Karen Bennick




Karen Bennick




Karen Bennick


Kay Jones

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Lori Miller


Kay Jones (KJ): This is Kay Jones. Today's date is November 3, 2000. It is approximately ten until three. And I'm conducting an interview with Karen Bennick for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project in Houston, Texas. Karen, tell us about this beautiful quilt.

Karen Bennick (KB): Well, this quilt is the result of a challenge that I picked up a packet of fabric from a store in Port Orford, Oregon when we were on a trip. I took it home and put the fabric on a shelf until about two weeks before it was time to turn it in. I didn't have the faintest idea what to do with it. I'm not an appliquér. I very seldom do that. But I have done a lot of Bargello, so I started with the Bargello. The fabrics that you see here except for the black which is the background and normally I use about nine graduated fabrics when I do bargello and I didn't have that many so I used the right side and the wrong side instead. I was going to just make a Bargello with a checkerboard on the outside, just a lavender and butter color. I was going to put these fabrics, the flowers, from the floral that's done in the same colors. I was going to put those around the outside. I didn't know exactly how to do that. I put some iron-on fusible on the fabric, and fussy cut around the flowers, and I started throwing my pieces down as I was working on it. As it fell across the bargello it just happened to make these hearts. It turned out to be hearts and flowers. I didn't win anything at all. But I had a lot of fun doing it and it is the first thing that's come out of my own head and mind, something that I did not follow a pattern for. So for me it had a special meaning because I did it myself.

KJ: I was going to ask you if it had some special significance. It's your creation.

KB: It's something I could fold up for my suitcase. I couldn't bring the big quilt. I'd like to bring the one I made from all the fabrics I bought in Australia. That's too big, I made it king size.

KJ: To describe it, Karen, would you tell a little bit about the pattern?

KB: It's a 40 by 40 background that's black. The center is a bargello pattern plus three rows of two inch squares, in lilac and mustard color, or not quite mustard but almost. The fabrics that I put down on top are the floral that were included in the challenge packet. And they're in yellow and pink and lilac. I took my time. I don't appliqué so it's not as well done as many of these you'll see out here. I couldn't think of how to quilt it, so I just made it into one huge heart, that's what the quilting is. The heart is rows of stitching throughout the background. It was a little difficult. It's not anywhere near what I call show quality, it doesn't compare with the things that I see. But I did it, I like it. I put it in my guest bedroom. Everybody comes in, 'Oh, look at that.' And that makes me feel good.

KJ: I wanted to ask, what are your plans for this quilt?

KB: I mainly just keep it on the wall in the guest bedroom. It's kind of a special place. I keep quilts on the beds too.

KJ: Tell me, Karen, how did you get interested in quilting?

KB: My mother talked about quilting. She always wanted to make a crazy quilt, and she never did it. Her mother quilted before her. I've seen two of the quilts that her mother had done, my grandmother, and was just really impressed with them but I never thought too much about it. My mother died in 1980. I didn't start quilting until 1991. I was in a library waiting for my husband, he was doing some research, and somebody had put some books out on a table to go back on the shelves. I picked up one and it was quilt patterns. One of the patterns was Batchelor's Puzzle. I said, 'Gee.' I thought I'd make that for my brother. He's 65 years old and I'm sure he doesn't have a quilt, and it's time he did. So I started out making the Batchelor's Puzzle. I brought along my little photo album because that's the first quilt I made. The picture shows it hanging over the clothesline. It's a king size quilt. I had twelve blocks all made up, the Batchelor's Puzzle, and some pinks and blues and grays and separated out the colors for each block. When I got them done, no two blocks were the same size. They were all different. I had read about quarter inch seams and I had tried to do that, but some of my seams were a sixteenth of an inch, or three quarters, all on the same seam. [laughs.] So none of the blocks came together. That didn't really bother me a lot because I didn't know that they were really supposed to. I made big sashes and that way you can adjust for anything you have to do. The sashing, this doesn't really look like a guy's quilt. It was pink and blue, kind of a teal blue plaid, and then a darker teal jacket fabric that I picked up at Wal-Mart for fifty cents a yard. The whole back is done in the blue jacket fabric. You can't keep it on the bed because it slides right down. But he loves to wrap up in it and watch television. He still uses it. In Florida, the evenings get quite cool and damp sometimes. He just wraps up in it and he's perfectly happy, he doesn't know it's not perfect. The next quilt I made was for my other brother. He used to make fishing lures when he was younger, so I found this wonderful fishing lure fabric in three different colors. I didn't have a pattern for that, but I had a quilt that my mother-in-law had won at a raffle, and she sold it to me for fifteen dollars. It was made out of polyester, it was blue and pink and white. The pink and the blue were what made the stars. And it had these white squares in between. So I said, 'Well I'll use these fish patterns in the squares and make the stars out of the black, green, and the white.' But when I got done, the stars almost didn't mean anything at all. But it meant a lot to him. I put the labels on the back, this is the one for the fish quilt, and it's, 'To my brother, Kenneth McKeague, for his 70th birthday,' which is October 11, 1991, 'was designed, pieced, and tied with love by Karen Bennick.' If I get a little bit weepy, it's because he just passed away this past Saturday. His birthday was the 11th, and he was 79 years old. And he made it until just past that. The wonderful part is, we went back and visited. In September we had a whole day just one-on-one, talking and remembering our folks. We went back again. He lives in Montana and I live in California, so I flew out the first time and the second time my husband and I drove back with his children and we had a birthday party. His last words to me, practically, were, 'Everybody should have their funeral before they die so they can enjoy their family.' Because he was quite sick for quite some time, and he knew that the end was near. We all did. And it was wonderful to be able to reminisce and have a good time, to bond with his children so we'll still remain family.

