She floated through the air, with the greatest of ease.
That was Claranna Roberts on the flying trapeze.
For 14 years, the Franklin resident soared over audiences as a trapeze aerialist. She mastered the grabs, the flips and the acrobatics required to make circus crowds “ooh” and “ahh.”
When she wasn’t in the air, Roberts helped design costumes, cook for the performers and orchestrate a pony show.
Roberts and her husband, Tim, have transitioned from the big top to a slightly smaller venue. After traveling the world with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, they have slowed down and now own a quilting shop in Trafalgar.
Lions, tigers and elephants have been exchanged for block patterns and hourglass quilts.
“I still miss it to this day, even though it’s been over a decade that I’ve been out,” she said. “But there’s a lot of opportunity here to bring color and fun and textiles into a useful art form.”
In some ways, the Robertses’ new adventure is a lot like the circus.
About Coffee Cup Quilting
What: A shop catering to quilters of all kinds, with classes, work sessions and hundreds of colorful fabrics.
Where: 7 Trafalgar Square, Unit A, Trafalgar
Owners: Claranna and Tim Roberts
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Classes: Conducted every Saturday; cost is $5.
Eye-catching colors, from radiant pinks to shimmering greens to deep blues, are arranged by the yard on racks along a whole wall in Coffee Cup Quilting. Paisley, calico and razzle-dazzle would fit in perfectly with the joyous outfit of the clowns.
But owning a quilting shop has allowed Claranna Roberts to be creative in a different way than her previous jobs.
“You can use it as a splash of color on the back of the couch, you can put it on the table,” she said. “It’s a useful art form that anybody can do.”
Claranna Roberts came to the circus for the same reason most people get into a line of work — she needed a job.
Living in Asheville, N.C., she had graduated from college but had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She was working as a bookkeeper, a job that she hated.
She was shuffling down the street one day, staring at her feet and floundering emotionally.
‘I thought it was perfect’
At that exact moment, someone yelled her name. A friend from college had walked up next to her. He explained that he was working as a clown for the circus, which had just come to town.
The friend recruited Claranna Roberts to check out being a clown at that night’s performance.
“I saw the circus, and I thought it was perfect. I did not grow up with the circus as entertainment. It had animals, performers, touring, a steady job,” she said. “Why didn’t I think of this before?”
Her parents were skeptical at first, seriously questioning why she went to college only to run away with the circus.
Still, it fit into the studies that Claranna Roberts had focused on in school.
She graduated from Jacksonville University with a degree in theater, with a focus in costuming. She had learned how to sew as a girl in Ohio, when her mother dumped a box of fabric scraps next to her and let her go to work.
That love stuck with her throughout her life.
While working for Ringling Brothers Circus, she was heavily involved in outfitting the performers with spangly, sparkling, eye-catching clothing.
“I could use my degree to be a performer and use my degree to be a costumer,” she said.
During her time in the circus, Claranna Roberts did a little of everything.
From the circus’ perspective, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey scouts out the best performers from all over the world, including aerialists.
“It’s a process. Circus has been around for centuries, so it is a traditional live entertainment art form,” said Vinicio Murillo, director of talent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. “In general, we’re always looking for novelties and novel ways of presenting traditional circus acrobatics.”
‘It seemed pretty cool’
When the circus needs a new performer for an act, it will often open that up internally for an audition, Murillo said.
While with the circus, Claranna Roberts presented elephants, had a dog act and worked the box office. She did everything from being a school teacher to popping popcorn.
The most high-profile role was as an aerialist, something that the company scouts for all over the world.
“We’re a large production, and we’re always looking for novel talent. A lot of it depends on what we’re looking for,” Murillo said.
The circus is where Claranna Roberts met her future husband. Tim Roberts was an audio engineer charged with managing the sound of the show. His job was to ensure that the audience’s attention was drawn to the right place at the right time.
“I was coming out of college, they were looking for someone to work in their advanced sound system. It seemed pretty cool, so I went to do training with them,” Tim Roberts said.
When the couple decided it was time to settle in one spot, they made a transition that many circus folk go through. They found a house in Las Vegas and went to work.
“There is a lot of circus people there and a lot of support,” she said. “It’s a short jump.”
Claranna Roberts worked as a costumer in Las Vegas, sewing and designing the eye-catching outfits for the hundreds of shows going on throughout the city.
But she was working constantly, three jobs seven days a week. She was burned out.
“We needed to stop, so it was a pendulum swing, from Las Vegas to Missouri,” she said. “It wasn’t then that I was in Missouri for a month that I was ready for the next challenge.”
Moving to Indiana
They lived in Missouri four years before deciding to move to Indiana. Tim Roberts was born and raised near Fort Wayne, and his family is scattered throughout the state.
Because his job requires almost constant travel, he needed to be linked with a major airport. Indianapolis made the most sense, and they found a quiet neighborhood in Franklin to buy a home.
“We wanted to be close to Indy but not right in the city,” Claranna Roberts said.
When she moved to Indiana, Claranna Roberts had hoped to fall in with a regional theater to do regular costume work for. But she found none.
“There’s not the Shakespearean theater that needs Renaissance costumes, so I tried to find what was available to work with,” she said.
What was plentiful were people interested in fabric and textiles. She found that Johnson County was in need of a place where quilters could come and buy their material, learn their craft and interact with other like-minded people.
She decided to open a quilting shop.
Near the entrance of Coffee Cup Quilting, a pot of coffee is always going. A shelf is filled with coffee cups from zoos and attractions from throughout the U.S., from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin.
The collectibles were purchased during her down time between circus performances.
“When I was on tour, my getaway was to go the zoo,” she said.
Helping with inspiration
Coffee Cup Quilting specializes in color, bringing in materials and fabrics of all shades and patterns as opposed to focusing on particular name brands. Hanging on the wall behind the main counter is a patriotic-themed queen-sized quilt that Claranna Roberts plans to raffle in support of the Trafalgar Volunteer Fire Department.
One of her favorite pieces is a quilt that employs 8,500 squares of recycled fabric into a multicolored mosaic.
The bathroom is lined with bits and pieces of finished quilts, a decorating choice that the Robertses thought could provide a spark of inspiration. The aim is to help people create something useful and artistic.
Weekly classes focus on quilting skills such as beginning bargello, binding and a pincushion scrap. On the final weekend of the month, people work on a specific seasonal block that Claranna Roberts has chosen.
During the first weekend of each month, the shop hosts an anything-goes open work session.
Roberts encourages people to bring in whatever projects they are working on — prom dresses, curtains, aprons and quilts of all kinds. She provides pointers and help to those who need it and provides a way for quilters all over the area to share ideas.
“If you’re having a problem with something, bring it in, we have all kinds of people here,” she said. “If no one knows the answer, we can research it and get an answer.”
On occasion, she challenges her customers to do a little “spring cleaning” by bringing in the unfinished projects lying around their sewing room. For an entire day, they can work to finish those pieces that otherwise would languish untouched.
“It’s like any other craft — you always have that one piece in the back that you swear you’ll finish one day,” she said. “This helps quilters get more organized or learn a new skill or just finish the anchor projects holding them back from something new.”
The Robertses will never forget their time in the circus.
Using the skills they learned, they have both moved on to successful careers outside the spotlight. At the same time, their new venture hopefully will connect with people in a different way.
“There are different schools of thought on quilting. I’m not the international-show-art-quilter shop. I just am not,” Claranna Roberts said. “I’m the everyday, sew-something-beautiful-for-a-child quilt shop.”