Jean Wells Keenan




Jean Wells Keenan




Jean Wells Keenan


Leah Call

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Heather Gibson


Leah Call (LC): Jean, tell us about the quilt you brought--you have on display today?

Jean Wells Keenan (JK): Well, this was a quilt that I made--it took a good amount of time because I also work full time but it really relates to the palate that I see in my garden. I love to garden and zinnias are my favorite flowers and so those flowers really are what inspired the colors in the quilt.

LC: Can you tell me when you made this quilt?

JK: I made it in 1999 and 2000 and I finished it in June of 2000. I teach quilting also and so the blocks in this quilt were used for class samples and I taught other people how to make these particular blocks. This is a New York Beauty design and all of the blocks are paper pieced but they are different so when you push four of the blocks together you still have a circular shape but the interior space has changed, so you really have that scrap quilt kind of look with more of a contemporary feel to it.

LC: It's beautiful. Can you tell me about the materials you have used?

JK: A lot of hand dyed cottons and also batiks and then cottons that--have a garden sort of look to them and there is a lot of green because green is kind of like nature's neutral. If you notice the greens, there aren't just yellow greens or just blue greens. There is a real mix of greens because that is what I see when I work in the garden.

LC: How do you perceive using this quilt? You know?

JK: I own a quilt store and I teach and write and write quilting books and I like to display quilts in my home--it may go over the back of the couch--I have an eggplant color of couch. I will use it for teaching purposes. It is probably going to be in an upcoming book.

LC: You have published books?

JK: Yes, I have had over twenty books published. I started doing books in, oh, golly, it would have been about 1978.

LC: Tell me about your own interest in quilting? When did it begin?

JK: I started quilting when I was a young married mother and mother of two and I was teaching Home Economics and they decided that we should have boys in Home Ec. and so I was looking for projects that boys could do. I ran across some patchwork kind of things from England. What appealed to me was the accurate cutting and sewing and the geometric shapes. I thought they would appeal to the boys. They made floor cushions. At that time, quilting was not very popular--this was back in 1969 but I was real taken with putting fabrics together. I have been a fabric person since I was a little girl. I love to sew and so it just appealed to me. I kind of discovered quilting at that time and started teaching how to do it but didn't have that background in my family or anything. It was just more or less something that I discovered on my own.

LC: What is your history with quilting? Did it all begin with your teaching?

JK: It did. I found out three or four years later that we had family quilts but my mother had them all packed away in the cedar chests and I didn't even know about them so I didn't realize that we had these family quilts and of course when I found out we did, I was very excited. And I found that some of the quilts that my grandmother made were the kinds of things I would chose to make so it kind of gave me a connection with my grandmother and my great grandmother that I didn't have before.

LC: So your first memory of a quilt--would that have been while you were--

JK: No, it's just I discovered it myself. I was twenty-six years old--looking for creative sewing projects.

LC: You have described several of your quilt related activities--are there any other activities that you taught or have written?

JK: Yea, I, quilting is--I have been very fortunate, it is like my life. I would do it as a hobby. I also do it as a business. I love to teach and see people learn because I have done the teaching and writing of the books. I am sharing ideas and that is really what I love the most about quilting--is what happens with the people and seeing people want to learn and seeing what they do with the fabric and the creativity that happens. That's really what I love most about quilting.

LC: Are there quilters in your family?

JK: Well, it turned out that my grandmother and great grandmother quilted but my mother didn't. You know, she grew up--the World War II era where you didn't want to sew at that time and you didn't want to look homemade unless you had to. I just always liked to sew from when I was a little girl and I had a grandmother who sewed and crocheted and did all that and so my grandmother kind of taught me to sew but she didn't quilt. This was the grandmother on the other side of the family. My daughter is now a quilter and works in the business with me.

LC: What aspects of quilting do you not enjoy?

JK: I really don't know. I really like it all. I like thinking up the idea and then collecting the fabrics and then getting started. You know, I get very anxious to get started and start putting my ideas together and see if they work. You change your ideas along the way because not everything is like you envision it but I love that creative process that happens in quilting and how you discover things about yourself. You have to find new ways of working sometimes, you know, or a combination that you thought was going to work color wise, doesn't and so you have to look for another idea and I just love that process.

LC: What do you think makes a great quilt?