KJ: I think you've answered a question I was about to ask, but you might be able to elaborate upon it a bit. Were you self taught?

KB: I would say I was self taught since all I had was a book with a black and white picture of what this block looked like. And the templates for it were in the back of the book and I traced them on paper out of a tablet. I cut around them. Of course, every time I cut they changed size too because I never made new templates. So it's no wonder the blocks didn't fit together. [laughs.] I say I'm self taught because I did that totally on my own. And the next quilt I did, by looking at another quilt, and completely using different fabrics. It came out to be a quilt and it was much more accurate. I also just sewed two long pieces of fabric together and I sewed it on both sides, on the seam allowance a quarter inch, and then I cut it into half-square triangles. And I'd never heard of anybody else doing that, haven't seen it done since. I've seen it done on paper, but I did this without paper. Just because I knew, I had drawn the design on graph paper. I counted out how many green and black triangles I would need, how many white and black, how many white and green, how many green and black. I just counted down the rows on the graph and put it together. It seemed so simple and I don't know if I could do it again.

KJ: You probably could. When was this Karen?

KB: That was in 1991.

KJ: In 1991.

KB: And my father was still alive at that time. I live in California. I have one brother who lived in Montana. The other brother lived in Alaska at that time. We all went to Florida to visit my father. He was born in 1902, and this was in 1991, so he was 89 years old. When I opened the box and took the two quilts out and gave them to my brothers, I saw three grown men cry. I will always quilt because I know the feeling it brings to people. It's not how warm the quilt is, it's how much it warms you inside that's important.

KJ: Do you quilt everyday? Or several hours a week?

KB: Sometimes I might go months on end without even quilting at all. The reason for that, I quilted everyday after I first started. I started in 1991. My dad died in 1993, so I inherited a little bit of money. Not a lot, but it would be the same amount if I kept working until I could retire. So I said, 'Enough is enough, I'm not going to work anymore,' because I worked in an office for the Social Security Administration, real exciting work. I know you can't see the look on my face but it's there. [laughs.] It was cutting into my quilting time. I started out on the kitchen table. I bought more and more little stacks of fabric as I was going through fabric stores. I live close to what is now the Fabric Boutique store, in Las Vegas, Nevada, which a lot of people know about. But there was also a Two Dollar a Yard fabric store, a Hancock's, and one that sold mostly fabrics for making costumes for shows. There were four or five fabric stores right close to my house. And the Two Dollar a Yard fabric store had plastic bags full of pieces and I thought, 'Oh wow, this is really a good way to make quilts.' It was this big bag of stuff, maybe big as a grocery bag at least, stuffed full of fabrics, for fifty cents. I saved all that, washed it, ironed it, put it in little stacks, in boxes, and I finally ran out of room. So I went back to one of the bedrooms and cleared it out, started stacking boxes in there. I put up a little table so I didn't have to clear the table every time we wanted to eat which I didn't cook anyway anymore, because once you start quilting, that's it. So I quilted almost everyday until I stopped working. And then I thought, 'Alright, I'm going to have all this time for quilting.' But when you don't work anymore your family starts thinking you have time to do things for them. My husband was still working so he still expected to eat when he came home. He wanted clean sheets on the bed at least once a week. My son had my only grandchild and so I got roped into babysitting quite a bit. I love that child, he's eight now. I didn't do as much quilting then because I was babysitting. I was running errands. I was doing things that needed to be caught up on. Then we moved to California. In the mean time, I found out that there were quilt guilds. I didn't know that. I didn't know anyone else in the world was still quilting. The book I picked up was close to being an antique. One of the fabric stores had a flier that said there was a guild so I thought I'd go to that, see what it was like. There were 400 members. I saw the work that they were doing. I was almost intimidated into not quilting again, but I did. I showed off some of the things I was doing. Took a few classes. One of the first teachers I had was Doreen Speckman. We became best friends. After I stopped working, the first thing I did was take her tour to Australia and New Zealand. My husband went along with me. I don't think he was too sure that I should be a world traveler all by myself. So I said, 'I'm going, if you want to go, you're welcome to come with me.' We both went on Doreen's tour. There were 47 women. My husband, her husband, one other husband and the man that runs A1 Tours and Travel. We had a ball. We saw so many things, met wonderful wonderful quilters, because Doreen would set it up so we would go into a guild and share with them and they'd share with us. We had picnics in the rainforest. We watched baby penguins come up on the shore, and the people there decorated their community center for us with quilts. From there in Melbourne, we went on to Canberra, the capital of Australia. And to the quilt symposium, I believe they call it, and then on to Sydney, seeing quilters wherever we went. We stopped on a sheep farm and looked for baby kangaroos in the morning. Everyday we talked about quilting quilting quilting. We went to fabric stores. That was in 1994, and I think they have a lot more quilting fabric in Australia now then they did then because at that time it was rather difficult to find fabric. But that I did find I brought home and I made a queen sized quilt out of it. After that, I also went on her cruise through the Caribbean, a five day cruise. That was fun because we did our sewing on board, and shopped for fabric when they stopped, so many places. Following, that same year, I also went on Doreen's tour to England and Scotland, and Norway. Norway, I'd love to go back there. We got to go to the homes of some quilters and see the way they used to make homes in Norway, with the sod roofs and one of the quilters had the most magnificent home I've ever been in. It was almost a star shape and it had windowsill to ceiling windows. It was glass and it was on the peninsula of a little land near Bergen, and everywhere you looked there was water and birch trees and grass and flowers. It was magnificent. And she had such a wonderful sewing room, she shared that with us. The history of the country. It was wonderful.

