Julie Fernstrom didn’t set out to become the Blanket Lady. It just sort of happened. Seven years ago, her soon-to-be-husband’s real estate development job took the couple across the pond to Wales. Unable to get a work visa, she spent her copious free time learning to reupholster furniture and poking around "boot sales" (a term for flea markets in Wales, referring to the open trunk, or boot, of a car, from which merchandise is sold). She soon filled eight rooms of her five-bedroom country house with English antiques, silver, and china, with the intention of shipping it all back home to Chicago and eventually selling it.
"My husband asked me how exactly I planned to get all these dishes to the States without breaking them," she recalls. "I told him my plan was to wrap them in blankets." Along with her other loot, Fernstrom had been buying vintage wool Welsh blankets by the dozen, and studying their history as she went.
"I noticed that sometimes they cost two or three pounds each, and other times they went up to 30 pounds," she says. "I learned about their value." She soon became an expert on Scottish plaids and tartans, too (people would—and still do—ask her to look out for their family’s tartans), and collected a slew of military and camp blankets.
By the time she arrived at the Kane County Flea Market to fulfill her original plans in 2004, her packing materials had become the stars of the show. But that was just the beginning. After reupholstering a pair of Heywood-Wakefield chairs in a Hudson Bay trade blanket for Larry Vodak at Scout a year ago, she hit upon a whole new concept: using blankets for upholstery.
Now she’s got a cottage industry going, selling about 1,000 blankets a year as well as pillows, holiday stockings, and furniture—all involving blankets—at her Portage Park antique shop, English Cottage (4264 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-205-1155). In a few months she plans to open a shop devoted entirely to plaid in Andersonville, right next door to Scout. "It will probably be named after one of my favorite tartans," she says.
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp