The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
How To Learn to Quilt On National Television
In 2006, my mother, Marianne Fons, and her business partner Liz Porter sold their business to a big media company. After twenty-five years in the quilt racket—a 3.76 billion dollar industry they helped grow—they were ready to at least semi-retire from Fons & Porter and could. Liz’s dream was to move to Texas and devote time to her grandchildren; Mom dreamed of writing The Great American Novel. I’m happy to report that both women are currently doing what they set out to do.
Both Mom and Liz agreed to keep a hand in the company, and contribute a number of quilts to Love of Quilting magazine each year. The fate of the Love of Quilting television show at the time of the sale was, however, a question mark.
Liz told me that after the acquisition, she didn’t want to look at a quilt for a year…and who could blame her? Mom was ambivalent about TV. She might host the show longer, but with whom? What co-host would make sense, now that the Porter in Fons & Porter had moved to Texas?
I had been a guest on Love of Quilting a handful of times, and those shows seemed to have gone well; people liked seeing a mother and daughter together and my “beginnerness” was “cute.” My background in performance studies and the professional work I was doing on stages in Chicago at the time meant that I wasn’t scared of the camera.
I didn’t know how to make quilts, however. This was problematic.
It surprises people to learn it, that Marianne Fons’ daughter didn’t know how to make a quilt. But it’s not so strange when you consider that, for my family, quilting was not a hobby Mom had; it was her work. She left to go on teaching trips, she worked tirelessly on the magazine and mail order business, she designed, stitched, and arranged style shots for everything from kits to patterns. Making a quilt was never something I longed to do. Does the kid of a meteorologist clamor to study the weather? Nah.
But around age 28, for various reasons, I picked up some fabric and sat down at a sewing machine. I was instantly obsessed and took to the process easily. Though I had never made patchwork, it turns out I did absorb a familiarity with the sewing machine. And making quilts was a blast right away.
So here you had a person with the following qualifications:
Prior experience on the show;
Maker of quilts, barely;
Possessing of the same last name as one half of the show;
I don’t need to point out that the third qualification was my blue chip. And so the Powers That Were took a risk on the Fons daughter and offered me the position of co-host of Love of Quilting. I was cast, in a way, as the beginner quilter everywhere, and I began to learn to make quilts on national television.
I love co-hosting the show now—partly because it’s not a new job anymore, and partly because I actually know what I’m doing. I can and do teach, both on the show and at guilds and shops across the country, just like Mom did back in the day to put food on the table as a single mother of three daughters. But the early days were really, really hard from a logistical standpoint, and even harder was the feedback.
Though many letters and emails were kind and encouraging, many were caustic.
“I cannot stand that daughter,” emails would sniff. “She is so annoying and I can’t be expected to learn from a beginner! Take her off or I’ll stop watching the show.” Many said they did stop watching the show.
I’ve pointed out to my mother more than once that she is extraordinarily lucky that the Internet had not been invented when she and Liz started the show. There’s a special kind of horror one feels when they come across a pocket of harsh criticism online.
Seeing that your hair is wrong, your clothes are wrong, your hand gestures are wrong, your very face is wrong (yes, apparently, my face makes “too many faces”) creates a physical effect: the stomach turns, the head begins to throb, and the throat constricts.
I’m not complaining, though. For heaven’s sake, the opportunity to co-host a nationally airing quilting show is incredible, and something I value and for which I am extremely grateful (even if there are entire guilds in Nebraska who hate or resent me, or both). It’s become my ridiculous goal to change their hearts and minds, and some do seem to convert.
I recall an encounter with one quilter in a church basement, right before I went up to do my lecture. I was in the kitchen, eating frosting off a donut when she approached me.
“You know,” she said, placing sliced ham on her plastic plate, “In the beginning, when you came on the show, I couldn’t stand you. But you know what happened? My daughter came through the room when I had the show on, and she said, ‘You know, Mom, you should give her a chance. That girl is going to get a whole new group of younger quilters sewing.’”
I blinked. There was chocolate frosting in my mouth, for which I was grateful—I didn’t know what to say and at that moment, and I had an excuse not to say anything.
“And so,” the woman said, beaming, “I just didn’t like you at all, but now I think you’re great!”
Discovering the joy of making quilts has added richness and pleasure to my life, as it has done for countless women and men across time. Learning the craft on national television, in real time, however, is not something I recommend. It is far better to have your donuts in private, on a plate next to your cutting mat. How sweet, how very chocolaty it is, to relish the privacy of seam ripping.