Please visit back to read up on our history of how we began as Impressions in Wood & Quilters Woodworking.
Impressions in Wood was the inspiration of Keith Small. His creations and the growth of the business in turn inspired daughter Debbie and son-in-law Marvin to join. In 2007, Debbie and Marvin built “Debbie’s Studio,” located on the corner of Highway 7 (Elginfield Road) and Highway 119, offering a wide variety of products. Wool, rug hooking and quilting tools as well as many beautiful, one of-a-kind items from pens to back scratchers are on display, as well as hand crafted items (including crochet) made by Debbie. With Keith’s death in May, 2015, Debbie and Marvin took over the entire business and continue to build the legacy inspired by her father.
By Karen Sample, family friend and quilter
(Keith was interviewed in May 2015 at his home in St. Marys, Ontario.)
Keith Small truly was a man of many talents: Farmer. Builder. Feed advisor. Gardener. Thinker. Artisan. Designer. Problem solver. Quilter. Woodworker. Inventor. He loved a challenge: to take a “problem,” think it through and then design and build a practical and workable “solution.” If Keith took it on, it got done. That’s the path that led him to develop his own practical, well built, easy to use line of quilting and rug hooking tools. A product line that many of his customers will attest is best in class.
Asked how he first became interested in woodworking, Keith matter-of-factly pointed out that “when you work on a farm, you are always building something. I did roofing; I did all kinds of stuff.”
His early forays into woodworking included amazing, painstakingly detailed ducks and loons made with carving and wood burning techniques. Never one to be idle, Keith initially started creating these extraordinarily beautiful birds simply because he was “looking for something to do.”
“I was working for a feed company at the time and farmers didn’t want to talk to you before 10 or after 4, so what do you do the rest of the day?” he commented. (Sitting in a Lazyboy with his feet up after a full day at work with the TV on – like many would choose to do - wasn’t in the picture for Keith!)
He had a “bit of a search” to find a wood burner, but once he did, never looked back. “You can spend hours and hours on that stuff,” Keith commented. (And he did!)
Asked about anecdotes, he said the last, full size, extremely detailed loon he made was “a ton of work” so Keith decided to put a $5000 price tag on it, “never dreaming it would sell”. At a show a man walked up and bought it “just like that,” Keith said, much to his surprise. “I could have had more on there,” he remarked, clearly still amazed that someone would pay that much for his work.
Keith was always up for a new challenge. At the urging of his sister, Irene, and a few avid quilting friends, (and no doubt tired of our complaining about the shortcomings of the products we then used) he was charged with making a better frame for hand quilting. His first prototype went to his sister in 1995. Asked how he figured out the design without a pattern, Keith’s answer was simple: “You go to sleep with it,” he said.
He also looked at every quilt frame he could, including one owned by friend and avid quilter Georgina Henderson, as well as historic ones. On a trip to Florida with Marjorie, they saw a sign and detoured through the Appalachians to visit some historic cabins. “There was this cabin and in the cabin there was a fireplace with a big kettle on it, with lunch all laid out,” he described. “Here was this quilting frame actually fastened to the wall. It had short little legs and actually hinged down onto the table. The principle was there,” he said. Always one to make it better, he added “I didn’t want all those braces.”
The frame presented a number of other challenges for Keith as well: “The tilt arm had to be figured out. The feet on it had to be made so it would stand free and be stable.”
The biggest challenge, however, was to figure out how to make the cog or ratchet that allows a quilter to tighten the quilt. The idea for the feet came from a hall rack.
With a little tweaking and a few minor adjustments, his family, friends and customers were soon happy with what they believed was the best quilt frame on the market. At the first show with it, in Cookstown, he sold six.
“That was the end of it,” Keith said, “It hasn’t changed since.”
Very particular about his work, Keith got the production of the quilting frames down to a science: First he made the components and then assembled them two at a time. The final step was to stain and then finish them. “My rule was they had to sit two weeks to dry out properly because of the finish on them.”
Keith did not just make tools for quilting, however. He himself quilted. Keith’s mother taught him to hand quilt. “I grew up with it. She would up and criticize your quilting too,” he added. Sister Irene taught him how to piece a quilt (as an adult) one weekend.
After designing the quilting frames, Keith was persuaded to take on hoops for hand quilting.
With failing health, a gentleman that had been making the hoops realized he would not be able to continue to supply his customers indefinitely. Worried about losing the craft and a valuable supplier, a store owner who had a standing order for the hoops connected the two of them. The rest is history. Keith bought his machines and the 10 frames he had to make the hoops. The caveat was that his craft - the tricks of his trade – would be passed on to Keith. Keith borrowed his brother-in-law’s truck (to transport the equipment) and then stayed in a hotel near where the gentleman lived while he received his first lessons.
