June 20, 1988 12:00 PM

Julia Spidell was sitting in her living room in Sparta, N.C., cutting out squares of fabric with her friend Pawnee Choate, when the telephone rang on the afternoon of April 21. It was Julia’s friend Martha Womble, owner of the Doll House craft shop. The White House had called, Martha reported excitedly; the U.S. chief of protocol had spotted one of Julia’s quilts on a trip to North Carolina, and Nancy Reagan wanted to take one to Moscow as a state gift for Raisa Gorbachev. It needed to be of exceptional pattern and quality—and, Martha added nervously, it had to be ready in four weeks.

Julia, 67, cupped the receiver. “Will you help me?” she asked Pawnee. Her friend nodded. Says Spidell: “We worked day and night—sometimes all night.” Then they had the pleasure of seeing their crash quilt become the parting gift from the First Lady of the U.S. to the First Lady of the U.S.S.R.

Spidell’s intricate designs have earned her a place in the pantheon of American quilters, yet it is a position she never aspired to. Julia, a teacher, and her husband, Robert, a contractor, retired to North Carolina from Florida in 1976. Soon afterward, Robert was bitten by a tick and went into a coma, suffering brain damage. Looking for work she could do while caring for him at home, she started sewing tote bags at a crafts workshop, and one day brought in a quilt she had sewn for her own four-poster. “I had only made this one, and I’d never known another quilter,” she says. “They sold it immediately, and I was off.” Her quilts now sell for up to $1,200 each, and she sews about five a year. Between quilting and caring for Robert, she doesn’t get out all that much, but she is hardly isolated. “All Julia has to do is pick up the phone if she needs help,” says Pawnee. “Everybody loves her.”

At the Moscow summit’s ceremonial closing dinner, Spidell’s quilt, an eight-foot square of cobweb-stitching appliquéd with coral-pink flowers in green baskets, seemed to strike just the right cheerful note after a week of intermittent sniping between the two First Ladies, not to mention their argumentative husbands. Says Julia: “I’m really awed to be able to express good will and warmth for the peoples of the U.S.S.R. through my work.”

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