Zzzizzling with Zeal and Zest:

Zzzizzling with Zeal and Zest:
Preserving vintage patterns for tomorrow’s heirloom treasures

By Marilyn Sprague-Smith, M.Ed.

This article was originally published in the NC Journal for Women, November 2005.

Ritas DisplayOnce upon a time, a young girl with an indomitable spirit lived in post-World War II Frankfurt, Germany. Ravages of war obliterated outdoor play areas, yet idleness was taboo. Fibers and needles, threads and hooks were the resources she was given to stay busy indoors. Precision stitching was demanded by her stern grandmother and perfection-oriented mother as she learned to crochet, knit, quilt, and embroider.

Tedious hours performing precision handiwork under harsh supervision did not create fond childhood memories for Rita de Maintenon, fiber artist and owner of Heirloom Treasures based in Franklin, North Carolina, however, seeds of greatness are springing forth today as Rita uses the skills she learned years ago in constraining conditions.

Rita describes her artistry as classic European broomstick and hairpin techniques, Irish crochet, and vintage German thread patterns with bullions,
combined with her creative approach to preserving vintage patterns for tomorrow’s heirloom treasures.“I’m zzzizzling with zeal and zest,” says an exuberant Rita as she describes the fountain of inspiration belying her one-of-a-kind Victorian layettes, christening ensembles, carriage covers, booties, sweaters, bonnets, soft toys and blocks. Her designs appeal to those who prefer to dress infants and young children with distinction, similar to individuals in many European cultures who have a tradition of dressing children in finery. She also creates a ladies’ line of fine accessories for individuals who seek one-of-a-kind items, including crocheted, beaded, and silk-lined evening bags; eyelash, boa, and Italian ribbon silk scarves, mohair wraps, ponchos, and hats.

Handcrafted Item
One on Rita’s many handcrafted baby items.

Her ability to recreate vintage patterns with near-extinct techniques has earned her membership in the revered Southern Highland Craft Guild, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the highest standards in craft making.

Viewing her themed portfolio and seeing her lavish displays of fine apparel at select craft shows and Guild-operated galleries such as Allanstand Folk Art Center in Asheville and Parkway Center in Blowing Rock, one would find it hard to believe that Rita once declared she would never do precision handiwork again.

handmade baby toys
One on Rita’s many handcrafted baby items.

The Guild, as it is referred to by members, has a rigorous three-step juried application process. For Rita, having her work scrutinized by her grandmother and mother throughout her youth helped to make The Guild’s membership application process less formidable. Some applicants submit their portfolio three or more times before they are granted membership, and some applicants never achieve membership status. Rita’s “Royal Baby Welcome Sampler” themed portfolio was an immediate judge pleaser.

Heirloom Treasures: A Long Time in Coming

Once upon a time, a rapid-achiever living in Frankfurt, Germany graduated from college at age 18. With a major in special education and minor in physical education, she launched her teaching career at a Montessori school.

Once upon a time, a young woman living in Frankfurt, Germany loved to dance. As an accomplished round dancer, her lithe graceful dance floor presence was noticed by a young officer at Rhein-Main Air Base. Romance and courtship ensued. She came to America as a young Air Force bride.

“Leaving Germany was the end of what I call the first phase of my life,” says Rita. “When I came to this country as a young bride, I said I would never do precision handiwork again. No one was going to force me to do anything. Heirloom Treasures was a long time in coming.”

Never Say Never.

As Rita began what she refers to as the second passage of her life, she focused on using her formal education. She helped to create and obtain funding from the Kennedy Foundation for a special education program in Waco, Texas. It was the beginning of what has become Rita’s personal trinity—a balanced approach to applying formal education, expressing artistic talent, and seeking spiritual growth.

Dancing was a major part of her new life in America, too. She and her husband danced at Carousel Level, the highest level in Round Dancing. In Square Dancing, they danced at Experimental and 50 Plus, which is also the highest level.

