See Fons & Porter Quilts in Winterset

The induction of Fons & Porter this summer into the Quilters Hall of Fame prompted the Iowa Quilt Museum (IQM) in Winterset, Iowa—the little burg where our brand was born—to mount a retrospective of our work. Almost thirty pieces (all but two of them large) are on view through early January.

Of course I’m biased (!), but honestly, the gallery at IQM has never looked better. While Liz or I occasionally designed a wall quilt or table runner for publication, what we both love to create are quilts with square inches numerous enough to make a design point worthy of our patchwork hours. In Winterset, strong design is evident on every gallery wall; several quilts measure over 100″ on a side.

Back in 1977, I was a twenty-something mother of one toddler (two more, eventually) when I marched into the Iowa State University Extension Office in Winterset on a mission. The American Bicentennial hoopla had included images of quilts, and I wanted to make one. I had been plying my needle in the farmhouse out in the country, embroidering on feed sacks and bluejeans with wimpy cotton thread. The broad design strokes I saw on quilts fired my imagination. Right away, I could see how much better it would be to make something big, and for a bed—instant decor!

Sharon Johnson, Madison County’s ISU Extension home economist back then—now retired and living in Nebraska—traveled to Winterset to speak at our retrospective’s opening in early October. She told of crossing paths not long ago with a quilter while traveling in Australia and mentioning Winterset. “Ooh, Winterset,” the person responded. “Fons & Porter!” Sharon waxed eloquently at our reception on the huge economic Liz and I created in our career. From the basic education we received in a small Midwestern town, we became a worldwide household name. Sharon also revealed it was nonstandard for Extension to offer citizen-generated programming rather than content from ISU down.

Quilters and art lovers, head to Winterset ASAP and feast your eyes on our best quilts, the ones we’ve never parted with, all of them bold and intricate but makable by any quilter able to sew a quarter-inch seam. We’re the gals who put Winterset on the map not for Covered Bridges or John Wayne, but because we fell in love with America’s #1 folk art icon—the patchwork quilt—and ran with it all the way to the top!

Click below to listen to an Iowa Public Radio interview with Iowa Quilt Museum director Megan Barrett.



The Quilt Alliance Visits Me, Virtually!

I’ve been a member of—and a fan of—the Quilt Alliance for a long time. QA is a nonprofit established in 1993 to collect stories about quilts from living quiltmakers so information about them is not lost to time.

Some of my personally most favorite quilts are ones made in the nineteenth century, 99% of which are anonymous. If only a quilt could speak! If only it could tell us who made it and what that maker’s life was like! If only there had been a Quilt Alliance back then!

StoryBee is the Quilt Alliance’s series of once-a-month video interviews with quilty people like me conducted by writer and board member Frances O’Roark Dowell. When QA President Amy Milne asked me to the guest for September’s StoryBee feature, I said “Heck, yes!” (Other people Frances has interviewed are Julie Silber, Latifah Saafir, Ricky Tims, Alex Veronelli, and many more!)

But, wait! The interview was to be recorded in August, during my annual Sojourn of Solitude at our cottage on Washington Island, WI. I spend almost a full month alone (except for Scrabble the Dog) each summer, writing, contemplating the meaning of life, going to yoga class. But wait again! The cottage has Internet! And I have a special sewing space on the property that’s never been shown to the outside world before! The show could go on!

When interview day came, I had great fun chatting with Frances, especially because she has a knack for asking questions no one has asked before! Besides being a quilter, Frances is a writer and a new writing buddy of mine. (We do things like read each other’s manuscripts-in-progress.) We could have talked all day!

Click on the link below to watch a cute teaser for the interview (and meet our dogs that could be twins). If you’d like to watch all 50 or so minutes, you have only to join the Quilt Alliance. Individual memberships start at just $30 for the year, and you’d be supporting the great work of the QA! Members get a free Quilt of Valor pattern I designed and awarded.

Click here to be teased into joining a wonderful, wonderful organization!