JK: I think it is a combination of things. Having been a Home Economics teacher, I really believe in things being made well. If you are going to take the time to do then sew it right and be accurate and do a nice job. But, I think, when I look at quilts, what grabs me first is color and design and then sometimes I get up close and there are some quilts that are not made very well but I like to see all of it work together but I probably am more tuned in to color and design and then I see workmanship next but I think it's as important.

LC: What do you feel makes a quilt artistically powerful?

JK: It is a combination. You have to balance color and design. The design elements like the scale of fabrics that you chose and how you create texture and how you create movement are all important. Repetition is very essential, repetition can be--all repeated blocks. Repetition can also come in other forms, like in this quilt, you know there are all these points but in this particular block none of them are the same but yet you still have repetition because you're seeing this kind of shape over and over. And I like more subtle repetition, like when I get to the quilting. I quilted leaves because this quilt had a garden theme. I wasn't going to put some sort of quilting on here that doesn't relate the to theme so I really feel like every decision you make in the quilt needs to relate to the theme and the idea that you are trying to pull off and that's what gives a quilt unity in the end.

LC: You talked about this being a garden theme. Have you done other themed quilts?

JK: Well I am kind of obsessed with gardening at the moment. I love to garden and I have always been a real outdoor person and like hiking and all of that and have been tuned into nature so I think most of my quilts have a feeling coming from nature because that is where I get inspired from. And I think what has happened with me personally is that you see things in nature that you might not be able to think up yourself like color combinations because it works there then it is going to work in a quilt so I really let that be my guide. And I don't think I could have done this quilt had I not been a gardener and really tuned into the subject matter that inspired me.

LC: What would make a quilt appropriate for museum or a special collection in your opinion?

JK: I think it has to be unusual in its design and I think it has to be very well made. I think sometimes it has to do with the history of the quilt--what it was made for, who it was made for or if it was made for a particular event or a time that you know might be historically important but it has to have something special to say.

LC: Now, was this one made for this event?

JK: Nope, it was made for me and I saw the contest and it fit in one of the categories and so I submitted it. I was just hoping to get in the contest. I have never really entered a contest before.

LC: What was this particular contest? I mean this category?

JK: It was the imagination category. It was "Wishes for the World" and this probably sounds kind of corny but I just think if we can pay attention sometimes to our surroundings and our environment and see how everything interrelates and gets along, why can't all the people also get along? It was wishes for the world. It would be nice to have world peace. I think circles represent the world and I think circles are complete and to me when you can get that circle completed so that was kind of what I was thinking about when I made that quilt.

LC: How do great quilters learn the art of quilting? Especially how to design a pattern or chose fabrics, colors?

JK: Well I think it all comes by exposing yourself to good design and also to what's out there and sifting through it. You can learn from other people. I think that is probably one of the best ways to learn and I think we are all inspired by somebody. People out there act like they all did it on their own, but we all get inspired by something. I know, for me, I get really inspired by what other people do and customers that comes in my store. I think, in my business, being here and seeing all the ways you can express yourself is very interesting but I don't think people necessarily started out just wanting to express themselves.

JK: Now we will have to get our train of thought going.

LC: The pattern in choosing colors? Being inspired by customers?

JK: I think when you expose yourself to an exhibit like this, you see a lot of possibilities you might not have thought of. I have been quilting thirty years and I still get excited and see things I want to do and ideas that I want to pursue. It is a very fulfilling process because the time that you spend, you have something to show for it when you're finished and that is one of the things that I find in my store that people feel so good about what they have done and so many times, they're making it for somebody else or for a gift. In today's society being able to make something yourself is very nice. A lot of people just need that.

LC: Why is quilting important in your life?

JK: It has been important for a lot of reasons. Originally it was an outlet for creativity and then it became my profession and I made my living at it. I educated two children and sent them to college with quilting. Now I am doing retirement, but it has been a way to make a living and I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do it with something that I love doing--that I would be doing anyway so I think I kind of have the best of both worlds.

LC: For the record, where do you live?

JK: I live in Sisters, Oregon which is in the Cascade Mountains and we only have thirty seven frost free days a year so you have to plant hearty things and do it quick.

LC: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

JK: Well I think they are a history of American life. You know, they document events in people's lives personally and they also document events in our history and I think they say things about the social history of our country also but it is just a way to document the people we are and the era that things were made.