Dance apparel was expensive, so Rita set aside her vow to never do precision handiwork again. She began expressing her artistic talent by designing dance apparel. Seeds for Heirloom Treasures were unknowingly planted.

The seeds lay dormant.

A move to Orlando, Florida, a divorce in 1980, and living on her own for the first time in her life brought closure to a second passage in Rita’s life and expanded possibilities for Rita’s future.

Discovering Unity Church of Orlando, experiencing a spiritual awakening, and meeting and marrying her true love, Tom de Maintenon, spawned a new beginning. With Rita as majority co-owner, Tom and Rita built a highly successful industrial equipment repair business. NASA was among their clients. Seeds for Heirloom Treasures lay dormant.

When Rita and Tom decided to sell their business and retire to the heart of the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina, they gave themselves a retirement gift. They took several months to travel the world, including a safari in South Africa and a visit to Chateau de Maintenon in France.

Upon their return to Orlando, they sold Tom’s airplane and traded in Rita’s Mercedes for a truck, a fifth wheeler and a backhoe. For two years, they lived in their fifth wheeler, parked on their North Carolina property, as they sculpted the land to showcase their dream retirement home, a custom log home they hand-built together. It was their personal Chateau de Maintenon.

As Rita and Tom settled into their “Chateau,” Rita decided to once again put her formal education to work. She applied for and became the adult GED instructor at Southwestern Community College, a position she holds today. Her hand work was only a hobby. Seeds for Heirloom Treasures continued to lay dormant.

Personal Tragedy, Grief and Hope

Four years ago, Rita’s fairytale life with Tom ceased. A non-acute illness turned to tragedy. Rita became a young widow in her mid-50’s. Rita’s talent for precision handiwork became a therapeutic ally that transformed her grief to hope.

“When Tom passed away, I had a choice of going into deep depression or pulling myself up by my bootstraps. I had the time, the talent and the need to make something creative out of the situation.”

A friend invited her to participate in a small, neighborhood art show. She agreed to participate and sold several items. “It was a real healing to feel that I could turn the situation into something positive.” The seeds for Heirloom Treasures began to sprout.

Pineapplie Gown on display- Washington DC

From Frankfurt, Germany to Washington, DC

Pineapple Gown
Pineapplie Gown on display- Washington DC

Heirloom Treasures is sprouting greatness from skills Rita learned long ago in Frankfurt, Germany. As a new member of The Southern Highland Craft Guild, Rita received an invitation this summer to exhibit an item of her choice at the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) located in the heart of Washington, DC. The Guild participates in an annual exhibit at ARC and extends an invitation to new members to showcase their work as a way to give them grand exposure.

Pineapple Christening
Pinneapple Christening – Displayed on Hanger

Living a Personal Trinity
Rita submitted a christening ensemble that includes a bonnet, pair of booties, blanket, and christening gown. The ensemble was created using a very, very fine thread and a very, very fine hook. The satin-lined gown is 43 inches in length and features a Victorian Pineapple hemline. “The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality and blessings, often used in Victorian themes and households,” says Rita. “On a christening gown, a pineapple symbolizes blessings and good wishes for the child.” The ensemble is on exhibit at the ARC through August 1, 2006.

Rita’s indomitable spirit has given her the courage to transcend adversity and go on to create a lifestyle guided by her personal trinity. Today, she continues to use her formal education as an adult GED instructor at Southwestern Community College, is a frequent presenter at Spiritual Light Center in Franklin, and expresses her creativity preserving vintage patterns for tomorrow’s heirloom treasures.

Fiber Day
Fiber Art Day at Allanstand – Rita demonstrates her craft.

Rita, the instructor, says “Let’s give our children wings in everything they do.”

Rita, the fiber artist, says “Allow yourself to be the best you can be.”

Rita, the spiritual seeker, says “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. Contentment is a goal. I’m content.”