Moi? Famous?

When Liz Porter and I joined forces in the late 1970s to team-teach beginning quilting classes in Winterset, Iowa, we didn’t have fame in mind. We had no idea we were part of a revival of interest in quiltmaking that was just getting under way, fueled by the American Bicentennial and the “back to basics” trends that also inspired hippie culture. We were young mothers in need of milk and diaper money.

The same quest for household income inspired us to write our first quilting books. Oh, we loved patchwork and quilting, but neither of our husbands-at-the-time were as ambitious as we were, and the kids needed shoes!

One quilting book led to another, and another, and another, eventually to QUILTER’S COMPLETE GUIDE,* published in 1993, a gorgeous reference volume that was an instant huge hit. The success of QCG (over half a million copies sold) opened the door to other opportunities—or perhaps I should say Opportunity continued to knock, and Liz and I were always not far from the door, ready to open it.

In the mid 1990s, we pursued the idea of a how-to program on public television, thinking we’d be paid to host it, only to discover we had to raise the production money ourselves via national sponsors, and did so. Our presence on PTV stations nationwide for over a decade took us into millions of quilting households, delivering thousands of fans to our growing brand. Eventually, we owned and published the largest-circulated quilting magazine in the land, ran a mail order business (one of the first online vendors in the quilting industry), and developed a quilters’ product line.

Our celebrity—though both of us understand how we earned it—still surprises us: the fan hyperventilating when we shared an elevator at Quilt Market, the quilter who recognized me on a corner in Boston and asked for an autograph, the homeless man in Portland who stopped Liz on the street to say he watches the show in a shelter whenever he can. Believe it or not, most quilters would rather meet Fons & Porter than the Kardashian sisters.

We know the Quilters Hall of Fame in Marion, Indiana, is not as high profile as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, but being the 2019 inductees is sweet enough for us. After the induction ceremony July 20, our photos will take their place on the wall with greats we admire like Bonnie Leman, Jean Ray Laury, and Karey Bresenhan, women who helped transform quilting into a multimillion dollar industry that enabled a couple of English majors from Iowa to put their kids through college and pay off their mortgages simply by teaching millions of people to cut cotton fabric into little pieces and (joyfully) sew them together again.

To everyone who took our classes, bought our books, listened to our lectures, subscribed to our magazine, and watched us on TV—to all our customers over the years, thank you for your business, your kindness, and your remarkable loyalty. If you happen to be in Marion next week (or anywhere, anytime), don’t hesitate to ask for a selfie!

*QUILTERS COMPLETE GUIDE will be reprinted later this year by Dover Publications. Subscribe to my website, and I’ll let you know the moment it is available!

“Spring Blossoms” Blooms in Texas

During my decades-long career, I designed many quilts for publication in books and magazines, always with instructions included so others could make their own. At conferences and quilt shows, when I’d see a quilt on display made from one of my designs, I was thrilled. I mean, with so many patterns out there, someone chose mine? How flattering!

A few months ago, a member of the Cibolo Creek Quilters Guild in Boerne, Texas, a city in the beautiful Texas Hill Country, contacted me. Judi Burr’s appliqué bee had made my pattern Spring Blossoms* and wanted to donate it to their guild to use as a fundraiser. She wondered if she needed my permission.

The patterns Liz Porter and I published over the years were intended for quilters to make up for their personal use, and I’m pretty sure that includes gifting the result to a nonprofit. Plus, they had me at, “we have labeled it and gave you credit for the pattern.” I told them to go for it.

The raffle begins this Saturday, May 4, as part of the guild’s annual conference sponsored with the City of Boerne Parks and Recreation, and includes an outdoor quilt show that day with hundreds of quilts on display. Admission is free and programs can be picked up from the event headquarters, from quilt angels, or in stores along the main street of town.