LC: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

JK: Well, I think it is projects like this documentation. I think the oral histories are great and there are so many publications out and you know, those publications have certainly put quilting out in the main stream so to speak because people have been willing to commit to those publications.

LC: What has happened to the quilts? Quilts from the family?

JK: They have been kept in the family. I have two sisters and we all have some of the quilts and I know that I have already decided who is getting which quilt in my family. I have two children. They are putting dibs on things too, but making sure that the quilts do stay in the family and putting labels on the back is important. You want to be able to document when they made and who made them. I try to really push that sort of idea when I teach classes, too and you know, I just love quilting so much and what it has been able to do and you know through teaching you get to--you have a voice that is differently sometimes than just a local person and so I really try to push those, you know, concepts and ideas.

LC: What is the label on this quilt?

JK: I can't remember which one it is. It is not real exciting. It just has for the contest. I will make a nicer label when I get home. It just has the basic information when it was made.

LC: What kind of label will you make?

JK: It will be gardening and I think I will do some embroidery and then I will put a little bit more of the history of why I made it. This one just has who made and when.

LC: Will you document as an award-winning quilt?

JK: I will now-- [laughs.] I mean I never thought it would win any prizes. I just loved doing it. I was very sad when it was finished because I loved these colors and every single block has a different palate so every time you got to a block you had to decide where you were going to put things and then once I got about half of them finished you get to that stage in design where you have to decide where the quilt is going design wise. I remember getting about half the blocks done and I had only used red once. Well that was not going to look very good if I had only used red once. It would look like an after thought so then I made myself consciously use red a couple more places and then make it dance around the quilt so that it was not all in one spot. As I got down to this area--this is a transition area because you are going from flower to foliage and at that point, I started using green more in the blocks so that the blocks would transition. Originally I thought I was just going to use these blocks down here but when I got to that point it needed that feeling of the ground and what you see when you look through foliage. You know you see wedges. You don't see exact leaves very often and so I was really looking at what I saw and interpreted this stitch and flip type of piecing and then added the actual realistic leaves to just further and kind of make the point come across. My daughter actually helped me with figuring out the machine quilting. She just started quilting about three or four years ago. She is not intimidated by free motion quilting and I kind of am but I wanted to do it and so she got my machine all set up for me and then I chose to put leaves in the background because it is a garden sort of setting. I would get up early in the morning and go down and quilt then go to work then go home and quilt some more. It was great. It was a fun thing to do.

LC: Do both your daughters quilt?

JK: I only have one daughter and then I have one son but my son's quite a gardener and my daughter and I have done some quilting and gardening books. She photographed his garden and so I kind of casually said to him, 'Well, Jason, you need to design a quilt for us,' and he said, 'Oh, I can't do that.' And then last month, he said, 'I almost got that quilt designed for you, Mom,' so I can hardly wait to see what he's doing. My kids have just grown up in quilting and both of them are a lot more knowledgeable than I ever realized. I think it is because quilting is a business and they were around it all the time.

LC: Do you plan to take this design and put it into a quilt?

JK: What do you mean?

LC: You said that it was your son's design.

JK: Oh, yes, I'll figure out something. I think it will be fun. I don't want him to dictate too much though. It will be interesting to see what he came up with, though and what colors he will work with. I will learn something about him in the process.

LC: What would your guess on the results go?

JK: Well Jason likes things that are graphically, more simple. I made him a Double Wedding Ring quilt when he and his wife got married and he is the kind who would not like thirty fabrics in one quilt. He would like fewer fabrics and more graphic style. I don't know what he has designed. We'll see.

LC: Would that probably eventually go to him?

JK: Oh sure. I would give it to him.

LC: Is there anything that I have not mentioned that you would like to include about this quilt: Any other symbolic--

JK: Well one thing that I did because it has a garden theme, I tried to tuck little special things in like a frog here and a butterfly and there is a bumble bee. I suddenly kind of tucked those things that you do see in the garden and just the way I chose the fabrics. I think I lined this quilt because there were decisions till the very end where had I been doing all forty blocks alike once the decision is made. It is just labor and I really like the decision making part of quilting and choosing the fabrics.

LC: Can you think of anything else?

JK: Don't think so.

LC: Thank you. This has been Leah Call interviewing Jean Wells Keenan, November 3, 2000 for the Quilt Save Our Stories Project. It is 12:00 o'clock.



“Jean Wells Keenan,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,