Partners in Patchwork : The Fons & Porter Story

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Marianne Fons and Liz Porter—you’ve welcomed them into your home through your mailbox, your television, your computer. Many of us learned to quilt from them, or learned new techniques, or were inspired to make a different quilt, or were reassured that we all make mistakes and still have a wonderful quilt.

It all started in 1976, with the American bicentennial and the resurgence of an interest in traditional crafts, and in particular quilting.

Marianne Fons saw a quilt on the cover of a magazine—not even a quilting magazine—and got interested. Liz Porter loved antique quilts, but given how much they sold for at antique shows, she couldn’t afford to buy one, so decided to make one herself.

They met in a quilting class offered by the Iowa State University extension office in Winterset, Iowa. “Our class evolved into a tiny local quilt club,” says Marianne. “We made a ‘heritage quilt’ and decided to display it during Winterset’s Madison County Bridge Festival, around 1978, I think.”

Many of the people who saw the quilt asked if there were classes. Because their teacher had retired, Liz and Marianne agreed to teach—but only together.

“Neither of us knew enough to teach it on our own, but together we would do it,” says Liz.

“We were always just a step or two ahead of our students,” says Marianne.

They opened a joint checking account under the name Fons & Porter Designs. (“Each putting in $50, I think,” says Marianne.)

As they taught, they learned from their students: what people liked, what people wanted to make, how techniques could be explained better, or which tools helped students best. This knowledge would serve them well.

Because there weren’t a lot of quilting books out there, they decided to write one—Classic Quilted Vests, published in 1982. The book gained them a wider audience, netting them more teaching gigs, first around Iowa, then the Midwest, then nationally. “We used to say we taught in more church basements than anyone could count,” says Marianne.

More books followed, and a mail-order business. Their bestselling Quilter’s Complete Guide, published with Oxmoor House, led to a partnership with that company.

“As a result of the sales of Quilter’s Complete Guide, we approached Oxmoor House about doing a television show, just as they approached us as about publishing a magazine,” says Liz. “It was their idea to do the magazine, featuring Marianne and I as the personalities and driving the editorial content.”

They started off as Sew Many Quilts in 1996. “Turns out, there was a quilt shop in Texas by that name. This was before the internet,” Liz says, “so it was harder to find out about things like that.”

It took a while to work through the trademark issues, and ultimately, they realized that the Fons & Porter name was the most important part. “All kinds of other things could change, but Fons & Porter was the stronger brand,” says Liz. “People often just called our magazine Fons and Porter’s magazine.”

Oxmoor House had rights to the name Love of Quilting, so it was determined that Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting would be the name of the magazine, and the TV show.

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In that time, their mail order business grew, and now employed three people in the back of a former doctor’s office in Winterset, Iowa

Then came the news that Oxmoor House was going to be sold, and the magazine would be shut down post-sale.

Marianne says, ”We were devastated. We didn’t want our three mail-order-business employees to lose their jobs. We didn’t want to return to non-stop church basement teaching.”

Marianne was a single mother raising three daughters without support, and Liz was going through a divorce, and her own income was about to evaporate.

They decided they would try to buy the magazine, and make a go of it themselves.

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” Liz says. “It was a pretty big jump, and took courage to do it. But we were definitely going to hit bottom if we didn’t jump.”

Through various Iowa connections, they were put on touch with Dean Pieters, who had worked for many years at Meredith Corporation, a major publishing conglomerate based in Des Moines. He helped them negotiate the sale, and then agreed to partner with Marianne and Liz, each putting up a third stake in the partnership.

“The numbers we were dealing with were bigger than anything I’d ever punched into a calculator,” says Liz. She gives a lot of credit to Dean for the immediate success they started to see.

Dean felt strongly that Liz and Marianne should be the face of the magazine and brand. The first piece of direct mail they sent out as unfortunately timed with the anthrax scare of 2001-2002, when people were afraid to open unsolicited mail. But Dean’s insistence that they use a plastic polybag, and feature Marianne and Liz’s smiling faces front and center, reassured people.

“People knew us from TV,” Liz says. “So they’d figure, ‘Well, Liz and Marianne aren’t going to put anthrax in there!’”

They worked closely with the guilds, too, in marketing the magazine, and had a special deal that enabled guilds to use the magazine subscription in their own fundraising efforts.

“It’s the social aspect of quilting that has made it so enduring as a craft,” says Liz. “Quilt guilds, quilting bees, statewide organizations—you get to socialize with others who appreciate what you make. A lot of other hobbies are more solitary, and there aren’t as many organizations.“

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They launched their first website in the fall 1999. Liz’s youngest daughter, Emily, was learning about HTML coding as an extracurricular activity at school back east.

As Liz recalls, “When she came back to visit over a break, she said, ‘You know, mom, you really ought to have a website.’ So she taught me to code with HTML, and we put together a website.”

They were probably one of the earliest quilting companies to do so, along with the likes of Nancy Zieman.

“There wasn’t much activity until the day after Christmas, and then the orders came pouring in. We figured quilters had been busy with Christmas preparations, and once they were over—and they hadn’t gotten what they wanted for Christmas—they started shopping,” says Marianne. “We strongly believe many quilters’ very first online order, ever, was from us. Because they knew and trusted us. We were on public TV and thus had been guests in their homes.”

Liz agrees. “For many of our customers, it was the first time they ever clicked ‘add to cart’ and purchased something online. They knew we would stand by the products, and we had to 1-800 number as back-up, if they needed to call.”

The partnership had structured the venture to be a 5-year plan, and in that time, they had expanded the business rapidly, developing a line of tools, expanding their eCommerce business, teaching on public television, and, especially, growing the readership of Fons & Porter’s Love of Quilting.

“The magazine circulation was 40,000 when we purchased it,” says Marianne. “In five years, we grew it to more than 300,000, making it the largest circulated quilting magazine in history, in the world.”

After more than 25 years in business together, and growing not only their business, but also the entire quilting community, Liz and Marianne, along with Dean, decided to sell the business.

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“The sale of the business in 2006 gave me the opportunity to turn my energies to other passions, the things one does for love rather than money,” says Marianne. She has served on the board of directors for the Quilts of Valor Foundation, and has re-engaged with Winterset, helping establish the Iowa Quilt Museum there, as well as reviving the town’s single-screen theater, the Iowa Theater.

Marianne still quilts, and whichever quilt she’s working on, she’s apt to confess, is always her favorite.

For the first year after selling the company, Liz didn’t quilt at all. She laughs and says, “I didn’t even want to look at that stuff. But now, I probably make more quilts than I ever did.”

Just this morning, Liz had friends over to work on a block exchange. She used her three favorite tools that she helped develop—Quarter Inch Seam Marker, her trusty 8” x 14” Basic Ruler, and her mechanical pencil. “I’ve got two quilts out with the quilter, and they should be back soon. Oh, and I’m binding a quilt now.”

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Watch footage of Marianne and Liz from their Iowa Public television fundraising reunion show here.

Comments (2)

  • Barbara H

    This is a very beautiful star quilt, different to anything I’ve made. I want to try it maybe in multi-color, scrappy. The border adds a great deal . Thanks for featuring this super quilt.
    bh

    June 21, 2018 at 5:09 am
  • jt f

    I had to laugh when I saw the photo of Liz in her office/quilt studio. It looks just like mine!!! Some may say it is chaotic but believe me I can find whatever I need. Keep quilting ladies – it is what we do.

    jt

    July 6, 2018 at 7:54 pm

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