My version of Spring Blossoms uses machine appliqué techniques popularized by Harriet Hargrave that involve cutting from behind the foundation fabric to remove freezer paper templates. My mother was in the hospital part of the time I was making it, and I’d take blocks with me to work on when I visited her each evening, transporting them flat in a pizza box. One night a nurse commented, “Your mom must really like pizza,” whereupon I showed her what was inside!

Judi and her group did all the appliqué on their version by hand, meeting once a month for a year at members’ homes. They straightened off the outer border instead of scalloping it as I did. Their quilt is gorgeous!

Pictured at right are guild president Linda Heatherley, far left, and bee members Rose Jeter—who did the quilting—Jennifer Goodall, Carolyn Coleman, Alice Hobbs, and Judi Burr. (Not present was Sara Johnson.)

Click here if you’d like to purchase a ticket for Spring Blossoms, Texas style, and support the guild’s great work!


*Spring Blossoms was published in the book QUICK QUILTS FROM THE HEART, out of print now, but you can probably locate one somewhere . . .


Quilts! Quilts! Quilts! Come to The Airing!

Whether you’re a quilter, a quilt lover, or someone who simply loves a road trip on a beautiful spring day, head for Winterset, Iowa, Saturday, April 27, for the second-ever Airing of the Quilts, a fabulous, one-day production of the Iowa Quilt Museum.

From 10 am to 4 pm, our small town (pop. 5276) will be (ahem) blanketed in quilts as we host over fifteen unique displays—including (for the second time in history) hanging within three of our famous covered bridges. Quilts will be aired in churches, at the public library, in historic homes, at Piece Works quilt shop, on the porticoes of our native limestone courthouse—smack dab in the center of the town square—and of course inside the museum itself, among other locations.

My assignment this year was to gather swag for the live auction* that follows the fundraising dinner that starts at 5 pm. (ALERT: the auction includes only about fifteen items—you can be home early!) In addition to several beautiful antique quilts, our committee has rounded up other neat stuff. For example:

  • Have a finished top you’ve never managed to get quilted? You can bid on longarming by my personal machine quilter, with binding by . . . me!
  • Need a T-shirt quilt for someone you love? An outstanding Winterset quiltmaker will work with the winning bidder to custom-make, machine quilt, and bind it, so you can give it to that special person now, instead of fifteen years from now!
  • Been longing for a barn quilt block for the side of your home, shed, or garage? Come and bid on one.
  • Want to solidify plans THIS YEAR to come back next year? Bid on Friday night lodging at the beautiful Judge Lewis Bed & Breakfast for The Airing 2020!

On April 27, I’m not sure where I’ll be—everywhere, I’m guessing. Find me, and I’ll give you a hug! For sure, I’ll be awarding a Quilt of Valor at Monumental Park (just a block off the square) at 2 pm, so come join other onlookers as we thank a Vietnam War veteran for his service. Before and after, I’ll be at the the museum and around the square, and at the dinner, trunk show, and auction, and would simply love to greet you!

Scroll down at this link to the red rectangular tabs to purchase advance tickets to The Airing of the Quilts displays (just $20) and the early evening event (just $40 for drinks, dinner, and a fun social time)—all in support of the beautiful Iowa Quilt Museum in historic Winterset!

*There’s also a Silent Auction of about a dozen items including your scissors sharpened and your sewing machine serviced by Joyce Franklin at Piece Works.

Hanging Out with Michelle

Back in the late 2000s, a dream of Quilts of Valor founder Catherine Roberts was for our nation’s First Lady to make a Quilt of Valor in The White House. Since I was to be the nationally-known quilter who would keep the sewing machine threaded, I was the board member elected to write a letter inviting Michelle Obama, her daughters, and her mother to let me take them under my quilting wings.

Even though no sewing session at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue came about, I spent a fair amount of time imagining what it would be like to sew with Michelle, in case it did. She seemed so down to earth, I felt sure I would not be intimidated. Having recently finished Becoming, I know I was not wrong.