Always thinking, Keith soon decided it would be more efficient to make more than 10 hoops at a time so he suggested building more forms. That was Keith’s next lesson: how to make the forms. They increased the number of forms to 32 and then to 60. As time went by, Keith increased the number of forms to 220 and created a range of hoop sizes (10 to 22 inches and two sizes of oval hoops). The most popular sizes, however, were always the 14, 16 and 18 inch hoops.
Always striving to make his products better, Keith also designed and built a stand that allowed the hoop to turn 360 degrees.
Still not entirely satisfied, he did not stop there. “I was trying to figure out how to get the pedestal to tilt down and I had different things going through my mind. I literally woke up in the middle of the night and there it was (in my head), all ready to go. I had one working by noon. All I needed was a bracket! It has worked ever since.”
Rug hooking tools were next. This challenge came about much the same way as the quilting frames. Keith was talking with a store owner in Aurora that sold his hoops and she commented that everyone complained about certain rug hooking tools. “Can’t you make me one of these?” she challenged Keith, sending him home with the offending rug hooking tool. “Make me one that will work!” Of course Keith did just that.
Keith also created 360 frames that worked with both hoops and grippers. “That was another challenge!”
He made a set of hooks using “fancy imported woods” and took them to a rug hooking show. He priced them at $70 each, four hooks in a full set. While setting up, another exhibitor predicted, “you will never sell them (at that price)!” Keith gleefully pointed out, “I sold more fancy hooks than I did regular ones.”
The tools were not just esthetically beautiful, they were also extremely well designed. “Finally someone made a hook that works,” was a comment he heard multiple times at that first show. “The loops come up smooth and even and free and easy. There was no drag on your arm,” Keith explained. To Keith, that was the true accomplishment.
Over the years, Keith made many thousands of hoops and one-of-a kind items, each hand crafted. He put beautifully designed and grained, sometimes colorful, wood handles on everything from cheese knives to pens, back scratchers to shaving kits. He also made various pieces of furniture such as tables, and countless custom commissions (such as a pig-shaped draw box for a tradeshow and custom wine storage racks). Stands to hold quilt rulers were designed by Keith along with quilt display racks (to hang/display a quilt on the wall). He even began to craft some handles with bone for a change. Asked what he liked making the best, he replied “serving trays.”
Keith used many different varieties of wood, but his favorites were “oak for the quilt frames, maple for the hoops.” He also liked to work with ash, but customers prefer the oak, he said. He was not afraid to try something new - wood that was at hand. Asked about a particularly beautiful wood handle on an item in the studio, he explained that was lilac from a tree he had chopped down in the yard. He liked to use “common wood – whatever I had around, whatever is growing around here.”
When machine quilting began to become popular, Keith was an early adopter. “Everybody was running in that direction. Everyone wanted to machine quilt and free motion was the way to go.” He bought an industrial Juke sewing machine and became a dealer for them in Canada. His next (self-imposed) challenge was to build a free motion quilting option for his quilting frame. The key was to figure out the stitch control.
Working with a “computer genius” in BC, they were able to access a control from the U.S. “He got the controls and converted them for what we did,” Keith said. Keith built a movable platform to hold the machine and a handle to control the machine movement. With the stitch controller, he had a simple, easy to use option for free motion machine quilting that worked.
Eventually Keith lost his controller source when a sewing machine company bought out the speed control technology, thus blocking others from accessing it.
Asked what he believed was his best work, Keith promptly replied, “The quilting frame. Nobody has ever even tried to match it.” (His quilting friends agree!) Impressions in Wood quilting frames, made by Keith Small, have been shipped all over North America. Keith estimated he made more than 300, all hand crafted.
Looking back, Keith reflected that his customers got “equipment that worked. “Not the cheapest by a long shot but you get a lifetime guarantee and you can rely on us to fix it if you have any complaints.”
Keith has passed on his hand crafting and quality tradition to daughter Debbie and son-in-law Marvin Morrison. “Debbie makes stuff with yarn; she can do anything,” Keith commented. “She will take a knitting pattern and convert it to crocheting.”
“Debbie was excited with all we had achieved and she wanted to continue it on. She didn’t want to see it die when I die,” Keith explained. “I am passing on some of the little tricks I have learned over the years.”
Debbie and Marvin now make the many quilting and rug hooking tools designed (or redesigned) by Keith.