AFTON — Neoma Roos Heap Soelberg is a spunky woman with a lot to get done. At 94 years of age she has a number of quilting projects in mind, one quilt on the frames that she is working on for a friend and a plastic tub of fabric squares on her sewing table that sometime in the next year will be transformed into a fabric portrait of Jesus Christ.
“Wherever I go my sewing machine goes with me,” she says with a laugh.
Neoma was born in 1925 in Auburn. She was one of 11 children in the Hyrum and May Roos family.
“Our mother died when I was 5 years old,” she said. “There were five children age five and younger. Our older sisters took care of us. They had to quit school to do that. They were 13 and 15 years old. Can you imagine? They did the cooking and managed the house and did such a good job. It was a sacrifice for them. Dad would sheer sheep and was sometimes gone for a month at a time. But we were never hungry. When he was home it was heaven. He was such a kind man.”
Neoma describes her early years as being part of a loving family that “really fought for each other.”
“We were so close,” she said. “We had to be. We really looked out for each other. That’s just the way it was. We had a good life. We had a peaceful, wonderful home life.”
There were two portraits on the wall in the Roos home, one of their mother and one of their father.
“Dad would say that just because we couldn’t hear our mother didn’t mean she couldn’t hear us,” Neoma said. “So we talked to her. Every morning and night we talked to our mother. As a child it was such a comfort for me to know that I had a mother and that I would see her again. That is such a comfort to a child.”
Family came first in the Roos Household. But art was also important.
“All of us have art of some sort,” Neoma said. “We didn’t have anyone to tell us ‘no, you can’t do that.’ So we just did it and figured it out. Sometimes people will ask me, ‘who taught you?’ We just learned. That’s what we did.”
When Neoma was 13, her father also passed away as well, leaving the Roos family as orphans. Extended family around Star Valley took the children into their homes.
A few years later, Neoma married Lamont Heap and started a family of her own. It was when her first child was on the way that Neoma decided she’s better make a baby quilt. Her sisters helped with the project.
“It took me all winter long,” she said with a laugh. “It was a white quilt with roses on it. And from then on we quilted. We were always making quilts, quilts, quilts. It was tradition. That’s what you did. Women would get together and quilt. It gave you something to do in the winter.”
“We had the Christmas Bazaar each year where we would sell quilts,” she continued. “We made baby quilts and bride quilts. We were always making quilts.”
Lamont and Neoma would go on to have four boys and a girl: Dennis, Lael, Katherine, Blake and Shane. The Heap Family was into horse racing and country living as well as art and quilting.
In 1971, Neoma’s sister approached her about going into business and they opened a fabric business (Sew Lovely Fabrics) and drapery business (Sew Lovely Drapery).
The Sew Lovely Sisters even had a television show that featured different sewing methods and projects.
“That was a lot of fun but also a lot of work,” said Neoma of being in business and being involved with a sewing show on television.
The sewing show ran from 1971 to 1976 in the Flagstaff, Arizona area. The series featured classes on quilting, tailoring, making accessories such as scarves or gloves.
“We had requests come in and would do shows on different things,” Neoma said.
The sewing shop featured a wide variety of products.
“We designed baby quilts and made Kiddie Comforts, that were baby quilts in the shape of animals. We sold patterns all over the world.”
As many Roos sisters as could spare the time and had any interest in the project were recruited to help piece fabric and finish projects.
And all the while, Neoma was searching high and low for the fabrics she needed to create the quilts she imagined. It was becoming harder and harder to find the types of western scenes and images she liked to work with.
Lamont passed away in 1993. And a short time after that Neoma lost one of her sons in a car accident. She describes that time in her life as being “difficult.” For a couple of years Neoma took a break from all things fabric.
And then she recalled an opportunity that had presented itself a few years earlier.
Troy Manufacturing had approached Neoma and her daughter about the possibility of designing western themed fabric. Neoma decided to give it a try.
She and her daughter, Katherine Gardner, would paint western and wildlife fabric designs and images on canvas. The images, scenes and designs were then translated into fabric.
“That is so much work,” she said. “We would paint the different designs and then those images would be sent to Japan where the fabric was printed and then the bolts of fabric were shipped back to the United States.”
The fabric designs were elaborate scenes involving horses or rodeos or wildlife of western patterns.
“We had a big following,” Neoma said.
The different designs were made to be mixed and matched to create quilts and other sewing “craft” projects.
As she was designing fabric, Neoma continued to create quilts for family, friends and community events. She also became involved with humanitarian quilting projects, sending blankets around the globe to people in need.
She found love again, remarried and added a whole new batch of family and friends to her fold.
These days Neoma spends some of the colder months living in Saint George with her sister. Summer months are spent in Star Valley.
Her sewing machine and totes of projects go right along with her.
One of her favorite things is to open a box of fabric samples from her son-in-law, Bob. He works in fabric sales. Every so often a box of samples will find its way to Neoma and when that happens its just like Christmas.
“I can hardly wait to get the box open and see what it inside,” she exclaimed. “It is wonderful. There is every kind of fabric you can imagine in every color and every pattern.”
Neoma sorts through them all and imagines what she can make and figures out how the different pieces can work together to complete a quilt.
“It’s a tradition,” she said. “That is what quilting is.”
When asked how many quilts Neoma has completed in her lifetime she estimates is somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000.
“You almost hate to say it because it is such a big number,” she said. “Some people might say there is no way that’s possible.”
“I’m doing something all the time,” she added. “I think your mind has a lot to do with your health. So I keep busy.”
Which is exactly why Neoma has sorted 800 pieces of one-inch fabric in 26 different colors and has an image of Christ printed on grid paper as a pattern. This winter she will be working to complete it, and hopefully her sister will be able to help.