Jennifer Rho: Wrapped In A World Of Quilts and Quilting

by | Mar 8, 2022 | ART

I was introduced to Flying Geese and Jennifer Rho a few weeks ago and fell down a rabbit hole of handmade items from in and around Richmond. In our modern technology-obsessed world, it might feel like backward thinking to embrace artisanal crafting, but with the world coming out of a global lockdown a lot of us are searching for something that feels real. With that in mind, the growing appreciation for crafting and making things with your hands just makes sense. We all want something we can hold onto while living in an increasingly virtual world. What do you have to pass down to your loved ones? For people like Jennifer Rho, nothing beats holding something in front of you and feeling the stories woven into it.

Jennifer Rho: I’m one of the founders of Flying Geese. We mainly operate on on Instagram and have a small web shop, but we sell antique and vintage quilts. Through the process of selling the quilts, we’re trying to highlight the beautiful workmanship of the quilters of the past. But more broadly, through that, highlight the invisible work of women, past and present. And not just through quilting, but through all the ways that women do work. With quilts especially, and a lot of textile arts, they were part of the domestic domain. I feel they weren’t as valued or recognized in the way that paintings or other kinds of art have been.

I say we because [Flying Geese] was founded along with a partner who I actually met online during the pandemic. And so we started together, and she was a domestic violence abuse survivor, and she brought to the project a passion to help women in some way through the project. One of the ways that we started doing that is donating a portion of the proceeds of each quilt to an organization, either spearheaded by a woman or where they are helping women in need in some way. Unfortunately, she had to leave the picture for personal reasons, but since that happened, I’ve been donating proceeds to domestic violence shelters in honor of her as well.

R. Anthony Harris: Is that where the passion for quilts come from? “We both love quilts, and maybe we can use that to raise money to help people”?

JR: Yes, we both love vintage and antique items. I met her because I actually was trying to purchase a quilt from her. I think it was through Facebook Marketplace, or maybe Etsy, because she had just opened an Etsy shop. And we just started talking about beautiful the quilt was, and our language was so similar in the way we were talking what we love! And it was like this love affair just blossomed, because we started talking about the quilt. And then we said, you know, here’s my Instagram, and then we exchanged phone numbers. We basically started texting and having phone calls that first week. We constantly went back and forth talking about everything from things we love [to] showing each other little items in our homes and connecting. We initially joked about how fun would be to open a shop together of some kind, and then the more we talked, this idea developed, and we were falling in love with quilts at the same time.

I think part of the reason we got into quilts is because I was actually selling some vintage items on the side, as she was. And we started seeing there was a demand for quilts. So we’d see a beautiful quilt, buy it and restore it if needed, then sell it. We started noticing how beautiful they were, and during the time when we were connecting, we were also actively searching for and buying quilts. So it was this kind of tangled thing that happened.

I guess the love affair with quilts started it, but what’s been interesting is in the process. I realized that my grandmother made quilts, and I have a couple of her pieces. I never really appreciated them in the way that I do now, but a lot of the direction that I find myself going, I think, is very informed by the way she was.

She came to the states in 1968 at 52 and lived to be 103. She started a woman’s chapter in the Korean division of the YWCA Queens and was always someone who was out in the community working and helping women. Also, she was a prolific artist. And so, strangely, I’m seeing those connections. So this didn’t just come out of nowhere! But in terms of my particular interest curating quilts and buying them, learning about them — that’s relatively recent.

RAH: And that was as the pandemic was hitting?

JR: Yes, exactly. I think the first fall of the pandemic, I believe.

RAH: After the initial panic…

JR: Yeah, as it started to die down as we were going into that first school year. I’m a teacher by training, and I have taught second graders for five years. It was the last thing I did. I had decided to stay home that fall with my three boys. But if I’m gonna buy anything for myself, I need to make the money, so I started selling vintage items. I did a little bit here and there for fun. And then I met my co-founder a couple months later.

RAH: That’s amazing. So this project probably would not have happened without the pandemic, because you never would have had the time.

JR: Exactly.

jennifer rho flying geese by kimberly frost
photo by Kimberly Frost

RAH: You support a number of nonprofits to help survivors of violence. You said your partner has been a victim of violence, but why is that important to you? Have you been a witness to that?

JR: No, I have not, but I definitely have very close friends who have been victims and survivors, and [seen] the profound impact that’s had on them. When we started on this project, we talked about how you’d want to price these quilts, and it was just an impossible question. Because on the one hand, we want each quilt to be like, $10,000, because of the amount of time that has gone into each quilt and the artistry in many of the cases. They really aren’t just beautiful works of art. But we would see people selling them for like… $75, $125, and it just seemed ludicrous to us.

RAH: Because each one’s a unique piece…

JR: Exactly. So it’s a work of art. And also, just the sheer amount of time. I mean, hundreds and hundreds of hours that go into a single quilt. So the initial thought was, we just want to price them as high as possible. But there was a question of the fact that there’s the market, like what people are selling them for.

Then I had a couple of interesting conversations where I straight-out asked someone about a quilt that she had personally made, and [was] selling them for about $100 apiece. I just said, considering the amount of work that has gone into this, do you ever consider that these should be sold for so much more? She said, I love quilting and I actually have so many quilts, that in order for me to make more quilts, I need to be able to re-home some of the ones I have. She also said, “I want people to be able to have these who want them, but may not be able to afford them if these were thousands of dollars.”

So that is a reminder that a lot of times when quilts are made, they were made with a very charitable, giving intention. Sometimes, you know, women at church would come together and make a quilt for a fundraiser for the church. Or they would make a quilt for someone who was ill, or something. So there’s that piece to it.

