Millie Lehto took up the ancient art of quilting 23 years ago because she needed something to do while her Navy husband was away from home. Now she runs The Country Shop in Occoquan where she teaches her craft and sells the materials. Her husband Bob, now a Navy civilian employe who serves on the town council, says he's learned to enjoy the whole thing because it's too much a part of his wife's life to ignore.
As her fame as a quiltmaker spread, Lehto was asked to teach the craft to others and soon found herself spending a lot of time on the road going from church group to church group with patchwork samples, trying to cram what she knew into an hour or two.
It soon became apparent that it would be easier to set up a classroom and let her students come to her. Today the tiny room at the front of her shop is crowded every Saturday with eager students struggling to master not only quilting but also the old arts of English smocking and French handsewing.
But for all that, Millie Lehto is not just another seamstress. She holds the unofficial title of "Quilt Consultant" to the president of the United States.
Somebody familiar with her expertise recommended Lehto for the honor, she says, but to this day she has no idea who. The first time the White House called asking her help in appraising a gift quilt, she remembers, "I was so amazed I forgot to talk."
The practice of listing and pricing gifts began with the Nixon administration. Congress passed a law requiring all gifts sent to the White House be listed and evaluated. Anything worth more than $25 must be regarded as a gift to the nation rather than to the First Family, the law says.
The White House has called her three times since Reagan's first election, twice about a gift quilt and once about a creweled handbag. Lehto says that the gifts were described in such perfect detail over the telephone that she was able to evaluate them without ever seeing them. All were worth between $65 and $75, she says.
While she has never been to the White House, Lehto has been to the Capitol. During the bicentennial, Lehto, along with several others learned in some of the colonial arts -- lace-making, wooden-toy carving, drying flowers -- was invited by the Nixon White House to display her wares in front of the Capitol on the Fourth of July.
The holiday tourist crowds kept them so busy, Lehto recalls, that she never even got a picture of herself on that momentous occasion, although a small framed certificate, signed by the president, has joined the clutter of fabric wreaths, quilt squares and patterns decorating the walls of her little sewing room.
Although quilting is an ancient art -- centuries ago soldiers in Europe and the Eastern countries wore quilted armor; when armor plate was invented, the quilted garments were worn underneath it for comfort and warmth -- patchwork quilting is very American. "The settlers had to make due with whatever they had on hand," Lehto notes. "It could be a long time between supply ships."
Now the art has become a little more sophisticated, with a very real rivalry between competing quilting groups, such as the National Quilting Association headquartered in Montgomery County and a local quilting group located in Fairfax.
But quilters can also work together in harmony when a project calls for it, she says. During the bicentennial, town officials decided that a quilt depicting all of Occoquan's historical places should be created. The project earned the cooperation of every woman in town, Lehto says, and took a year to complete. The finished product is on display in the tiny museum at the end of the town's main street.
Sometimes men choose quilting as a pastime because it can be a challenge and is also relaxing. Lehto says men are easier to teach. "They're more precise -- and they aren't talking all the time," she says. "They listen better and pick it up faster because of that."
Bob Lehto, who can sometimes hear the students from the Lehto home above the shop, claims he can always tell when a new class has arrived. "The noise level goes way up," he says. "They get much quieter when they start concentrating on what they're doing." He has learned, he says, much about his wife's craft almost through osmosis. "And I enjoy it. I help her with the business as much as I can."
The shop itself is something of a legend in town, according to the couple. It has, since the 1860s, served as a restaurant, a lumber store, and a hardware and a general store. When the O'Learys owned the lumber store during the 1920s, the story goes, Mrs. O'Leary, who was something of a scold, would sit at a corner counter near the front window and shout at the children who played and roller-skated noisily in front of the shop. Some say that Mrs. O'Leary's cranky face can sometimes still be seen at that window, although the Lehtos have removed the worn oaken counter to the middle of the room.
"I've never seen her," says Millie Lehto. "I guess I'm too busy to worry about it."