Up Close Quilting with Marianne Fons

February 7, 2013

The APQS Up Close Quilting Series is starting 2013 by featuring the women behind Fons & Porter. These talented quilters have established one of the largest quilting entities in the world and continue their passion for quilting every day.

This Up Close Quilting article features Marianne Fons of Winterset, Iowa. Marianne, Liz Porter, and now Marianne’s daughter, Mary Fons, carry on some of the work at Fons & Porter, taping their Love of Quilting TV show, producing Love of Quilting magazine and providing quilting education opportunities and many quilting services. Fons & Porter inspires quilters all over the world.

Q: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us Marianne. What sparked your interest in quilting?

I discovered quilting around the time of the American Bicentennial when I was 25 years old and the mother of one young daughter. After a quilting lull that took place from WW II to mid-1970s, Americans began rediscovering quilting. Lucky me!

Q: What did the first quilt you made look like? Do you remember the colors and patterns?

My first significant quilt was a Basket design from the book 101 Patchwork Patterns by Ruby McKim. I used cardboard templates to make the blocks, which were a combination of patchwork and applique. I made so many mistakes I’m surprised it turned out to be a quilt at all. Nevertheless, it won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair in 1979. There wasn’t much competition!

Q: What is the most important thing people should keep in mind as new quilters?

Take time to learn the basics, i.e., how to cut accurately, sew an accurate quarter-inch, and press seams as you sew. The basics are really simple – get good at them and all your sewing days will be fabulous!

Q: How did you learn how to quilt? Did someone teach you?

I took a basic class offered through the Iowa State University Extension Program at the local extension office in the town where I live, Winterset, Iowa.

Q: What is your favorite part about the quilting process?

I love starting a new quilt, cutting and piecing the first units, putting them up on my design wall, and seeing the pattern emerge. I’m always excited to see if what I have in mind is going to work. Once I know that it is, my quilt making becomes a simply pleasurable process, and I already begin thinking about my next one.

Q: What is your favorite part about longarm quilting?

As someone whose quilts are generally destined for publication, I’ve always been on a deadline, which means most of my quilts are quilted by others. When I learned to longarm, I was simply blown away by how I could quickly complete my own quilt within just a few days of completing the top. I am so grateful for the artistry quilted into my tops by the longarmers who have quilted for me, and I will never be as talented as they are. However, it was a real thrill the first time one of my quilts was featured in Love of Quilting magazine, and the credit line read simply: Quilt by Marianne Fons.

Q: How was Fons & Porter started? Give us a brief history.

Liz Porter and I met in that beginning class at the Madison County ISU Extension Office. Our group formed a club, and our club put on a quilt show back when such events were a novelty. Local attendees expressed a desire to learn to quilt, so Liz and I became team teachers. We taught hundreds of other women to quilt in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. Teaching led to writing quilting books, writing led to the idea for a TV show, and eventually our path led to the opportunity to buy our magazine Love of Quilting from the publisher that had started it in 1996. Along the way, we taught at conferences, for guilds, and for quilt shops all over the U.S. and occasionally abroad. We acquired the magazine in 2001, and grew it into the leading quilting magazine in America within five years.

Q: When you first started the Fons & Porter TV series, what was filming like? Were you nervous? How has it evolved?

Having had no experience in television, we were pretty stiff at first, but our show was non-scripted from the beginning, and we relied on our personal knowledge of the quilting process to carry us through each episode. After appearing on hundreds of episodes with Liz Porter and now carrying on with my daughter Mary Fons as a co-host, I often wish I were better at what I do. I’m still in a way nervous during taping, just because of the responsibility of delivering outstanding content, so when I watch the preliminary DVDs, I’m always surprised at how relaxed I appear!

Q:  Every TV show seems to have a blooper reel. What’s the most memorable “blooper” that’s happened on the Fons & Porter set?

Neither Liz nor I will forget a very early episode we were taping when the bobbin thread broke. Liz was at the machine, and while she fixed the problem, I just kept talking, describing the advantages of using a design wall and how to make a design wall, until Liz said, “Well, I’m ready to go!” With a huge smile on my face I rejoined her at the sewing center, tape rolling. We’ve never liked to re-tape or stop camera.

Q: Hand quilting was still the norm when you began quilting in 1976. How has machine quilting impacted the quilting community over the past 30 years?

The rotary cutter and scores of quick piecing techniques sped up the time it took to make a quilt top, so we needed a way to speed up the other half of the process. Machine quilting was the next development. Many quilters looked down upon machine quilting when it first began, but the artistic element that domestic and longarm machine quilters have contributed has been a fantastic and positive development in the world of quilting. It’s been neat to see quilters embrace new techniques and improve on them, all with the goal of completing quilts so they can fulfill their twin purpose of comforting people and adding beauty to the world.

Q:  Many quilting enthusiasts say the rotary cutter was the first revolution in quilting, and longarm quilting machines were the second. What do you see as the next “big thing” in quilting?

From the technical side, cutting machines are the latest, greatest innovation. Like the sewing machine itself, the rotary cutter and machine quilting improved technology, which means quilters can spend more time on the best parts of making quilts: design and artistry.

Q: You’ve inspired countless quilters through your books, magazines, and TV show.  Who has inspired you most in the quilting industry, and why?

The anonymous quilters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries! If only I had their genius! Almost every quilt I make is inspired either by a quilt from the past or an element within an antique quilt. Those unknown quilters invented wonderful patterns and gave them wonderful names. My jaw drops when I see a quilt made over 100 years ago that exhibits a design sense I could never approach on my own.

Q:  Your involvement in quilting has spanned over three decades, and you’re known to quilters across the world. What do you hope will be your legacy to future quilters?

I get the same thrill when I start a new quilt nowadays as I did when I first started. I hope that I’ve successfully conveyed how satisfying and fun it is to make a quilt.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

My hat is off to all the great artists who compete and win the blue ribbons. I don’t think I could do what they do, but I admire it.
What I like is the wonderful opportunity a quilt gives me to apply design elements and technical know-how to a process that results in something beautiful to look at but with the power to comfort a person. I’ve had a lot of fun making quilts for over thirty years now. Unexpectedly seeing my daughters, particularly Mary, who is now a professional quilter as well, get the same enjoyment I have out of quilting, is quite amazing.
Finally, I could not be more enthusiastic about the Modern Quilting movement going on now, and it’s exciting to see my own quilt style changing a bit as I incorporate their new aesthetic. I find as I am getting older, I embrace change more readily than I did in the past. One of the characteristics I love about the Modern quilters is their desire to make quilts that can be used.