I asked another quilt seller, “How could you possibly sell the quilts for so little?” She said being a single mom, she loved clothes, but couldn’t afford the clothes that were out there. And when she finally found someone who was selling them for less, she was just so grateful. And so she sells them for just enough of a profit for to be able to make do.

So for me, I feel like I do want to value them, but also to acknowledge in a way that I understand there’s such as a sense of giving and charity behind a lot of quilt making. And so, to the extent possible, giving a portion of the proceeds to charities or organizations that help women. And then, kind of scattered in between, I’ll try to do fundraisers or raffles that are to boost the amount of giving.

RAH: I’ve never thought about it, but now that you mention it, there definitely seems to be a direct correlation between what a quilt does physically for a person, keeping them warm and safe, and with helping women, in a direct way, that have survived tough situations. I had never really put that together, but that really makes a lot of sense.

JR: My original partner, having spent some time in a women’s shelter, hoped that one day we could have a project where people can buy a quilt and have it sent to a woman at a shelter.

RAH: That’s an exciting and worthwhile goal. Is there a quilting scene in Richmond?

JR: You might know more than I do. Actually, it’s funny — during the pandemic, we tried to reach out to local guilds here, I sent out a couple emails, and actually didn’t get responses. I don’t know if they were just inactive because of COVID or not. I know that there are, within the area, people who are selling quilts, and definitely quilters. So I would welcome those connections in the next phase.

RAH: Do you make any quilts yourself?

JR: I do not. So the funny thing is, I love art.

RAH: You have an art appreciation.

JR: I do like making art and even considered going to art school, but there are specific types of media I’m drawn to, and others that I’m not. I like free drawing, but quilting is so laborious, and so precise. When we were fooling around with making a logo, I felt like watercoloring sheets of paper to imitate old fabric, then cut them. I decided I was going to make one block a collage with watercolored pieces of paper, but to fit together a pattern so that it fits and the corners match. On top of that, take all the colors you have and make a pleasing design. I mean, that gave me such an appreciation for quilting, just trying to do it out of paper. So I don’t know that I have the patience to quilt, but I truly appreciate it.

RAH: You know enough about it to appreciate it.

JR: And I continue to learn more about that.

RAH: How are quilts and handmade objects still relevant in a technological world? Is that too big of a question?

JR: No, I’m gonna think though this. It’s big answer on the spot. I could write you an answer. Let me think.

jennifer rho flying geese by kimberly frost
photo by Kimberly Frost

RAH: Because, people look at quilts, and that’s such an old-timey thing. They’re thinking, “I can just go to Target and buy a blanket.”

JR: I have a million answers to that question, so just cut me off.

First of all, during the pandemic what I noticed — and I’m sure you did too — is that people started doing more things with their hands, starting experimenting with things like canning, baking, cooking, and sewing. At least in the community that I’m seeing on Instagram, people were wanting to learn how to quilt, or wanting to just do more things with their hands. That might not be exactly relevant to your question.

As far as this world of technology and everything, especially having children, I see all the more the need to have ways where you are using your hands to learn. Because I think there’s a type of learning and brain growth that happens when you’re actually working with your hands and making something. I recently had a customer share a very sad story. Her sister-in-law lost her baby at the age of a month, and that [as] part of processing grief, she’s been able to make things with her hands, [which] has helped her tremendously.

And then with my children, of course, they spend so much time online now. But their brain needs that piece where they’re working with their hands. You can create a beautiful Minecraft world in an hour, but slowing down, there’s a greater appreciation; seeing that first block of a quilt [that] took hours to make.

So to me, I feel like there’s a craving for that experience, especially as we move into such a fast-paced technologically powered world. I have a lot to say about that. I would say a lot about that as a teacher as well, but I am not going to go there. [Laughs]

RAH: I just brought that up because you being able to hold your grandmother’s quilt, and how much in that quilt is part of her life, and for that to be passed down, how important that is. I think it’s a real heirloom.

JR: Totally, that’s so true. I mean, it’s a physical thing that can be passed down. A friend who was getting interested in quilts and wanted to buy a quilt was saying that she didn’t have any hand-me-downs from her grandmother, or anything like that. So in a way, she wanted a piece made by someone, probably for someone else, but had been sort of lost. And the idea that she would re-home it and cherish [it], that was also very special to her.

RAH: What are you looking forward to in 2022? Because it seems like you’re gaining some momentum, and it feels like you’re enthusiastic about continuing to do this. So what happens next?

JR: I really am craving real human connection. And so, being able to connect with others who are doing this kind of work, or have this kind of appreciation or study, personally, would be a great thing.

And then, as far as a specific way Flying Geese works, what’s in the collections. To me, that part is exciting, too. Because now that I’ve been doing it a little bit of time — it is our one year anniversary on March 1, so still a very short time — I’ve started to meet people, meet dealers, have a greater exposure to a greater number and variety of quilts themselves, and therefore keep learning more. I’m excited to have more and more interesting collections, coming up. Getting my hands on really interesting historic pieces, and then also being able to offer that.

Lastly, let’s just say the next one hope and dream I have, and I don’t know if it’ll be a 2022 thing right now, is that there could be a greater platform for fundraising. Just expanding that platform for fundraising.

RAH: And then helping more people. I like that you are someone that appreciates the work, appreciates the artist, then tries to help people in need, and do that in a gentle way. It is really nice.

JR: Thank you!

Well, there was one thought that my 12-year-old son had, and you’ve captured it. He said, “You know, if this thing keeps going well, if you made like, $75,000 a year, then you can donate 50% of the proceeds, and still be able to have whatever you need.” And I was so touched by that, because it’s just this perfect childlike thing to say. And I was like, exactly.

RAH: Aww. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

JR: No problem. Thank you!

Follow Jennifer Rho’s Flying Geese HERE

Photos by Kimberly Frost

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work:

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