Sisterhood of sewing
Quilting in Canfield women’s genes
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of a series of Saturday profiles of area residents and their stories. To suggest a profile, contact features editor Burton Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or metro editor Marly Reichert at email@example.com
CANFIELD — The sewing gene may have skipped a generation in the Manchester family, but it is firmly planted in sisters Clare Neff and Betty Aberson, who own Village Quilts on Main Street in the center of the city’s downtown.
The sisters talked about opening their own shop for years, but living in different areas of the country made that dream difficult. After pursuing other careers, the sisters found themselves both back in Canfield as the seventh generation of Manchesters to call the city home.
“It’s in our blood,” Neff, 66, said, referring to quilting and sewing.
She is a 1973 graduate of Canfield High School. Aberson, 62, graduated in 1978. They are the daughters of Betty and Albert Doyle, and also have a brother, Charles “Chuck” Doyle, who is 64 and lives in Stow.
Neff said her great-grandmother, Eleanor Manchester Tate, quilted professionally to make extra money because she and her husband, a traveling salesman, had seven children. The quilts were made from clothing and grocery sack scraps. Neff explained that food sack manufacturers, who normally only made white sacks, started making their sacks with colors and patterns when they realized women were using them to make clothes in the late 1920s.
“I had a quilt she made for 20 years before I found where she knitted the year 1938 into it,” Neff said.
That means her own mother was 18 at the time and the family had just come out of the Great Depression. Her grandparents owned Manchester Hardware, which is now the parking lot for Farmers National Bank, almost right next door to Village Quilts.
The shop is a Civil War era brick house built in 1861 that formerly was owned by Ralph Fowler, who owned and operated the Mahoning Dispatch newspaper. It was updated before Neff and Aberson bought it 15 years ago. They opened the shop on St. Patrick’s Day in 2012.
“We thought that would bring us luck,” Neff said.
She said when she and her sisters lived in different parts of the country, they would get together and visit quilt shops and work on sewing projects.
“Our mother had no interest in sewing. Our great-grandmother passed the tradition on to our grandmother, Thalia Van Arsdale, and she tried teaching us, but at 13, I had no interest either, and my sister was kind of young,” Neff said.
However, a hand-sewn pink quilt with hand-sewn applique snowflakes made by their grandmother that adorned Neff’s bed as she grew up sparked her interest and she took quilting classes at the Knitting Corner in Canfield when she was 25.
“I took one class and I was hooked. I worked there nights and weekends so I could afford to buy fabric,” Neff said.
However, Neff is more than just a quilter. She became the first female news photographer in Ohio when she landed a job at WKBN-TV in 1976.
“I made the transition from 16-millimeter film to videotape,” she said, noting she worked there until 1982.
She then worked for a video production company, where she produced training videos for the Coast Guard and Navy. She then landed a job in the video department at Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando.
“I traveled quite a bit with that job. In fact, my older daughter and I did a tour of Europe while I was traveling for work,” Neff said.
They moved back to Canfield in 1998, had a baby and she went back to her former job at Image Producers.
“My husband and I always said we’d come back here if a family home became available. And one did,” Neff said.
The home, which is about five houses west of the shop on the opposite side of the street, was owned by Henry and Isabel Manchester, who were her grandmother’s cousins.
Her father became ill and it was difficult to work a 9 to 5 job, so she started her own production company, Multi-Media Farms, which did commercials for local businesses, including First Place Bank. Eventually, as technology changed, she and her husband, Bruce, migrated the company toward LED screens and they have done work across the country.
“That is my corporate job. This (the shop) is my sanctuary,” Neff said. “Quilters are the nicest people and I am surrounded by pretty patterns and beautiful fabric all the time.”
The couple has two daughters, Shaye Cahill and Helen Neff, who both live on Youngstown’s North Side. She and Bruce, who formerly owned Neff Plumbing, met when they were volunteer firefighters for the Canfield Fire Department in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Aberson went to Bowling Green State University for one year after high school, and to eliminate student loan debt, she joined the U.S. Coast Guard and became the first female fire control technician. While on the ship, she aimed the guns and while on land, she was in the military police in San Diego. She was in the Coast Guard for four years, where she helped to write training manuals.
After leaving the service, she got married to Nick in 1985 and worked at WKBN Radio as an overnight engineer, including a stint working for the Ron Verb show. Her husband’s job for a copier company led them to move every three years until he landed a job in Pittsburgh.
Aberson commuted from Beaver Falls to work for Neff’s production company, which is now known as LED3. Nick is now retired and they have three children, Thomas of Pittsburgh, and Katie and Jack, both of Canfield. Katie also works at Village Quilts, taking care of the online side of the business.
Neff said she and Aberson do some quilts by hand, but for others they use a machine, depending on the timeframe of when it needs done. The shop does not sell completed quilts, but sells samples made by students in their class, which they have taught since opening the shop.
The store was closed for two months last spring during the early days of the pandemic, so the sisters beefed up their online presence and ramped up their local pickup service. It now operates under limited hours at 17 W. Main St., Canfield.