The History and Impact of 4-H

(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #76.)


Since 4-H began more than 100 years ago, it has become the nation’s largest youth development organization. The 4-H idea is simple: help young people and their families gain the skills needed to be proactive forces in their communities and develop ideas for a more innovative economy.

In the late 1800s, adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural developments. But university researchers discovered young people were open to new thinking and would experiment with new ideas and share their experiences with adults.

The passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 created the Cooperative Extension System at USDA and nationalized 4-H. By 1924, 4-H clubs were formed and the clover emblem was adopted. The four H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health.

Chances are, even if you were never a member, your life has been impacted by 4-H in many ways, especially if you love to sew.

For starters, if not for 4-H, we might never have known Nancy Zieman. Can you imagine a world without 30 years of Sewing with Nancy?


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Heidi Proffetty

(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #75.)


Heidi Proffetty is an award-winning quilt artist and teacher. Her quilts have been juried into American Quilter’s Society, International Quilt Association, traveled with Cherrywood Fabric’s Challenge exhibits, and exhibited in local galleries. She has been a guest on Quilting Arts TV and contributor to Quilting Arts Magazine. In 2018, she was featured on The Quilt Show with Ricky Tims and Alex Anderson.

In 2018, Heidi Proffetty’s mosaic quilt, Is She Ready Yet? won first place in the People, Portraits and Figures category at the 2018 International Quilt Festival in Houston, TX and in 2019 it won first place in the Small Wall Quilts-Pictorial at AQS QuiltWeek in Paducah, KY. These huge honors are even more remarkable when you consider that, until about 2012, Heidi didn’t even know there was such a thing as an art quilt.

So, who is this new Quilting-Artist-phenomenon Heidi Proffetty? Where did she come from, and what is her secret sauce?

Because Heidi had a few of those AH HAH MOMENTS, she developed a new quilting technique that combines inspirational photography, mosaic design, machine quilting, and a digital die cutting machine. Yes, you read that right. A digital die cutting machine.

But, here’s the thing. Never in her wildest dreams did Heidi Proffetty believe she would one day become a celebrated quilt artist.


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Marianne Fons

(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #74.)


Marianne Fons and her dog, Scrable.

Many know Fons & Porter as a how-to show on public television and a wildly popular magazine. But before Fons & Porter became a well-known brand in the quilt world, they were two young women living in rural Iowa, learning how to make quilts.

We asked Marianne Fons to go back to the beginning . . .

When Liz and I met in our mid-twenties, we were two college-educated young women living in an area without many jobs. We met in a beginners quilting class and sort of accidentally wound up team teaching. We both had young kids and were both married to husbands less ambitious than ourselves. We needed diaper and milk money and were thrilled to able to bring in cash doing something we liked. From the beginning, our personalities complemented each other. We were both list makers, both very conscientious.

We published a first book in 1982, CLASSIC QUILTED VESTS, but got a huge break with the opportunity to write QUILTER’S COMPLETE GUIDE for Oxmoor House (1993), just reissued by Dover in November of 2019. At over half a million copies sold, QCG is one of the best-selling quilting books of all time.

Marianne Fons at her sewing machine.

In the mid-1990s, we had the idea for a different kind of public television quilting show, two buddies sewing together instead of a guest-host format. The show was instantly popular, picked up by PTV stations nationwide. In 2001, we bought our magazine, Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting, from Oxmoor House. We grew the circulation from 40K to 300K, making it the most widely circulated quilting magazine in the world.

We sold Fons & Porter in 2006, when it was at its most successful and most visible. The sale required us to do TV for three years. After that, Liz was totally burned out and shortly moved from Iowa to Texas. She loves it there! My daughter Mary Fons had dipped her toe into quilting and was convinced to join me on TV, so I continued, hosting with her.

Mary was a true beginner, and some people complained. As she will be first to say, learning to quilt in front of millions of people on TV is not fun, but she did it, and I had the joy of watching her become a fantastic quilter. As a designer, she’s far more original than I am.

