Varsity quilts take fans to a warm place

Saturday, October 30th 2004, 3:52 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ Some say there is nothing like a quilt _ especially if you have designed it, pieced it together and stitched it yourself _ to give you that warm, toasty feeling.

Two Norman women know the sensation, and a bonus of making money from their handicraft.

Verna McNabb and Barbara Poe make quilts licensed by NCAA colleges and universities. Their wholesale company, Varsity Quilts, Inc., has operated less than a year, but has reached sales volume of about $50,000.

``We started in September of last year by applying for a license with the Collegiate Licensing Company,'' Poe said. ``We got our OU license on Dec. 31 and our OSU license in March.'' The licenses, for all NCAA schools, are good for a year.

The enterprise began when the two friends, both managers at Norman Regional Hospital, discovered they shared an interest in sewing.

``I knew Barbara was in the market for a home sewing machine that could also embroider,'' McNabb said. ``I found one for her and got one for myself.''

The women took quilting courses at Patchwork Place in Norman and became ``quilting buddies.'' Soon they developed a series of quilt designs they felt would appeal to Sooners and Cowboys fans. They make double and queen size quilts, 20-by-20-inch wall hangings and pillows, all in collegiate sports themes.

Although headquartered in Soonerland, their efforts have gained the affection of ``Big Orange'' fans. ``OSU people say they don't have as much merchandise to choose from as Sooners do,'' McNabb said.

A sewing equipment sales rep told the women their initial machines were designed to last for three million stitches.

``Ours had 18 million in only three months,'' Poe said. ``We bought two more semiprofessional machines in February.''

The women make quilt kits distributed to about a dozen quilting shops in the state. Each kit contains a pattern, materials for making the quilt top, four or five embroidered blocks and instructions.

``We've already had requests from Texas shops to stock Texas kits,'' Poe said.

They have begun to apply for licenses to make quilts for Texas schools. They also were commissioned to do a quilt for an alumni fund-raiser at Nebraska's Creighton University.

McNabb digitizes the quilt designs. Each must be approved by the collegiate licensing companies and the particular school. Varsity Quilts pays an eight percent royalty on quarterly wholesale revenues.

``We have probably 10 designs for each school,'' McNabb said. ``We can do special blocks for special events like graduation.''

The custom touches can include elements like the student's name and graduation date, or some other information particular to a school or event.

McNabb, who is manager of health records at Norman Regional, and Poe, the hospital's pharmacy director, say their husbands have a hand in the success of their business.

McNabb said her husband, Dennis, uses a long arm quilting machine to do all the quilting by hand. The precisely looped quilting stitches are themselves a work of art.

Poe said her husband, Merle, pulls (and picks) the backing off embroidered quilt squares, a tedious job.

The decorative handmade quilts fetch equally handsome prices at retail stores. For example, the lap size is priced $275, a lap size kit $125, and a queen size kit (96-by-96-inches finish size), $275. Orders can be placed on the Varsity Quilts Web site,

``We introduced the OU and OSU quilts at the Oklahoma City Winter Quilt Show last year,'' McNabb said. ``You'd see their eyes and know which side they were on.''

Baby Boomers are into quilting with a passion.

``In 2003, there were 21 million quilters in the U.S., mostly college-educated women in their 50s with average household incomes of about $70,000,'' Poe said. She said quilting now is a $2.5 billion industry.

During the first week of November, the two quilting partners will introduce their designs at the International Quilt Show in Houston. They said the international show, which draws 55,000 to 60,000 participants, is Houston's largest convention.