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Published: Wednesday, 1/17/2007

Female crafters find a home at Florida exchange

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - When a Wildwood, Fla., crafter chose the fabric for a microwave baked-potato bag, she was right on target. The pattern is the University of Florida Gators team logo, bright in orange and blue with several toothy gators in the design.

I didn't purchase anything Gators a week before the game with Ohio State because I am a fan. I bought it because it was a novel item to show a cousin who is an expert seamstress and sells at Florida craft shows. I thought she could make similar things to add to her inventory, which is mostly pet items.

I know you are asking, "what in the world is a microwave baked-potato bag?" I had never seen one either, until I went into the Woman's Exchange on St. George Street, St. Augustine's well known walking street where shops are located in some of the city's oldest buildings and homes.

The potato bag is 8-by-10 inches and is padded. It's like a two-sided pot holder sewn together on three sides, with the fourth side open to slip in the potatoes. It holds up to three white or sweet potatoes for microwaving at seven to eight minutes. The label instructions direct that the potatoes be dry and pricked with a fork, and that they be wrapped in a paper towel. Baking in the cloth bag results in perfectly baked potatoes, so the label says. It was $8.95.

The Woman's Exchange is as unusual as the potato bag. The concept goes back to the 1850s in Pennsylvania and in seacoast towns. Exchanges invited women to participate in the barter system of exchanging merchandise.

Sue Dixon, who manages the St. Augustine exchange, believes that it was common for women whose husbands were at sea for long periods of time to do handiwork to keep busy. At the exchange they could trade handmade lace or other needlework, or barter for another woman's artwork or perhaps for something as necessary as butter and eggs. No money was exchanged.

The talents of women in many forms of artwork continue to be the cogs that keep the exchanges in motion. The potato baking bag is but one of hundreds of products that are sold at the shop. It is said to be the current "hot" item at the store, but tool aprons for children are a close second. Made by a consignee in Hudson, Ohio, the apron pockets hold plastic garden tools and toy carpentry tools. Other merchandise includes jewelry, ceramics, and hand-painted china.

Crafters in all parts of the country who are interested in placing their products on consignment send a sample to the shop, Ms. Dixon said. It is then reviewed by a committee that follows guidelines stressing quality.

Once a product is accepted, the vendor sends a $10 registration fee, the merchandise, and receives 70 percent of sales.

The number of woman's exchanges is decreasing. The only one in Ohio, the Sassy Cat, at Chagrin Falls, recently closed. Massachusetts with five and Pennsylvania with four are the states with the most exchanges.

A bonus of visiting the St. Augustine exchange is that it is located in the Pena-Peck house that is proclaimed to be the finest surviving first Spanish period home in the city.

The Woman's Exchange has operated since 1932 through hard work and long volunteer hours. There are now 75 active members.

It's like Ms. Dixon said: "Believe me, these volunteers don't come here to sip tea and play bridge."



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