Piecing Together the Past of Virginia Snow Studios

Susan Wildemuth, Atkinson, IL

photo Western Thread Company

“From its infancy as Western Thread Company at the turn of the century to the First World War years spent as Collingbourne Mills, Inc., with its Virginia Snow and Grandma Dexter divisions to the Second World War years spent as Dexter Mills, Inc., to the post war years when LeeWards made itself a household name among the baby boomer generation and the subsequent acquisition by Michaels Stores, Inc., which is taking sewing and craft artisans into the new century, these early Elgin, Illinois companies were leading producers of quality threads, sewing supplies and needlework kits for over 90 years, each earning their own place in the history of needle arts in the United States.”

Susan Wildemuth “What Ever Happened to Virginia Snow?” 
QUILTER’S WORLD – April 2003


Virginia Snow Studio sample pageTIMELINE

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.

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  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.

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 their doors or sell to another company.

Late 1940s The firm was then purchased by Rudy Petzelt of Chicago, Illinois. The company’s name was changed to Dexter Mills, Inc. 

Late 1940s Sidney Fink and Ralph Fried purchased left over inventory from what used to be Collingbourne Mills, Inc..

Late 1940s - 1950s   Fink and Fried created a company which would eventually be called 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.

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

     “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.