Mary Fons is now a quilt world celebrity in her own right, editor in chief of Quiltfolk magazine. I’m so proud of her!

Marianne Fons has to feel pretty good about what she’s accomplished. But, she is a woman who does not rest on her laurels. Maybe the word rest is not in her vocabulary, as she is most happy when working twelve hours a day. When asked to name her favorite quilt, she says, I always think of my latest as my greatest. . . . She prefers big quilts, and calls herself a serial monogamous quilter, because she makes one quilt at a time. Each quilt is like a love affair with fabric and design.

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The Art of Homemaking Exhibit

(Originally published in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #73.)


Every month, Rita Farro gets to write for SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW. She loves telling other people’s stories. The whole point of SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW magazine is, of course, to revel in this hobby we love . . . to inspire YOU to sew!

In this issue, Rita shares her own story, a remarkable exhibit, and a thoughtful look back at the homemakers who came before us.

Here’s the press release she sent in November 2019:


Homemaking: A mostly North American term to describe the creation and management of a home, especially as a pleasant place in which to live.

In 2002, Rita Farro turned her love of vintage bed linens into a book, Dress Your Dream Bed (Vintage Linen Inspirations for Today’s Elegant Bed). Rita is an avid collector of many things. Besides bed linens, she also loves (and collects) aprons, spooners, toast racks, embroidered linens, cookbooks, Singer Featherweight sewing machines, 7-Day-a-Week Dishtowels, napkin rings, quilts, cross-stitch samplers, and, well, you get the idea.

What began as a love of vintage bed linens became an obsession with homemaking arts. Through the end of January 2020, Farro will curate an exhibit of her personal collections at the beautiful library in Bettendorf, Iowa. She is calling her exhibit The Art of Homemaking. Her intention is to fill both floors of this stunning library building. Every showcase and/or blank wall space will be celebrating The Art of Homemaking.

Farro says, This exhibit is about what women have done, through generations, to make their home a welcoming haven for their family and friends. It’s about the love they put into setting the table or making the family beds. The traditions they create by using Grandma’s soup tureen on Christmas Eve or Aunt Rozella’s silver for Sunday dinners. Every homemaker hopes their personal family traditions will create lasting memories for their loved ones.

Homemaking is an art, and every woman has her own way of doing things. This exhibit features some ordinary and extraordinary handiwork of mostly anonymous homemakers.


So, you might be asking yourself, “how on earth did Rita come to own all those tubs full of vintage linens?”

To answer that question, she has to take you back to 1996.

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Debra Gabel – Zebra Patterns

(Originally published April 2015 in SCHMETZ Inspired to SEW #16. Article written by Rita Farro.)


Debra and family.

Debra and family.

Debra Gabel grew up in a small farm community in New York.  She loved to draw and color.  Her mom had a Kenmore Sewing machine and she made doll clothes and little blankets at a young age. At 13 she was babysitting for a neighbor/quilter who started a gift company with raw edge appliqué pillows and totes.  During high school and college, Debra worked as her assistant and traveled the East Coast doing craft shows. The lesson was that a woman could be a business owner and be very successful out of her own home with a product she was passionate about.

After graduating from college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Graphic Design, Debra got hired as an Art Director of Champion International Paper and met her husband Gary.  She says, “We married, and without really planning, ended up opening and working for several paper bag manufacturing companies in the USA. He would run the Operations/Plant and I would run the art department.  Eventually, we entered into a joint venture and became owners of a plant in the Midwest.  I designed hundreds of shopping bags for well-known retailers and gift bag companies across America.
In   1992,   I was pregnant and started my design company — Mixed Media. I enjoyed working freelance at home.  During that time of being a new mother, I returned to sewing by creating curtains and bedding for the nursery. My friends were also having babies, and they received homemade designed quilts. I loved sewing once again.”

Cancer Haircut

Cancer Haircut

So, life was good.  Debra and her husband were living in Maryland, raising three sons and she had a successful graphic design business . . . .

Then, in the summer of 2003, she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — at a very advanced stage.

