design quilt patterns, which are then automatically sewn. Later, he started a company called Statler Stitchers that specializes in producing the quilting machine. He sold the company to Gammill Quilting Machine Company at the end of 2004.
The Columbia resident’s invention is still drawing people’s attention after 20 years. At the third Statler Users Group and Representatives conference, which began on Monday and runs through Wednesday, 415 people from 48 states and more than 10 countries gathered in Columbia to learn more about the machine Statler developed and the company he started.
The three-day conference is being held by Sweet Dreams Quilt Studio, a Columbia-based company that focuses on digital designs for longarm quilting machines. The conference this year offers 84 different classes for computerized quilting using Statler Stitchers. Kimberlee Diamond, the owner of Sweet Dreams Quilt Studio, said that about 80 percent of the people in attendance were there to learn more about the machines for commercial reasons.
Joni Neiman came from Minnesota with her sister Lori Endress to learn more about programing quilt borders with the machine. It was their first time attending the conference.
Neiman started using the digital longarm quilting machine last September. She discovered it at a local sewing machine dealer with her sister.
“Oh my word! We are doing that,” Endress said when she first saw the machine.
“She kept opening her mouth, and I kept closing it for her,” Neiman said, laughing.
Neiman said the machine helped her to be a much more productive quilter. She said she knew a little bit about the machine, but there was so much more to explore.
“The more you work with it, the more you don’t know,” Neiman said.
Linda Schmitt from Washington, D.C., has been using the Statler Stitchers for about five years, but still finds these training classes very helpful.
Schmitt said the computerized system helps her accomplish designs that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
The conference attracted many guests from all over the world, including Maria Bussler from Sweden and Kaye Brown from Australia.
Bussler said her company is the only one in Sweden that uses Statler Stitchers, and she thought this conference would be a great chance for her to communicate with people she can share her experiences with.
Brown said there are about 21 people from Australia at the conference this year.
“We are just here to catch up with the newest patterns, techniques,” Brown said.
Even though everyone who attended the conference came as a Statler user, they also had the chance to see a lot of hand-made quilting products.
The Booneslick Trail Quilters’ Guild, a local quilting association, is holding a quilt show at the conference. There are 248 quilts on display. Some of them are machine produced, while others are hand made, including one piece produced in 1938.
Ny Wetmore, an art design teacher at the conference, walked with her friend Kelly Gallagher-Abbott, who teaches stitching techniques. They discussed the pieces on display as they looked around.
Wetmore said it’s hard to say which one is better when it comes to machine-made and hand-made quilts.
“You can finish one in a month with the machine, but maybe a year with your hands. But that is love,” Wetmore said.
Gallagher-Abbott said the machine helps her push her boundaries.
“Some people say it’s cheating, it’s not quilting,” she said. “But that's not fair. It’s a different set of skills, new approach to art."
As the inventor, Statler helped people solve problems related to the machine at the conference. He said that being a master of the machine is not easy.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “It’s harder than people would imagine.”
Currently, Statler has 13 employees working at the local production location on the east side of Columbia. He said he has been upgrading the machine constantly and will continue doing it in order to make it more useful.
Supervising editor is Ann Elise Taylor.