Grey nomads hit the road, driving their sewing supply store across the outback

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There is a big red bus snaking its way around Australia slowly becoming a beacon for sewing circles in regional and rural towns.

Key points:

  • Colin and Margaret Kendall purchased a double-decker bus to tour the Queensland country show circuit with their sewing supply business
  • The couple have being touring since 2007 when the economic downturn impacted their Charters Towers store
  • Their big red bus is now a beacon for sewing enthusiastic across the Queensland outback

It was every stitcher’s dream, a fabric shop on wheels, stocked to the brim with all manner of haberdashery for regional and remote quilters, crafters, and dressmakers.

The “seriously crazy” couple, Colin and Margaret Kendall, started a sewing supplies store in Charters Towers, Queensland in 1997.

They went on the road the following year, purchasing a double-decker bus to tour the Queensland country show circuit.

“We travel the country selling patchwork and embroidery,” Mr Kendall said.

“[We sell] patterns, ribbons, threads, buttons — everything.

“We try to make it look as much like a shop as we can. So off the side of the bus we’ve got a full length awning we set up with a counter, fabrics on display.”

Mr and Mrs Kendall are keen quilters themselves but spend most of their time busy on the road.

A dying industry?

A sluggish economy brought tough times for their brick and mortar store in Charters Towers so in 2007 Mr and Mrs Kendall made the decision to uproot and move into the bus permanently.

“It was a financial decision more than anything. It’s very hard in a shop,” Mr Kendall said.

“As you can see now around the country, many many shops are closing in this sort of business, and it’s a hard business.”

For the last 12 years the Kendalls have set up shop in country towns, at local shows, quilting exhibitions and workshops, or just humble shopping centre carparks.

Mr Kendall said the internet is only partly to blame for the downturn in retail sales.

“The other problem is there are very few young women taking it up. It’s mainly an older lady’s activity,” he said.

Today, the red bus has become a beacon of craft culture for regional sewing enthusiasts right across the outback.

Customer loyalty

Kim Kjaergaard has been a loyal customer of the red bus since it came to Mount Isa in 1998.

“I won’t count the amount of fabric I have at home but I still need more. That’s a quilter for you isn’t it?” Ms Kjaergaard said.

“I’m looking for nothing and everything. I just got a little packet today, I might get time to make some placemats.

“The big ones are too much work and there’s a limit to how many you can have.”

Despite their loyal following, Mr and Mrs Kendall said it has not been an easy job.

“When we pull up in the morning it’s three hours’ hard work before we can say ‘we’re open for business’. To pack down it’s another two or three hours,” Mr Kendall said.

But he said he and his wife share the jobs equally while of course leaving enough time to do a bit of quilting themselves.