D. Frances Ripley

Enterprise file photo — Saranac Hale-Spencer

D. Frances Ripley cards wool at the Altamont Fair in 2011.

ALTAMONT — D. Frances Ripley was a master needle crafter whose work was sought by museums. She freely shared her love and knowledge of spinning and knitting each summer at the Altamont Fair’s Wool Nook.

“She sewed a replica of the original Purple Heart that Martha Washington made, and she sewed drapes with gold thread for the governor’s mansion,” said her cousin, Erin Bradt. Ms. Ripley also sewed bed linens and a bed canopy for the mansion on Peebles Island with fabric woven in Paris, based on the original design, she said.

“She researched the original stitches; it was all hand-sewn,” said Ms. Bradt.

Ms. Ripley died on Tuesday, Oct. 5, in Olean, New York. She was 101 years old.

She was born on June 7, 1920 in a lumber camp in Coeymans, her cousin said.

Ms. Ripley was the last living graduate of the one-room schoolhouse in Dunnsville, Ms. Bradt said. She attended the school with another Altamont icon, the late Everett Rau. They were both 1938 graduates of Altamont High School.

Ms. Ripley worked in a variety of places: at General Electric in Schenectady, in New York City for a time, and at the veterans’ hospital, Ms. Bradt said. Ms. Ripley was a long-time member of Altamont’s Order of the Eastern Star and Order of the Amaranth — both associations affiliated with the Masons.

When she was 91, Ms. Ripley spoke to The Enterprise during Fair Week of her love of the sheep barn, where she plied her crafts in the Wool Nook.

“What a joy this is.  So much life.  So much activity,” she said then.

She had been spinning at the fair since 1979.  She had learned to spin the year before and Bill Shane, who worked in the Masons’ food stand at the fair, suggested that she bring her spinning wheel to the sheep barn. They put a rug on the floor and she sat there, soaking up advice from passing exhibitors, there with their sheep.

She referred to the people in the sheep barn as “the shepherd’s family.”

Ten years ago, Heather Yost drove four hours to Ripley’s then-new home in Olean, New York to bring her to Altamont for Fair Week. “She’s been an icon here for as long as I can remember,” Ms. Yost said at the time.

When she was 4 years old, Ms. Ripley said, her grandmother taught her to knit. Since then, she has taken up embroidery, tatting, and hooking, among other fabric crafts.

In the late 1970s, someone gave her a Maltese dog named Angie. She couldn’t bear to throw away its fur, so she decided to learn to spin. She picked up a bag of fleece from the sheep barn at the fair and learned to spin using sheep’s wool.

The yarn from Angie’s hair doesn’t feel much different from the merino wool with which people often knit, Ms. Ripley said, producing an intricately knit lace shawl as an example.

It’s also not the only dog hair that she spun. Several years ago, a nun came to the fair carrying a sandwich bag full of hair, hoping to find out if it could be spun into yarn. Every day when she brushed her golden retriever, the nun would save the hair and Ms. Ripley spun it into yarn for her. The nun was able to make an afghan and a sweater out of it, Ms. Ripley said.

“What I’m doing at the moment is usually my favorite,” she said of which task she favors.

Ms. Ripley spent 30 years in an embroidery guild and did historic reproductions for Peebles Island, Johnson Hall, Olana, and the Mills mansion. When the antique textiles kept at the historic sites start to disintegrate, their caretakers employ reproduction sewers like Ms. Ripley. They don’t sew something like the old piece; they reproduce, stitch for stitch, exactly the same piece.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to daydream,” Ms. Ripley said of doing the work. She’d wonder what the people who made the originals had been thinking as they sewed — did they do it for a job, did they do it for posterity, did they hate the work?

“You invent all kinds of scenarios,” Ms. Ripley said.

When she went blind, she gave up embroidery. Ms. Ripley, though, still continued to spin and knit, but not with commercial yarn. “You get spoiled really fast,” she said a decade ago as she motioned to a bag full of Border Leicester sheep fleece with a blue ribbon draped on top.

This week, Ms. Bradt described Ms. Ripley as “Extremely intelligent, very knowledgeable, very well-spoken.”

She went on to name a long list of adjectives that described her cousin: sweet, generous, loving, curious.

“She always wanted to know how you were and what was going on in your life,” said Ms. Bradt. “I guess you’d best describe her as caring.”


A graveside service on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 1 p.m. at the Fairview Cemetery in Altamont.

Memorial messages may be left at www.altamontenterprise.com/milestones.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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  • ALTAMONT — D. Frances Ripley was a master needle crafter whose work was sought by museums. She freely shared her love and knowledge of spinning and knitting each summer at the Altamont Fair’s Wool Nook.

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