“Framing Your Memories Since 1981” is the motto for Jan Bertwell’s custom frame shop, Finishing Touches in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Framing memories is also what she’s been doing in her own life since her husband of 37 years died suddenly about four years ago. She has re-invented her life, found strength in needlework and weaving threads, and with great hesitation, has developed the business that she and Steve began together as partners. They worked together day after day, and now, with her son Evan by her side, and memories of Steve never far away, she is thriving in the Wakefield community.
Jan and Steve met when they were teenagers and lived in the same Warwick, R.I. neighborhood. They started dating and went on to college with Jan pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics with a focus on textiles and clothing from University of Rhode Island, and Steve attending the Community College of Rhode Island for tool design. In 1972 the teenaged sweethearts got married. In 1980 they built a home in Richmond, preparing to settle down for a lifetime of love.
Jan was doing needlework finishing work while still in college and people brought her their needlework projects, which she turned into pillows and other household accessory items that featured their beautiful needlework. Often, people wanted their handiwork framed.
In 1981 the couple began working full time together in their home based business. Jan did needlework finishing and Steve did framing. At the time, she remembers, there were many needlework stores in the area, and they had small displays in the different stores advertising their services. They took orders and did the work at home. When their business took off, they had to expand from their house to the garage.
“We grew as much as we could with the space we had,” says Jan. In 1989 they moved into rented commercial space in Richmond, even though they were still doing mostly wholesale work. “Early in the 90s, with the downturn in the economy, many of our wholesale accounts closed, and we found our retail business growing. In 2007 Steve and I realized it would be smart to look for another location but our plan hadn’t really crystallized yet. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 2009 after playing a round of golf with friends. He was 58.”
People marveled at how well they lived and worked together. Some might think that few relationships could withstand that kind of togetherness. But it was never an issue for Jan and Steve. His family was really important to him.
“We had our moments but we really enjoyed each other’s company,” says Jan. “Even on our day off, we would hang out together. He was really outgoing. And he cared a lot about people and they really liked him. Steve had a great sense of humor. To lose him was a great shock. One minute you are thinking in terms of what to make for dinner and then you are at South County Hospital. It was a big shock.”
Their sons Evan and Dan had grown up in the business and their father had taught them well. Evan had worked full time with them for years before moving to Florida for seven years. When his father passed away, he packed up and came home. Jan had no plans to continue the framing business. She was ready to pack up herself, and just do needlework finishing out of her home. But with Evan’s arrival and his conviction that they shouldn’t give up that part of their business his father had built, they pushed on in their Richmond location.
“It was as smooth a transition as it could be,” says Jan, but she couldn’t help but feel a little bit guilty with every change they made. In some ways, their businesses were very separate, with Steve doing everything involved with the framing end of it while Jan had complete control of the needlework finishing. With Steve gone, they learned there was a lot they didn’t know and had to figure out. Changes and growth had to happen. It was inevitable. They found a lot of support from suppliers as they worked to learn about pricing, ordering and a plethora of other details that Steve knew, but had not written down. He was a pencil and paper guy and had been reluctant, despite prodding, to enter into the digital age. With Evan’s encouragement, Jan purchased new equipment and upgraded technology to make their services top notch. So much was happening at once, and with each change, Jan felt a twinge of guilt and longing for her partner. In 2012 Finishing Touches moved to their Main Street, Wakefield location for greater visibility, and most of their customers followed.
Business is running smoothly now and Jan makes time to reach beyond her pain, and give back to the community that has been so supportive of her. She has been active in helping promote the HopArts Studio Trail, an open studio event for artists in and around Hopkinton and Richmond. In November of last year, she did a presentation (similar to a Ted Talk) about organ transplants for Ignite Southern Rhode Island, a program of the South Kingstown Chamber of Commerce.
“I like to do what I can, donate where I can,” says Jan. “When Steve died he had organs that were useable. The New England Organ Bank offered me support and let me know how other people had been helped by Steve. Seven months after he was gone, I learned that two people were given the gift of sight from his corneas. They were blind and now they can see. I wanted to increase awareness about organ donations.”
Jan has also belonged to the Moonlight Weavers Guild since 2001. They are a group of weavers who meet monthly at different member’s homes and occasionally at the University of Rhode Island campus. She loved the process but hadn’t been very active with weaving, despite her husband’s encouragement.
“Steve was really supportive. He loved everything I did. He’d wait up for me to come back all excited from weaving. He said, as long as I enjoy it, that’s the important thing.”
Jan hand dyes fibers that are later woven on a loom. With encouragement and guidance from celebrated weavers Jan Doyle and Grace Farrell, of the Octagon Fiber and Fiction Center in Carolina, she picked up weaving again after Steve passed away.
“After I returned to the loom, it was nice. Though I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of missing him now and again,” says Jan, “You really do have to concentrate. There is no room for other thoughts. I like the meditative nature of weaving. It keeps me in the moment. And if done correctly it’s beautiful and you can watch the progress of it. I have mixed feelings about it but I’m glad I started up again. I do things now and I realize I am so far from the life I had.”
Finishing Touches is located at 311A Main Street, Wakefield, RI. Contact them at www.finishingtouchesri.com or call (401)284-3700.