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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Piecing Together the Past of
Virginia Snow Studios – Elgin, Illinois
by Susan Wildemuth

Kane County has a rich textile history which began in the early 20th century when the Western Thread Company, a job dyer for myriad general textiles mills, relocated to Elgin, Illinois and opened its doors for business.

Seeing the potential of this company, which could produce yarn of the same color quality of overseas brands, Albert B. Collingbourne left his job at Richardson Silk Company and joined the firm. It wasn’t long before he acquired a controlling interest in the company and the name was changed to Collingbourne Mills, Inc.

The name Virginia Snow first began appearing in connection with the mill around 1913, but it wasn’t until 1926 when Mr. Collingbourne decided to a build separate factory next to the main plant. Known as Virginia Snow Studios, this modern needlework plant was created to increase interest and the use of Collingbourne Mills, Inc. products.

(Click on the poster below for an enlarged view. If the poster switches from large to small after you get the new page, place your cursor or pointer over the poster and a small box will appear at the bottom of the poster, which you can click to switch the poster back to the larger size.)

When the Dexter Yarn Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was purchased by Collingbourne Mills, a new line of embroidery and quilt-related needlework products, such as stamped quilt squares, appliqué and pieced quilt patterns, booklets, and quilt patches (small boxes of fabrics), were added to the Virginia Snow Studios line and the name Grandma Dexter was born.

By the late 1930s, the Depression had taken its toll on Collingbourne Mills and some tough choices had to be made. The company was sold and the name changed to Dexter Thread Mills, Inc.

Seeing the potential for a mail-order business and an interest in crafts by the baby boomer generation, Sidney Fink and Ralph Fried purchased Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. and changed the name to LeeWards, a name and a business which would become famous with the quilt, hobby, and needlework crowd throughout the United States.
Dallas-based Michael’s stores bought the LeeWards chain in the 1990s and the North State Street Elgin store was closed and the name LeeWards became a part of textile history.

1902 Western Thread and Dye Works was incorporated with the State of Illinois. This
company was located in the State of Illinois, but not at the Elgin, Illinois location yet.

1908 Western Thread and Dye works name was changed to Western Thread Company.
Exact date it was changed to Western Thread Company is unknown (State of Illinois
recognizes 1908, but does not have the exact amendment month and day on file.)

1910 Western Thread Company – Elgin, Illinois, a thread and yarn manufacturer, opened for business.

1912 A. B. (Albert) Collingbourne was hired by the firm and acquired a controlling interest in the Western Thread Company. At a later date, Western Thread Company would undergo a name change to Collingbourne Mills, Inc., but you do see the names Western Thread Company and Collingbourne Mills (without the Inc.) used interchangeably, but the business’ official name is still Western Thread Company

1913 “Virginia Snow Studios” first began appearing on Collingbourne Mill’s embroidery, crocheting, and knitting instruction books around 1913. The name continued to be used until the late 1930s.

1917 Collingbourne Mills, Inc., employed over 700 hundred people on two shifts. A record “four spools a second, 240 spools a minute, 120,000 spools a day, 720,000 spools a week, and 40,000,000 a year” was the estimated rate at which the company turned out thread during the First World War and successful post-war years. Collingbourne Mills, Inc., was one of the largest independent manufacturers of a mercerized cotton thread for general sewing purposes called “Byssine.”

1924 Western Thread Company’s name was officially changed to Collingbourne Mills, Inc. on March 17, 1924 when they filed incorporation with the State of Illinois

1924 Albert Collingbourne purchased the plant and business of one of the oldest manufacturers of pure silk thread in the United States, the Berkshire and Becket Silk Company, located in Becket, Massachusetts.

1926 Virginia Snow Studios was built adjacent to the main plant and operated as a modern needlework plant. As a marketing strategy to stimulate demand for their different lines of thread, Virginia Snow Studios began producing stamped embroidery patterns and kits.