Getting to know Michelle, her mom Marian Robinson, and daughters Malia and Sasha was fascinating and fun. I learned Michelle’s upbringing was much like my own, steered by parents who valued honesty, work, education, dignity. Later, as Michelle navigated her way through a public role in the public eye, she kept her own eyes focused on her children, as any caring mother would.

Becoming is not a sweeping, literary novel with high stakes and powerful tension, but a straightforward life story about a regular person whose path took her places she never dreamed she would go, something I can relate to, at a much lower level, as well.

I’d still like to sew with Michelle, teach her how to do a perfect quarter-inch seam, impart pressing skills, help her build that Quilt of Valor on a design wall. We could do it in Washington, Chicago, even Winterset. I’m available, totally.

My Life Story (or, I Cried on Camera)

Back in October, national quilting celebrities Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims spent three days in Winterset. They’re hosts of the online program “The Quilt Show,” which they created and which has thousands of subscribers. The ten-person videography team spent Day One taping episodes at Piece Works quilt shop, Day Two at the Iowa Quilt Museum, and Day Three at my house, featuring me as their 2018 “Quilt Show Legend.”

During my 20+ years on public television I’ve spent plenty of time in front of a camera, usually four big ones, on the set of  “Love of Quilting.” Delivering the goods in my home was a different, but great, experience.

I greeted Alex and Ricky at the front door (holding my dog Scrabble) and showed them into the living room. I toured them through the house and into my bedroom, where we had stacked some favorite quilts on the bed. The camera operator, in order to properly frame the shot, opened my closet door and backed in, carefully avoiding my shoes. As we turned the quilts, I explained what inspired each—including “Unrattled Mom,” the one I made in 1987 after I shot a 42-inch rattlesnake with a .22 rifle out in Lincoln Township and made the front page of the Des Moines Register.

In my sewing room, Alex and I chatted about my history with Quilts of Valor Foundation, which was meaningful, since Alex’s participation in two Iowa Public Television Quilts of Valor specials is what turned our relationship into a friendship.

After lunch, the producer sat me down opposite her, both of us in identical dining room chairs so we’d be at exact eye level. Shelly had already talked with me at length on the phone, honing her many questions for the on-camera deep dive into my life. Like famous interviewer Barbara Walters, Shelly is a masterful prober.

Over what seemed like hours, with the full crew silently watching, Shelly took me back in time. I described my childhood, my youthful dreams, my introduction to quilting in my 20s, my business partnership with Liz Porter, and my quilting career. I spoke of my children and my pride in each, of how I met Mark through his mother Vonda (a quilter) and married him. I explained my newfound love for my home town of Winterset, and my encore career as a novelist.

Where I got choked up was in the segment on my family background, when asked for the secret of my success. I related an anecdote about my mother Dorothy Graham. Years ago, someone commenting to her on my accomplishments, said, “You must be so proud of Marianne.” My mother responded, “I’ve been proud of Marianne from the moment she was born.” I didn’t feel the emotion coming, but when I described my mother’s unconditional love, there it was.

How fitting it feels—now that I’ve retired from TV to devote my time to Winterset and writing—to have the opportunity to look back on my life, to summarize my pursuits, to sift through old photos to find the perfect still shots for the beautiful video The Quilt Show created.

From now through January 13, you can watch this 45-minute episode FREE, without subscribing to The Quilt Show. Click here and go back in time with me.

Thank you, Alex, Ricky, and all the Quilt Show team!

I Joined the Army!

Podcasts (new-fangled radio shows) are hugely popular these days. Quilters love them! We access episodes on our computers or smart phones when we’re sewing, binging-listening to stories of true crime, scientific discovery, or mysterious phenomena.

A podcast series specifically for quilters is “Just Wanna Quilt,” hosted by Tulane University Law Professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard. Dr. Gard and her colleagues (“The Quilting Army”) pursue quilting and study copyright law in relation to to the quilting industry—which is a good thing, as the nuances of trademarks, intellectual property, and copyright are as murky in the quilt world as they are in Hollywood.

