poster by Dan Rickards
Quilting in the 20th century has touched many lives in profoundly different ways. Some quilters have even gone on to create a business out of their passion that has enabled them to support themselves and even their children. A few have even put those children through college! But the one thing quilters all seem to have in common is our love of color and the feel of the fabric beneath our fingers.
In a previous article I shared with you the success Ruby McKim experienced with her quilt pattern business in the first half of the 20th century and touched briefly on Marie Webster’s quilt business success as well. These successes are only some of the contributions both women made to the quilt world that earned them induction into The Quilters Hall of Fame.
Jean Wells Keenan of Sisters, Oregon fits right in with these two earlier multi-talented female entrepreneurs. Some call such businesses “cottage industries”. However, Keenan took her talents as a teacher, designer, author and quilt shop owner to another level all together.
Interest in the various needlearts tend to wax and wane with every generation. The fluctuating interest in quilting in the 20th century is no exception. Although much had previously been written about weaving and embroidery and even lace-making, it wasn’t until the publication of Marie Webster’s book “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them” that anyone had attempted to write a book solely dedicated to the history of the quilt.
Webster’s designs, which began to appear in 1911 in The Ladies’ Home Journal, and her 1915 book set-off a new national interest in quilts. Marie’s story* is a fascinating one, especially in light of all the quilt-related businesswomen that would come after her.
As the U.S.A. approached its bicentennial in 1976, the emergence of women’s history as a separate field worthy of serious academic study is now a well-documented fact. The proliferation of serious quilt history followed shortly thereafter. The founding of the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) in 1980 by Sally Garoutte of Mill Valley, CA specifically helped set high academic standards for this newly emerging field.
The concept of needlework “cottage industries” touches upon this article's subject. However, Jean Wells Keenan—a renowned quilter and teacher—would take the concept of "cottage quilt industry" one giant step further in the late 20th century.
Cottage needlework industries were certainly not unheard of in the first quarter of the 20th century, but not all of them impacted the direction of quilt design to the degree that both Marie Webster and Ruby McKim did. An excellent paper by quilt historian Cuesta Benberry (1922-2007), “Quilt Cottage Industries: A Chronicle,” established groundbreaking research on this subject. You can find Benberry’s article in the 1994 hardback book, Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths, published by AQSG. Amazon.com carries used copies.
Both Webster and McKim were forerunners of an explosion of similar quilt-related businesses that emerged during the late 20th century quilt revival. One only has to track the ads in the popular needlework and quilt magazines of the time to see these phenomena emerge. The Internet and other new technology only added to women’s ability as well as opportunity to create and work from home at something they loved.
The life and career of the newly announced 2010 Quilters Hall of Fame Inductee —Jean Wells Keenan of Sisters, Oregon—is an excellent example of the influence of one of the foremost quilt entrepreneurs of the late 20th century. Keenan came to her ultimate profession within quilting through a serendipitous occurrence in her career as a Home Economics teacher in the Oregon public school system in the 1960s. However, her interest in sewing began far earlier in childhood.
Although no one in the family quilted during the years Keenan was growing up, Keenan was fortunate to have a grandmother who greatly enjoyed sewing and crochet and noticed the budding interest of her two granddaughters in sewing and encouraged them.
Ah, what a difference a grandmother can make in a child’s life. The seeds were thus planted, watered and tilled. What an amazing variety of creativity would one day emerge from such a humble beginning.
Many shifts were occurring in the fiber arts world in the second half of the 20th century that further set the stage for someone like Keenan. Addressing these changes in a 1993 Uncoverings article, Honoree Bets Ramsey wrote: “… between 1950 and 1970 certain artists began to adopt and incorporate various quilting techniques in their work, coinciding with a new awareness of the value of women’s work and an acceptance of fiber as an art medium.”
About this same time educators in the late 1960s began asking, “Why are we pushing only gender-specific Home-Ec and Shop classes? Girls need to learn to use tools and boys need to learn to survive in a kitchen and thread a needle.” It was this particular cultural shift that was the catalyst for setting Keenan’s interest in quiltmaking in motion.