1926 – 1928 The 1927-1928 Elgin City Directory lists a George H. Brown – Commercial Artist – Lithographer as an employee of Virginia Snow Studios. It also lists a Miss Edith Miller and Miss Gertrude Watson as employees.

1927 The name “Grandma Dexter” came into use in the Collingbourne line after The Dexter Yarn Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was purchased by Collingbourne Mills, Inc., in 1927.

1936 Hoping to add to their line, Collingbourne Mills purchased Boag Studios of Chicago, Illinois, who manufactured ribbon, needlework novelties and pillow tops.

Late 1930s The Depression took a toll on Collingbourne Mills, leaving the company with no other choice but to close. The “approximate” year the company went out of business is 1938.

Late 1930s – Early 1940s - The firm was then purchased by Rudy Petzelt of Chicago, Illinois

1943 The company’s name was officially changed to Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. and became incorporated with the State of Illinois on April 8, 1943.

Mid 1940s - Early 1950s Dexter Thread Mills, Inc. was then sold to Sidney Fink and Ralph Fried.

1950 Under Fink and Fried’s leadership, Dexter Thread Mills, Inc., would undergo a name change to LeeWards. The first LeeWards catalog was mailed to 25,000 households in the fall of 1950. Steadily increasing orders, which came to include a variety of hobby merchandise, led them to open a factory outlet store. LeeWards became a household name in the needlework and craft industry.

1969 At the time LeeWards was purchased by General Mills, the company consisted of a mail-order operation, retail store and about 350 employees during their busy season.

1985 LeeWards was purchased by Munford, Inc., in August, 1985.

1994 LeeWards’ main competition in the retail craft arena, Dallas-based Michaels Stores, Inc., bought the LeeWards chain in the summer of 1994. The North State Street store in Chicago was closed. At the time it was purchased, LeeWards had over 2,500 employees and 100 retail specialty craft stores nationwide.


Alft, E.C. Elgin: An American History. Elgin, Illinois: Crossroads Communication, 1984 D. Ray Wilson Publisher, 2000.

Alft, E.C. “LeeWards Sews Up Business Over 74 Years.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 28 Oct. 1984.

Alft, E.C. “Old Houses Have Stories to Tell.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 26 July 1998.

“Dexter Thread Mills to Open Retail Store.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 8 Sept. 1952.

Elgin - Past and Present, 1927.

Durcholz, Robert – State of Illinois – Business Services – Personal Interview through Correspondence 24 April 2006.

“Elgin’s Yesterdays.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 7 Feb. 1936.

“EVANS’ ELGIN, ILLINOIS CITY DIRECTORY 1927-1928.” Elgin: W.W. Evans. 1927-1928.

“Four Spools of Thread Turned Out Each Second at Collingbourne Mills.” Elgin Daily Courier News 21 June 1926.

“LeeWards History has Long Threads.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 27 March 1988.

Petersen, Nick, “LeeWards’ Merging into Michaels Nearly Complete.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 28 Sept. 1994.

“Thread Makers Show Increase.” Elgin Daily Courier-News 15 June 1935.

Wildemuth, Susan. “What Ever Happened to Virginia Snow?” QUILTER’S WORLD April 2003: 12-16.

Susan Wildemuth is a writer, quilt history researcher, quilt maker, and amateur genealogist who lives on an Illinois grain farm. With Catherine Noll Litwinow and Marilyn Woodin, she is one of the founders of the Iowa-Illinois Quilt Study Group, an educational auxiliary of the Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum in Kalona, Iowa. Her writing and photographs have been featured in QUILTER’S WORLD (QUILT WORLD), QUILT, COUNTRY QUILT, QUICK AND EASY QUILTING, ANTIQUE QUILTS, and PIECEWORK, and numerous non-quilting publications. She is a member of the Iowa-Illinois Quilt Study Group (IIQSG), the American Quilt Study Group, and the Quilters Hall of Fame.

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© 2006 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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