02/27/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2013

Texas Quiltin' Queen Sews Together Business And A Love Story

Debra Pavelka once quilted for fun and for charity. Now, she does it for money and love. And, it turns out, she’s very, very good at it.

In less than three years, Pavelka has tripled the sales at her small quilting shop and turned a Texas town with a three-digit population into quilter's paradise. Along the way, she's stitched her marriage -- rocked by a terrible accident in 2004 -- together again.

In 2010, the 58-year-old patchwork enthusiast bought a dusty old quilting shop called Gone Quiltin’ in Bandera, Texas, a cowboy town in the state's Hill Country with a population of 913. It was the kind of place where quilts went to die. Pavelka, who's been stitching one thing or another since she was nine years old, described the shop as "stodgy."

After the purchase, Pavelka had to take a good, long look at what would turn a tiny shop in a tiny town into a quilting destination -- the kind of place where a car full of Texas ladies hot for the latest fabrics would drive hundreds of miles to shop.

"Understand, dedicated quilters are very serious and willing to drive and far and wide to find a fresh little shop," Jim Salinas, a Texas fabric dealer and former executive vice president of chain Jo-Ann Fabric & Craft Stores, said. For those who think quilting is something grandmothers do on the side, the industry, it turns out, does nearly $1 billion in sales each year, Salinas said. In other words -- these are some grandmothers who spend some serious cash.

Pavelka said she applied the business skills she acquired from years working as a property manager and keeping the books for her husband’s gravel pit business to her store. She expanded; she added specialized inventory and equipment; she put her store on the map as a stop on the state-wide quilting “shop hop” -- a kind of scavenger hunt for quilting addicts who race all over the state to collect different pieces of quilting squares. All of these factors helped, she said.

She also realized that it was not enough to bring people to her: She had to go to the people. Pavelka bought a 21-foot moving van in order to haul her wares to trade shows all around the state. Her business has thrived as a result: Pavelka has tripled her annual sales to nearly $300,000 since 2010 and scored a coveted place at the International Quilting Show in Houston last October for the first time. "That was huge," she said. This year she is aiming to do $350,000 in sales, she said.

But behind the story of the store’s reinvention and success also lies a kind of modern love story about working through life's curveballs. In 2004, Pavelka and her husband, John, were still settling into new parenthood. Only two years before, they had adopted three foster children who were siblings. Then everything changed.

“There was an accident,” Pavelka said quietly in a recent phone conversation.

On a Monday in late June 2004, the phone rang at 7 a.m., ordering the family to immediately evacuate their home on the outskirts of San Antonio. The house was barely 500 yards from a ruptured chemical tanker, from which 60 tons of chlorine gas had leaked. The killer fumes enveloped the Pavelka's home. With a voice thick with love and emotion, Pavelka recalled, "My stupid husband had to run out there."

The foray into the toxic cloud nearly cost John his life. The vapors burned away 65 percent of his lungs, Pavelka said, while she and her daughter also suffered chemical burns to their lungs to a lesser degree. They were the lucky ones. That same cloud killed two of their neighbors, the train engineer, dogs, cats, chickens and “anything else that got a big whiff,” John said.

John was permanently injured due to the spill. While he once ran a large gravel business, he is now wheelchair-bound and must use oxygen to breathe around the clock. The family subsequently received a large settlement from the railroad company, Union Pacific Railroad. Pavelka declined to specify the amount of the settlement.

After the chemical spill, the Pavelka family moved an hour away, to Bandera. "Debra carries the load now, and I tend house and kids," John said. "We just switched positions, or as Debra always says, 'Well, we're on the same team, right.'"

Pavelka herself doesn't like to linger on the accident, but acknowledged quilting and the business have offered her ways to work through her pain. “Quilting in general is very therapeutic for me," she said. Everyone in her family sleeps under one of her creations. "It keeps your mind focused on the projects, rather than on your problems or issues.

Meanwhile there is quilting to be done for money. Today, Pavelka can turn around a queen-sized quilt that can sell for up to $600 in just one week with the help of modern technology. That same technology has also boosted her business and the crafting industry in general. With computerized sewing machines, even amateur quilters can make a piece in weeks, rather than a year or two, as in the past. That means more fabric sold, and the new advancements have been a boom for independent quilting shops, fabric salesman Salinas said.

Salinas added that the real ingredient to the success of Gone Quiltin' is Pavelka herself. "Do you think they care when you walk into Walmart?" Salinas said. "Her personal expertise and that love for her product is contagious."

Back at the family’s homestead, John serves as an informal marketing team, despite the medical challenges he has faced in recent years. He holds onto the hope that medical scientists will be able to grow artificial lung tissue in the near future, he said. But for now, his wife's success is one thing that keeps him going.

"I just want to be able to work and participate with my wife and kids," he said. "That girl is a go-getter. And I am obviously the proud husband."

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Gone Quiltin'