QUILTER PROFILE: Marjorie Orr

Because her mother raised her to be a practical, sensible young woman, Marjorie Orr was trained as an accountant. She even became a professional tax preparer, briefly. "I hated it," she says. Marjorie married and stayed at home to raise two sons while her husband Richard worked as an engineer for several major companies. Then, her children grown and out on their own, Marjorie took up  quilting, and it changed her life forever.

When Marjorie completed her Carolina Jasmine (South Carolina state flower) quilt top in 1985 she went in search of a quilt frame to do the hand quilting. She didn't like what she found. "I borrowed frames from four friends so I could try them out," she says. "One of them wore out before I even finished the quilting; another required that you adjust butterfly nuts on all four corners in order to change the tilt. None of them offered what I wanted."

So Marjorie invented her own. "I never had any experience in woodworking," she says. "I'm still not an expert woodworker. But we had a prototype made from my design by a local craftsman." From this first frame, Jasmine Heirlooms was born in 1987. As Marjorie continued working to perfect her invention, and shared it with her friends, they liked it. The idea occurred to her that perhaps her new frame was something quilters would want, and she and Richard contracted with a local woodworker to make 50 copies of it.  "We then took some of them to the local show up in Hendersonville [North Carolina]. We sold 8." The rest is history.

Today Jasmine Heirlooms sells a growing line of quilt frames and hoops, as well as several other notions for quilters. These products are all informed by Marjorie's discerning, exacting, and elegant design sense. They are beautiful pieces of furniture as well as precision tools for quilters. In early November I drove up to Greenville, South Carolina, where Jasmine Heirlooms is headquartered. We had met Marjorie twice at Quilt Festival in Houston, and had been so impressed by the company's products that we wanted to learn more about how quilt frames and hoops are designed and manufactured.

Despite its well-known name among quilters, Jasmine Heirlooms is still very much a small business. The company's office is located in the lower level of Marjorie and Richard's large home in the north suburbs of Greenville. Two part-time employees work answering phones and filling orders in a large room that overlooks the woods through a wall of windows. "Our 'showroom' is in the loft," laughs Marjorie. There, a couple of their frames are set up, but the company only occasionally sells the frames out of the Orrs' home. "From our magazine ads, people look us up and just drop by from Florida, California, Canada, Iceland, England, France, Germany and too many other places to name."

After a brief stay at the office, Marjorie and I got in her mini-van and drove a few miles out to their manufacturing facility located in a beautiful old brick textile mill. "This area is great for operations like ours," she says. "The textile industry has almost completely disappeared from Greenville, but they have left behind all these lovely old mill buildings, which provide us inexpensive warehouse space." The company's share of the mill space is not a large one, and their manufacturing is not highly automated. "Our products are mostly hand-made, "Marjorie says. Using routers, band saws, jigsaws, and sanders, the company's crew of part-time woodworkers cut, finish and assemble the many small parts that fit precisely into Jasmine's frames. "One thing you learn in this business is the proper use of a jig," Marjorie says, revealing her intense interest in the details of manufacturing. "Everything has to be measured from one point," she says, showing me a small piece of wood, the "jig", which is used like a kind of stencil by the router operator to guide the shaping of a piece of wood. "A quilt hoop or frame is a precision tool, and must work perfectly."

As we walk around the shop, Marjorie tells me about other aspects of the process. "Over there are the quilt frame rails. They have to be stored absolutely flat so they don't warp." Pointing to a jumbled pile of parts in one corner, she says: "Those are the remains of some of our experiments. We're always looking for new and better ways for our frames and hoops to work. It takes a lot of our time, and usually even the successes don't pay off right away." Among the more recent innovations of the company are the square and rectangular hoops added to their repertoire. "Our rectangular hoops are really simple -- they use a bungee cord apparatus to hold the quilt. But designing a rectangular hoop whose sides wouldn't bow and distort under the pressure was not easy."

Besides great precision, Marjorie's other obsession is with simplicity. Showing me a place where a scrolled support fits into the base of the hoop stand, she says "In most joinings of this type, they would just pull the trigger on the nail gun to attach this piece. But incredible things can happen to these in shipping, and when the customer receives them broken, they are very unhappy if they have to re-package them and send them back to us. Therefore we've worked very hard to make these hoops and frames easily and entirely repairable by the end user. Then we can just send them a new part."

The features of a quilt frame or hoop are closely tied to the dimensions and reach of the human body. "Our quilt frames in the beginning were always narrow, because the quilter only has so much reach in her arms, and a 14-inch distance between the rails allows the entire design to be reached from either side of the frame," Marjorie says. "It took me a long time to come around, but now we are making a medium frame, so that quilters who are not uncomfortable with extra stretching can have more quilting space. We have also made a wide frame for many years, so that a large groups of quilters can work on a quilt at the same time." In addition to their heirloom quality finished frames, Jasmine offers the "Frugal Frame," an unfinished version that costs less. Recently a mid-price version called the "Beechwood Country" has been added. Other products, such as their hoops, are now also available in kits that can be finished by the buyer.

It's attention to details such as these, over the last thirteen years, that have earned Jasmine a growing and loyal following among quilters. Marjorie's obsession with creating beautiful, functional, and simple to use objects has resulted in very high quality in the company's products. It has not, however, been without its toll. "Besides the manufacturing, I oversee all of the other operations of the company, from hiring employees to marketing, and it is overwhelming," Marjorie admits. Marjorie still maintains the company's website, http://www.jasmineheirlooms.com, herself, using Microsoft Front Page. "Our website really needs a re-design," she says, "but I just don't have the time. We also need to redo our magazine ads; those should be revamped every three months to keep them fresh." Marjorie takes the company's products to the major quilt shows at Houston and Paducah, and can be seen tirelessly manning the booth, explaining her products' virtues to all comers. While she realizes the importance of these parts of the business, her heart is really back in the shop, tinkering with a joint, working out the implications of a new design idea.

Now Marjorie and Richard have reached another crossroad with Jasmine Heirlooms, and have decided to retire and sell the business. They have found a buyer who will be moving the company's operations to Texas early next year. "Richard and I just can't live and breathe this business 24 hours a day any more," Marjorie says. "I'd like to have a life besides it, to do some things at my church and with my family. I do intend to stay involved with the company, though, mainly in product development. And I feel very good about the company which is buying Jasmine Heirlooms. They will maintain our high standards of quality." The Orrs are currently undecided about whether they will stay in South Carolina or move to Texas, where both were raised, in the Houston area - Katy and Galena Park.

With all that she has to say grace over, I asked Marjorie if she has any time to quilt. There are several unusual and beautiful ones in her house. "I do have some projects I'm working on," she says. "There's a my Texas Bluebonnet quilt that I want to finish, but I want big blocks of time to work on it. It will have a lot of trapunto and other features and I don't want to make mistakes. I also have some baby quilts I was working on when I invented my frame," she says with a smile. "Because we don't yet have any grandchildren."

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