In 1969, in the process of fulfilling her new curriculum requirement to find a project to assign to the boys in her class, Keenan came across some English patchwork in a book. What appealed to her were the geometric shapes. Geometry, numbers, math! What an excellent vehicle for teaching various lessons, not the least of which was accurate cutting and sewing! This was not frou-frou stuff as any quilter knows, as well as any engineer. Accurate measuring, dexterity at intricate assemblage and patience is something that any student can benefit from.
Keenan had the boys make floor cushions but was soon taken with the whole process of putting colorful fabrics together in a variety of new shapes. Having loved sewing and fabric since childhood, this new venue was right down her alley. It didn’t matter that she had never seen quilts made. Patchwork was still sewing and it was done with a colorful variety of fabric and patterns. Piecing is piecing, right?
The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of other events that stirred up new interest in the fiber arts: the first quilting cooperatives; the formation of numerous new quilt guilds across the country following the American Bicentennial and the introduction of quilt conferences, beginning with the creation of the Mill Valley Quilt Authority in California, founded in 1970 by Joyce Gross and Sally Garoutte.
The creation of other major quilt-related organizations followed: the National Quilting Association (1970) in Greenbelt, MD; the launch of Bets Ramsey’s annual Southern Quilt Symposium in conjunction with Hunter Museum (1974) in Chattanooga, TN; and the creation of the Continental Quilting Congress by Hazel Carter in 1978 and her subsequent creation of The Quilters Hall of Fame the following year.
In 1975 Karey Bresenhan, stepped onto this stage just about the same time, creating her first “Quilt Fair” in Houston, Texas, and founding Quilt Market four years later in 1979. “Quilt Fair” would eventually morph into the International Quilt Festival, the largest quilt event in North America. Quilt Market, designed exclusively for quilt shop owners, is arguably the event that gave credence to and created an industry from a cottage craft. As Honoree Donna Wilder wrote me recently, Quilt Market, from the earliest years of the late 20th century quilt revival, "brought together companies and quilt shops, spreading the awareness of quilting and expediting the styling and availability of quilting fabrics and notions, that made it possible for quilt shops to grow and prosper.”
Jean Wells Keenan stepped onto this stage in the mid-70s, her talents and love of teaching now poised to take off in a whole new direction, and take off she did.
A year after moving to Sisters, Oregon, Jean Wells Keenan decided to use money from her teacher’s retirement account to rent space where she could teach quilting as well as sell quilting supplies. That same year she also launched the first Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show. This was 1975, an auspicious year when you consider it in the context of the events listed above.
Just a year or so earlier Keenan had discovered old family quilts her mother had packed away in family cedar chests. What an exciting catalytic discovery that must have been for her as well. Quilts were not uncommon in her family after all!
When Keenan opened The Stitchin’ Post in 1975, could she possibly imagine what lay ahead — an outdoor quilt show that would eventually exhibit some 1200 quilts each year from around the world and would utilize some 3,000 volunteer hours from a cooperative community to pull off? An annual week-long “quilt school” showcasing some 30+ teachers? Twenty-seven books, including the 11 she has co-written with her daughter Valori Wells Kennedy? Perhaps not. But in fact because of those first steps she dared to take, the dream became a reality, enhancing countless lives.
The impact of the growth of the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show on the community of Sisters, Oregon is not difficult to imagine. With the surge in interest in quilting following the U.S. Bicentennial, the Quilt Show grew so large that a non-profit corporation was eventually established to manage the show and related events for the benefit of the Sisters community and school groups, and to educate the public about the art of quilting. This is one of those rare occurrences in quilt history where quilting changed a whole community. This in itself sets Jean Keenan Wells apart from the average quilt shop owner.
This amazing woman’s impact continued to expand year after year. In 1979 she wrote her first book. In 1980, the year after Hazel Carter founded The Quilters Hall of Fame as an adjunct of the Continental Quilters Congress, Keenan added the Quilter’s Affair, a week-long schedule of workshops that coincides with the Quilt Show. Today it attracts close to 1600 participants from all over the world.