Previous guests on Just Wanna Quilt have been my daughter Mary Fons (in a joint interview with Tulia Pink) and other favorite people of mine including Alex Anderson, Pam Weeks, and Victoria Findlay Wolfe. I’ve made new friends as well, including Frances Dowell and Iowan Melanie McNeil.

Dr. Gard interviewed me for over an hour a few weeks ago. During our conversation, I inducted her into the Madison County Mutual Admiration Society, she inducted me into The Quilting Army, and I got to talk about my career, my children, the Iowa Quilt Museum and Iowa Theater in Winterset, my writing, and my fascination with Mary Shelley, among other topics.

Get some patchwork going and tune in to my chat with Dr. Gard. Hope you enjoy!

The Face of Liberty

In 1986, my latest, greatest quilt was Lady Liberty Medallion. I was thirty-seven years old, living on a farm in Madison County, Iowa, my children age ten, six, and three, many of my youthful dreams still intact. I didn’t know I would be divorced within two years, that from then on I’d be the head-of-household (and breadwinner), or that my fledgling quilting career would be the remarkable journey it became.

My dream-of-the-moment was to win the Great American Quilt Contest, sponsored by 3M and the American Folk Art Museum, and take home the $20,000 purchase prize. My entry was traditional—a medallion with the face of the statue at center, commemorative lettering, symbolic patchwork blocks, and an undulating outer vine. I used hand appliqué and reverse appliqué, machine patchwork, and hand quilting, my quilt exactly 60″ x 60″ as specified by the contest set to honor the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday. When I was chosen as Iowa winner, my dream gained traction, and Lady Liberty went to New York for judging.

The California quilt, a non-traditional, painterly piece, Glorious Lady Freedom by Moneca Calvert, beat us all, but I got to go to New York City for the first time, made friends with amazing quilters like New York winner Paula Nadelstern, and returned to Iowa to continue sewing while my quilt toured for three years.

Had I won, my quilt would be part of the Museum of American Folk Art’s permanent collection, an honor to be sure, but the $20,000 would be long gone. Instead, Lady Liberty still belongs to me. I unfolded her recently, her eyes reminding me of my own steady gaze at thirty-six, my heart flooding with nostalgia as I considered all that has happened—to me and to the meaning of freedom, for women in particular—in the intervening three decades.

A couple of years ago I made a much smaller Lady Liberty, partly to prove I could still do needle-turn appliqué and partly to support Quilts of Valor Foundation. Recently, I carried the original Lady Liberty Medallion with me to our cottage on Washington Island to launder it for the first time and let the breeze off Lake Michigan to do the drying. Her colors may have faded, but her strength remains.

My Latest: Free + Brave

Quilters are nice people, but we can be snobs.

When Liz Porter and I discovered patchwork in the mid-1970s, machine quilting existed, but self-respecting quilters eschewed it, pointing to ugly, puffy hotel bedspreads. We quilted our tops by hand.

In the 1980s, along came the rotary cutter, followed by quick piecing techniques, which meant everyone was soon turning out tops way faster than we could hand quilt them. Enterprising sewists figured out how to achieve quality machine quilting on their domestic machines. Longarm manufacturers perfected their products, and no one who knows anything about quilts looks down on machine quilting any more.

Until recently, I was a snob about pre-printed panels. Yes, the artwork has become great, but yours truly doesn’t need help—I can design a whole quilt on my own, thank you very much.

In September, I had the privilege of assisting with a Quilts of Valor award ceremony in Killeen, TX. The recipients were survivors of “Black Sunday,” an ambush and battle in Afghanistan in 2004 that left eight US soldiers dead and 60 wounded. The event was coordinated by Laura Winckel, and each red, white, and blue quilt unfolded was gorgeous. At the ceremony, the twenty-three recipients and their friends and family members far outnumbered the quilters in the room.

The quilts that elicited audible gasps of approval were the “panel quilts,” those with a patriotic message—and sometimes an eagle—at the center. Back home in Winterset the following week, I pulled a Northcott Fabrics patriotic panel from my stash and began making blocks to surround it, my panel snobbery a thing of the past. (Amazing, how fast it went together!)


