Jody Hale is the wizard of ribbons

A ribbon wizard takes a bow

December 09, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Jody Hale is in the throes of bow season. The give-away is her fingers: Swollen, from regularly turning ribbons into loops and loops into bows that decorate houses in Baltimore and beyond.

The 38-year-old chief bow maker at Valley View Farms can make a Christmas bow in under two minutes. She's made 30 bows in an evening in front of the television before calling it quits, hundreds of bows in a weekend and, though she can only guess at the number, thousands in a Christmas season.

"It's crazy," she says, "but it's a short season."

Her ribbon buying starts in January. By Thanksgiving weekend, the department is wildly busy. By the first Saturday in December, people are waiting in line when she arrives to work.

"You must be Jody," a customer, Leonard Buchanan, told Hale last weekend when he returned to the store with his wife, Jackie, to buy one of Hale's made-to-order wreaths. "We're impressed by your artistic ability."

After a few hours behind the counter of the artificial-flower department, Hale's cheeks sparkle. So much glitter from ribbons and faux fruit collects on her when she makes bows that she no longer wears shoes. Even in flip-flops, she brings home sparkles; this time of year, her black Labrador retriever boasts glittery nose and paws.

There's a rhythm to her work. The only sound last weekend as she twisted each ribbon and straightened each loop into a bow was the breathing of the crowd that clustered around her.

Entire banisters will be decorated with bows she made on this day. A couple of trees will be topped with her giant bows and flecked with a dozen smaller 4-loop bows. Swags will be dressed, and cemetery stands bedecked.

"It's worth the wait," a customer told Hale after ordering a wreath that won't be ready for three days.

Red and gold bows are hot this year, after being out of favor for a decade. For a while, burgundy and gold was big. Then just gold. The wilder Hale made wreaths in some years, the better they sold. Now, it's poinsettias or white magnolias with some red berries on green wreaths.

"People want traditional," she says.

Sales in her artificial-flower department are up 39 percent since Hale expanded into the store's lunch room and added trees and coordinating mantel garland. Five minutes after she finished a red bow with a white-star border priced at $10.50, a customer snatched it up. She aims to make bows faster than people buy them. In a lull, Hale dashes off a bow of a blue-tinted snowman ribbon, another of red ribbon with white snowflakes, of white ribbon with colorful gingerbread cookies, and of green ribbon with sparkling gold design.

There are 1,000 colors and patterns and sizes of ribbon behind Hale's counter, and she mixes two or three to make a bow more interesting. Her labor is cheap: $1.50 to make a bow of inch-wide ribbon, $2.50 for wider ribbon, and $10 for a tree topper. But ribbon can be pricey. A bow with top-quality ribbon can cost as much as $100.

She'll make up to four bows while people wait. "It'll be 10 minutes," she told a mother and daughter who chose a gold-on-burgundy pattern for their Victorian townhouse.

After 22 years, she doesn't need a ruler to make identical-size bows. Nothing works better than her hands, either. After Hale rejected a wooden bow-maker, the store stopped selling them.

There's no school for bow makers. She worked for her uncles, the owners of Valley View, from age 16 and during breaks from college, where she majored in biology. Her plan to become a doctor fell through when she discovered her artisanal side. She also rehabilitates houses with her fiancee.

"It's not exactly where I thought I'd be right now in my career," she says, "but it's great."

When store traffic is lightest, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., Hale finishes custom bows and wreaths. Two weekends ago, she made 200 red velvet bows for the Hippodrome Theatre. She's made bows for Cal Ripken's house, a bow for a dog house (on a 20-inch wreath) and bows for a beer wreath -- she decorated it with Budweiser cans, peanuts, and red and blue ribbon.

She even makes house calls, though regular customers also bring in photos of the spaces they want her to decorate. Friends ask for bows, as do neighbors in Butchers Hill. The potted pear trees on her block are already strung with Christmas lights, but they are waiting for new bows -- along with the wreath on Hale's front door.

"I redo mine every year," she says, "but it's getting later and later."

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