Debra says, “My body was riddled with tumors.  The treatment was six months of very aggressive chemo to stop the growth and shrink the tumors — followed by a stem cell transplant.  At the time of the transplant, I was 88 lbs, bald and defeated.  It was long and difficult, day after day of severe nausea 24-7 for six months. The transplant took place on December 26, 2003, followed by 40 days of total isolation. After the transplant, you wait. If your body starts the regeneration of white blood cells — you live. Luckily for me, it turned out that way.”

During isolation one afternoon Debra was watching Oprah. Oprah looked at the camera and said, ‘This is your life and it is your responsibility to live your best life and do something you are passionate about.’ That was the moment I allowed myself to see beyond the hospital bed and ports in my chest.  That was the moment I asked myself what do I need to do to live my best life? The answer was to design things in fabric.  

My name is D E B R A — so I discarded the “D” and replaced it with a ‘Z’ and Voila . . . Zebra Patterns!  I love stripes and their graphic nature!“

Zebra Patterns Studio

Zebra Patterns Studio

A two-story building on their property became the studio for Zebra Patterns.  They also have taken over 1500 square feet of their basement for offices.  Gary and Debra are still working as a team, and they have two women who work part-time who are excellent.  They hire piece workers from the local high school and guild members to cut and stuff patterns.

Debra says, “When I am sewing, I liken it to a form of prayer or meditation.  I am thinking about the recipient and stitching and cutting each piece with positive energy. I know that energy is passed on to the special person who receives the handmade piece.

Zebra Patterns specializes in partnering with companies and quilting shops all over the world to make an impact on the quilt industry.  One example is the Row by Row program.  It’s a shop-hop- like program that runs during the entire summer targeting traveling quilters. Quilters stop in participating shops and are entitled to a free pattern to make one row in an eight-row quilt. Each summer has a different theme. This summer will be ‘water’.  Once they get eight rows and make a finished quilt they can win 25 fat quarters from a quilt shop that has their row included plus gift cards and product. It has become a national phenomenon. The concept was created by Janet Lutz in Syracuse NY. She started five years ago with 20 NY shops and this year we will have all 50 states and ALL of Canada!”

Fabric Plates™

Fabric Plates™

Debra is the Creative Director for Row by Row. She designed the logos, the fabric, and Zebra provides fun FabricPlates™ custom-designed for every participating shop.  FabricPlates™ have taken on a life of their own. Quilters are collecting the plates and making borders, labels and entire quilts from the fun vanity phrases that relate to quilting.

Another unique quilting product from Zebra Patterns is their Scrapbooking for Quilters Program.  Debra designed this concept to empower quilters to create their own quilt to tell their own story.  They have nearly 200 different faux stamp printed panels available in 6” x 7” and 18” x 21” sizes.  Based on the scrapbooking concept, the quilter takes the faux stamp images of favorite destinations and arranges them to represent his/her story.  Zebra provides the 100% organic printed panel stamps and you simply applique them. Debra has even created fabric “stickers,” like paper crafting but in cotton, to embellish quilts like scrapbook pages. Everyone knows how to scrapbook and quilters know how to sew. It is a winning formula! Zebra provides the framework to create a totally personal quilt without the anxiety of designing. Their Where Ya Been? Pattern includes a CD with 25 sticker images and ideas for 3-4 easy, personal and fun quilts.

Where Ya Been? Pattern

Where Ya Been? Pattern

The inspiration for the first stamp created, Baltimore,  was in response to a guild challenge. One of Debra’s guild friends said, “You should make a pattern of that!” The rest is history!  She loves to take graphic things like stamps and license plates and translate them into a fun bigger or smaller size and integrate them into quilting.  The scrapbooking concept stirs up memories and creates emotion while making the quilt and using or gifting it.

Debra’s personal mantra is from one of her favorite books – The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. She tries to live by the ancient Toltec wisdom:

  • Be impeccable with your word
  • ALWAYS do your best
  • Don’t ever take anything personally
  • Don’t assume