By combining the best elements of tradition, home and family with originality, initiative and persistence, Vonda Thorpe of Brigham City has come up with a unique little cottage industry.
She now works with her son in Centerville to produce and market her own invention, Vonda's quilting frames - the first new approach to stretching quilts out ready to stitch in almost 55 years. Just ask the patent office.Vonda's complete package consists of 12 uniform oakwood slats three feet long, along with eight metal sleeves to extend them as needed, and four supporting legs made of PVC tubing, set in round plastic floor bases. "These frames will outlast the owners and their grandchildren," Vonda declared.
The frames weigh 27 pounds in all, for compact storage and easy transportation, and they can be adjusted to accommodate anything from a lap-size pillow to a king-size spread. "I can also provide higher legs on the stand, for people who enjoy standing up while they quilt after sitting in an office all day," said Thorpe.
She does not advertise nationally, preferring direct contact, but she did sell 150 sets last year, at a basic price of $150 each. It's not a big money-making venture yet, what with shop costs, her other expenses and sales commissions.
Thorpe's product was inspired by those old-fashioned curtain stretchers that had rows of small nails sticking straight up, on which to prick the curtains' edges before drying. Her adaptation is a grooved slat with a recess for the small nails, driven in on the slant through little pre-drilled holes. The groove protects the quilter from pricks and worse nail wounds, she said, running her arm along the elevated ridges of board surrounding the groove. She has the oak frames custom milled, 100 sets at a time.
Busily picking on a baby quilt to demonstrate, Thorpe said, "My frames have no pins, no C-clamps and no thumbtacks. In 30 minutes I can easily put on a king-size quilt, that used to take half a day with the old method. And that was especially hard if you had arthritic hands."
Quilts can be pricked on loosely or tightly, and the quilter can tighten the back, batting and/or cover by unpricking and readjusting, one nail at a time. Or the working field can be limited to only a foot or two of width, by rolling in the side frames and re-adjusting the base. When ready to remove the quilt, presto - quickly slip it off the row of nails all at once.
Vonda Thorpe's direct eyes regard the world quizzically, and the cheerful upturn of her mouth suggests that she's an eternal optimist. It turns out that she's a born questioner, with a burning interest in people; and there's a lot of homespun philosophy wrapped up in her approach to invention.
"People just don't think," she said. "I'd like to see women, and men, form the habit of really looking around them. When they walk through a room, they should see not just what's there, but what can be improved. They should learn to take a fresh look at an old problem, and maybe they'll come up with a new and better solution.
"People sometimes say to me, you're so smart," she said. "I answer, you're smart, too. Sometimes people are geniuses, if they only knew it. Inventing is really nothing more than seeing a need and finding a way to fulfill it. As far as quilting goes, women have been content to just go on using grandmother's frames; my frames are just one example of the sort of thing that can be accomplished. For example, look at the strides made in children's clothing since the invention of Velcro.
"One reason I developed this business is to show my family, three daughters and two sons, how pursuing an idea can lead to success," she said. "On all sides we hear how expensive living is today, and unfortunately that's quite true. Wives feel they have to go to work, but if they will use their initiative and talents, they can often develop an income at home."
When she applied for a patent on her invention in 1986, she found that nothing new had been done on quilting frames since 1933. "I was told that my application might take a number of years to process, since they must research the field. This is what they came up with," she said, displaying a few photos of frames, often of Rube Goldberg complexity. "Our patent came back in one year, and it is a utility patent, which also protects you in case of products `similar to' your own."
Vonda was raised in Blackfoot, Idaho, in a family that loved quilting. "I and my twin brother used to play under the quilting frame, and thread the needles," she recalled. "My four sisters and I still get together to quilt every six weeks. It beats letter writing!"
Before and after attending Brigham Young University, Vonda worked for the Union Pacific, as a telegraph operator in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. Her husband worked in aerospace in California, then at Hill Field.
For 20 years the Thorpes operated a mobile home and R.V. park in Brigham City, where she's been able to indulge her second passion in life - people watching. She finds herself endlessly fascinated with the passing parade of humanity. "Each time you get to know another person, you go into another world," she said.
Incidentally, she promotes her frames as ideally adaptable to the roving lifestyle. "You can set them up partially, on a small scale under the R.V. awning, and go right ahead," she said. The Thorpes recently sold the mobile park and retired.
There's something in a broad spectrum of the population that impels them to quilt - not just bed coverings but wall hangings, jackets, clothing and pillows. "It's ideal entertainment for a couple on a tight budget," she said, "and it's not hard, people shouldn't be intimidated. You might start small, since big things are scary."
Vonda herself has made dozens of quilts that figure prominently in the unfolding drama of family weddings and new babies. "I don't ever sell my quilts, I only give them away," she said. She finds her daughters become seriously interested in quilting when they make a baby quilt, and their skill grows with their families. "We are creating heirlooms," she said.
Vonda and her husband Calvin Thorpe will spend the next year on an LDS mission, as hosts in the visitors center at the Martin Harris home in upstate New York.
She looks forward to finding out more about quilting in New England - quite different from the intermountain style she has researched extensively, along with marketing her frames. "Back East they go for blanket type fillers rather than fluffy bats, and more traditional colors," she said.
Last April the Thorpes traveled to Asia, visiting Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines among other places, and everywhere she found quilting to be a thriving pursuit.
"It's a worldwide interest," she said. "In Asia they make camel covers, with 10 times the stitchery that we use. Quilting is an ideal art for people who have next to no means, and lots of time on their hands. It helps them be creative and keep their sanity, express their talents. There's a quiet, anchoring security about quilting."