Member Spotlight: Merel van Looi

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Merel Van Looi last remembers her body feeling normal at her second QuiltCon in Pasadena, California. Three weeks later, the Netherlands quilter and fabric shop owner of Birdblocks, was hospitalized for a partial spinal cord lesion which would leave her body with limited leg function. The bleeding around her spinal cord, which was onset by reasons outside of her trip to Pasadena and Bali three weeks prior, would change her daily function and quilting productivity, but it would not stop her from living a creative life.

Merel was born to two elementary school teachers in the village Zaandijk, 10 miles outside of Amsterdam. She and her younger brother were kept busy with crafting projects since they were young. “Paper cutting was my first creative choice,” Merel recalls. “I saw a baby announcement at a friend’s house in paper cutting, and I went home and tried it for myself.” Her mother couldn’t understand how she managed to suddenly begin making cards and invitations using paper cutting, a craft which she had never formally learned. However, this was how Merel’s mind worked; she identified crafts she loved and found a way to make it on her own.


One weekend, during a romantic getaway, Merel and her boyfriend drove through the Netherland’s countryside, and into a village where she had never been before. As they passed a tiny shop on the roadside, Merel yelled for her boyfriend to stop the car immediately. He asked her what was wrong: had he trampled over a cat accidentally? She jumped out of the car and ran to the store window. Inside, there was a log cabin quilt, the first one that Merel had ever seen in person after years of studying quilting in books. “We went back to the shop the following week when it opened,” Merel says. “I bought fabric for my first log cabin quilt, and learned a lot about the guild which, in the Netherlands, is international.”


Merel joined the volunteer team that wrote the magazine for the guild and stayed on the team for nearly four years. “I had to quilt,” Merel says. “I started Birdblock with a friend because we desperately wanted to bring fresh and modern fabrics to the quilting community.” The fabrics available were mainly coffee colored with floral design. Birdblock opened in August of 2003, a week after Merel’s birthday, on what felt like the hottest day of the year. The store, named after her own name “Merel,” which means “blackbird” in Dutch, was the first of its kind. She designed the bird block logo for the store. “It’s a fabric shop which specializes in quilting fabrics and materials,” Merel says. “We do not sell finished items, but I hope our shop caters to quilters who are attracted to fabrics with bright colors and patterns.”


Eventually, Merel left her career as a building engineer to run the shop full time. “I didn’t feel as though I was where I was supposed to be—an office environment wasn’t right for me,” she says. However, becoming an entrepreneur came with its hurdles. “For example, it’s hard to compete with online shops in America, even with shipping and taxes, there is a larger inventory of items,” says Merel. “There are also many things I didn’t foresee like bookkeeping and following government regulations and so on.” Even harder on Merel, who has had to crowdfund her treatments and medical supplies, is the lack of disability benefits for entrepreneurs. “It hurts not to be supported like any other employee in the Netherlands, but I’m still happy to not be in an office cubicle anymore.”


When Merel went to her first QuiltCon, she didn’t know anyone except for online bloggers. “Again, I joined the volunteer team, and it was the best decision for me,” she says. Merel sat at the entry of the hall scanning tickers and introducing herself to all the attendees. “I made so many contacts as a volunteer that week, and I met people whom I saw year after year following that first convention,” she says. When Merel was diagnosed with her spinal disorder, all her new quilting friends on Instagram provided an enormous amount of support once her life began to change. “I began asking for bird blocks from quilters around the world, and when it finished, I had over 110 bird blocks that inspired me to keep active even as my energy continued to deplete,” she says.


Merel manages her energy issues daily as part of her chronic illness, and small things make sewing easier — like using her left foot to push the sewing machine pedal. "I'm working on a new super project of multiple quilts, and it might shock the quilting world," Merel teases. "I don't want to say much more; it will take some time to produce because of the energy thing, but it will be made." Merel doesn't restrict herself with rules and follows her own inspiration. "Find your way," she says. "Take the lessons learned from others and only apply the ones which suit you."