Whole families drive to Sisters each year and camp out for the week so that the quilter in the family can attend classes. The estimated numbers for the over-all crowd that is attracted to Sisters each year — some just to see the quilts and to shop — is 15,000-20,000. Keenan further assists the community by hiring local high school students to tote sewing machines and materials to and from classes each day; play jazz during Picnic in the Park; set-up and serve and clean up the Picnic in the Park for 800+ guests; conduct the Around the Block Fiber Art Stroll; plus pick up trash throughout the weekend.
"Paradise Garden" by Jean Wells Keenan
Always one to be deeply involved in community activities, Jean Wells Keenan served on the Sisters School Board from 1975-1978, (chairing the committee 1977-1978), and early on became an active member in the Sisters Area Chamber of Commerce, a relationship she maintains today. In 1984 she became a participant in the Central Oregon Community College Small Business Development Program, and later became an advisor to the Oregon State Board of the Small Business Program, as well as a Board member for the Central Oregon Economic Development Council 1989-1991.
As one letter nominating Keenan to the hall of fame read, “To name all who she has encouraged to develop their full potential would simply be impossible.”
It is quite possible that The Stitchin’ Post is the oldest quilt shop in the U.S. Certainly it’s the oldest quilt shop still in the hands of its original owner. In acknowledgement of her business acume, Keenan was named recipient of the Michael Kile Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1998, the highest award that the quilting business industry gives. She was also the first quilt shop owner to be inducted into the Independent Retailer Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2008 she was one of eight Oregon State University alumni honored in its year-long Centennial Celebration salute.
Keenan is indeed a major player in today’s evolving “quilt world,” with its far-reaching impact on commerce, manufacturing, and related technology. She has also made many contributions to the beauty and aesthetics of this well loved art form and has traveled the world to teach both quilting and the business of successful quilt shop management.
Active for almost three decades as a noted quiltmaker, author, designer, teacher and entrepreneur, Keenan has managed to stay on top of a fast paced and changing retail business in its many complex aspects. At the same time she was consciously looking to the future once again. Kennan diligently prepared the next generation in the person of her daughter Valori Wells Kennedy to carry-on the quilt legacy and responsibilities in the Sisters's community, making Valori her partner in 2005.
Keenan is also a passionate gardener and, like Marie Webster, her gardens greatly inspire and influence her quilt designs.
In writing all of the above, we haven’t even touched upon Keenan’s award winning quilts, some of which you can see here, or her gifts as a designer.
There is so much more to explore about this talented, generous businesswoman and quilter.
Keenan is well deserving indeed of the honor of becoming The Quilters Hall of Fame’s 40th inductee. Mark your calendars for July 15-17, 2010 and come celebrate with her.
Although the Celebration 2010 Registration form for Keenan’s induction won’t be available until April, there are other interesting news items to see on the TQHF website and on the TQHF blog between now and Celebration 2010.
Meanwhile, keep those needles flying and spread the word about how quilts enrich your life as well as the life of our communities!
Karen B. Alexander
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1) The Alliance for American Quilts, Q.S.O.S. Tape No. 71; interview of Jean Wells Keenan by Leah Call, November 3, 2003
2) Bend Bulletin, Bend, Oregon, May 5, 2009; Jean Wells Keenan interview by Kimberly Bowker
3) Bets Ramsey, “Art and Quilts: 1950-1970”, Uncoverings 1993, Laurel Horton, ed. (San Francisco: American Quilt Study Group, 1993) 9-40
4) C&T Publishing: The Stitchin’ Post named an Inspirational Shop
5) Jean Wells Keenan's nomination was organized and spearheaded by Anne Foster of Portland, Oregon. Selected letters from this nomination file were referenced for this article: Rose Horton, Kathy Pazera, Kathie Olson, Donna Wilder, Karen Bresenhan, and Alex Anderson. All letters of nomination are on file at The Quilters Hall of Fame.
6) See Oregon State University Synergies, Nov 1, 2008
*Marie Webster’s granddaughter, Rosalind Webster Perry, republished this seminal work in 1990 but added a comprehensive must-read chapter about Marie’s own life and business. “Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them” is available through the TQHF Museum Shop.
PS: You can read more of my quilt research by clicking here.