Nothing Says “I Love You” Like a Quilt (of Valor)

I’m just back from Killeen, TX, where I lectured during the biennial (every other year) Crossroads to Texas Quilt Show. The exhibit and the people were wonderful, but the absolute highlight (for me) was the Quilts of Valor award ceremony conducted by Laura Winkel and members of the Quilters With a Heart QOV group on Saturday afternoon.

Most of the over two dozen recipients had been part of a US Army unit that survived a devastating ambush in combat over ten years ago. The men were various shapes, sizes, and skin tones, and I was lucky to get to hug many of them as they were wrapped with their quilts. The quilts themselves were so perfect and beautiful, the audience of recipients, family members, friends, and quilters let out a gasp as one-by-one they were unfurled and awarded.

The final awardee on the list was John, the point-of-contact who had helped Laura locate everyone else. He wiped away tears as he stood ready to be wrapped, and someone whispered to me John had lost his young son just three months earlier. While out on a run together the son suffered a fatal heart attack as a result of an undiscovered heart ailment. After John was wrapped, his many comrades in the room came forward to put their arms around him, embracing not only John, but his Quilt of Valor as well.

The quilt top pictured above doesn’t have a title yet, but soon it will named and quilted, and eventually it will become a tangible civilian thank-you for a man or woman’s military service and sacrifice.

Sewn on the Fourth of July

My quilts these days are frequently red, white, and blue because I am often making Quilts of Valor. My latest patriotic work was inspired by a vintage WWII beauty in the collection of quilter-historian-researcher-lecturer Sue Reich, who also happens to currently chair the board of directors of Quilts of Valor Foundation. 

The pattern for Sue’s antique quilt was published as “Star Spangled Banner” in the September 10, 1941, edition of the Kansas City Star. I saw it when the quilt was on loan to the Iowa Quilt Museum for display during the museum’s 2017 exhibit of Quilts of Valor. I was immediately intrigued by the large blocks with striped sashing. I finished my updated (as in paper pieced) version this past summer, on July 4th, as a matter of fact.

“Star Spangled Banner” is one of the quilts that will be featured in TV episodes I will tape at Iowa Public Television studios in September with host Sara Gallegos, part of Series 3300 of “Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting.” Sue is loaning the original quilt from her collection to hang on the set, and I’m excited to see the original again.

Quilters typically give away most of the quilts they make—often as comforting gifts to family and friends. Something extra-special happens, however, when the gifted quilt is not a gift at all, but an award presented by a civilian sewist to a military service member in order to thank him or her for military service. These awards are often life changing for combat veterans still struggling with war demons or veterans who’ve never received a word of thanks for putting their lives on the line.

National Service can be a complicated as giving one’s life for one’s country, or as simple as making a Quilt of Valor. I look forward to awarding this QOV once it’s made its appearance on Love of Quilting!



Cozy “Leftovers” Nine Patch

In quiltmaking, as in homemaking, we all have personal frugalities. For example, in my kitchen I like high quality, white paper towels, but I use them . . . mindfully.

In my sewing room I sometimes throw away small fabric scraps others would save, but I also often pack up used TV step-out elements or fabrics I decide I don’t like any more in ziptop bags and put them in the Goodwill box.

The project currently on my wall started with leftover Nine Patches I received last year in a 3″ block exchange with Liz Porter and friends. Everyone wound up with over two hundred scrappy blocks. (That’s approximately 1000 different darks and almost as many shirtings!) I used a bunch of mine in “Patchworthy,” scheduled for the January/February 2019 issue of Love of Quilting magazine and on a TV episode that will air some time in the second half of 2018.

Unwilling to let my remaining Nine Patches go to waste, I started “Cozy” (working title) with my leftovers. I liked what I saw well enough to join more strips and make the over 100 additional little blocks needed to knock out a cozy nap-sized quilt.

Hope you like!