Quilting the Old–Fashioned Way

Couple’s Quilts Rooted in the Past

By Jennifer Barger
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 25, 2005; H01

On a steamy July afternoon, Barbara and Kip Craven of Springfield, Pa., turn their turquoise, finned 1950s Chevy Nomad station wagon left at a sign decorated with a patchwork–coated sheep. They’ve arrived to pick up a quilt from Bellwether Dry Goods, a destination even more retro than their car.

Here, in a butter yellow, pre–Civil War clapboard house in the countryside 12 miles south of Annapolis, husband and wife Richard and Georgina Fries specialize in handmade, old–fashioned quilts. They creatively marry colorful fabric and thread in patterns with nostalgic names, such as “Farmer’s Daughter,” “Through the Garden Gate” and “Come to the Fair.”

In an era when most quilters work entirely by machine, the Frieses deal in hand–appliqued, hand–finished pieces, made literally as grandma used to do. This means that while the quilt tops -- “the pretty, show–off side of the patchwork” -- may be put together with a machine, they get attached to their backing and embellished with tiny, time–consuming hand stitches.

“We’re the dinosaurs of this business,” says Georgina, who started Bellwether in 1981 with Richard, a former menswear salesman. “It’s cheaper and faster to do the finishing by machine, but those kind of quilts are just comforters. They’re stiff, and they don’t drape well.”

Like many other customers, Barbara Craven used Bellwether’s custom–finishing service on a quilt top she’d made, in this case a “Lone Star” formed of hundreds of interlocking maroon and blue, solid and print diamonds. The service appeals to quilters who have “pieced” together a top, but who don’t have the time or desire to finish their project by hand.

Other customers buy antique quilt tops at estate sales or inherit unfinished projects. They mail or drop off their piecework, and the Frieses turn it into a display–worthy wall piece or bed topper. They charge $1 a running yard of thread, which means projects can cost from a couple hundred dollars to a thousand, depending on the design’s complexity.

In the old house’s sunny, second–floor workroom, the couple prepares quilts to be sent out to their contract–work “army,” a network of more than 100 Amish and Mennonite seamstresses living on farms from Iowa and Michigan to Pennsylvania and Maryland. To guide them through their projects, the Frieses mark stitching patterns on the fabric and send out detailed diagrams on graph paper. “We’ve never met most of our sewers,” says Georgina. “But I think they love the work. It’s peaceful, and their husbands can’t tell them how to do it!”

A single seamstress works on a quilt from start to finish, attaching the top to a layer of cotton or wool batting and a fabric bottom using old–fashioned patterns, such as feather wreaths, pumpkin seeds or intricate flowers. Projects take about six months to complete. But, says Georgina, “sometimes we get a letter saying, ‘We were just blessed with a new baby or a good harvest,’ so the quilt will be a little late.’ “

The resulting quilts look like souvenirs of a bygone time, with neat, even stitches forming swirls, curls, circles and hearts that hold together geometric, floral and figurative patchworks. “These women are hardworking and extremely careful of each project,” says Richard. “Plus their stitching is so good -- it’s hard to believe.”

The Frieses also sell their own one–of–a-kind quilts ($500 to $2,350) from a cozy shop at the back of the house. In a country–chic space with rough wood paneling and flowered wallpaper, stacks of coverlets sit in custom–built gray cabinets and in an antique pie safe with a punched–tin door. Potential buyers show up by appointment, and the Frieses unfurl their creations on a long wooden table supported by a base of antique sewing machines.

The Frieses often produce pieces by tweaking traditional 19th- and early 20th–century patterns, such as a delicately embroidered “redwork” baby quilt, its blocks decorated with nursery–rhyme characters, or a blue–and–white queen–size spread festooned with 1880s–style, eight–pointed stars ($1,795). Vintage fabrics figure in designs, such as “Feedsack Heroes,” a patriotic combo of red, white and blue 1930s feed sacks.

Latter–day sights and events inspire other creations. A “Peach Cobbler” quilt appliqued with orange and purple fruit ($840) riffs on a paper napkin the Frieses saw at a bridal luncheon. Tilework on the floor of the Washington National Cathedral fueled another project. And like many quilters, Georgina did a Sept. 11 tribute in fabric “to get away from the TV and do something,” she says. “My machine was on fire.” The result? A stunning, 64–inch square with small patches in more than 200 richly hued fabrics, including an American flag print ($980).

But Bellwether’s most heartfelt work may be “memory quilts.” For these custom jobs, the couple cuts pieces from clothing, handkerchiefs and other fabrics with a past, often things that belonged to a family member. For one project, they took the barely worn blue oxford shirts, plaid boxers and pajamas that belonged to a recently deceased Maryland man and constructed a throw for his widow. “It’s a piece of her past she’ll have to snuggle under,” says Richard. “It’s very sentimental.” Those memory quilts are much like the other handmade work that comes out of this bucolic business, which the Cravens seem to appreciate. “The Frieses are really doing it the old–fashioned way,” says Barbara, putting her new but nostalgic quilt in the car and heading back to the 21st century.