KJ: You're making us want to travel.

KB: It's a great thing to do. Here I was, an office worker, I didn't go places. I didn't do things. I worked. I worked at a desk, I was a desk jockey. Then I started quilting, and it opened up my life. I went places and did things that I had never done before.

KJ: I was going to ask you how quilting had impacted your life.

KB: Can you tell?

KJ: Sounds as if it's had a wonderful impact. Also, it sounds as if your family is very supportive.

KB: My husband is extremely supportive of what I'm doing. Part of that is one of the things that I did while I was working was I raised dogs, Chihuahuas and English Bulldogs. So about an eight year period of time I went to dog shows a lot. And when you live in Las Vegas, Nevada, dog shows are 300 miles away in any direction. Also, I got carried away. I think I'm a little obsessive compulsive because I had as many as 30 dogs at one time. That's a lot of dogs. He thinks quilting is a lot quieter and a lot cleaner, and he appreciates that. Since we've moved back to southern California, I get to go to a quilt show almost every weekend, not quite every weekend. I work with two guilds. I've been the program chairman for the El Camino Quilters for two years now. We just put on our first show and it's so much fun because we do it in the oldest California ranch home that's in existence. It's a magnificent building. It's very old but it's been reconstructed just recently in 1996. Everybody raves about it when we go, so we know it's a good, successful show.

KJ: Being involved in quilt shows, what do you think makes a great quilt?

KB: A great quilt. It's one of those that when you walk in and there's a lot of quilts hanging around, you keep on going back to it. You look at it again and again. It stops you in your tracks when you first see it and you just keep going back. It's color. It's design. It's emotion I think that goes into a quilt, you can feel it. I think that's what makes a great quilt.

KJ: Do you think quilts differ from region to region? You've lived in several different places.

KB: Yes, I've lived in a lot of places. Most of the time I lived in other areas when I didn't quilt. I was born and raised in Wisconsin. I lived in New York. I've lived in England. I've lived in Florida, and Omaha, Nebraska. I didn't see quilts then because I wasn't quilting. Did you ever notice when you're driving down the road and you've never seen the kind of car that you're driving until you buy one? Then all of a sudden, they're on the road all over the place. I have to look to make sure I'm getting the right one in the parking lot. It's like that with quilting too. I think until the bug bites, and you're into it, you don't see them as often. Now I see them everywhere. In advertisements, on television, in movies. 'Oh, look at the quilt,' never mind what the story is if there's one on the bed. I have also spent quite a bit of time in Pennsylvania. I have a son who lives there. I went to quilt guilds there because I had to visit him for three months after he was in an accident. So I had to go to guilds, I couldn't pass them up. I found that the quilts are pretty much the same in this day and age. I don't think they were always like that, I think there was a period of time you could identify by the area it was made in. But I don't find that anymore. There's art quilts on the east coast, west coast.

KJ: What about the Australian ones?

KB: Some of them, they look like you could have done them here, but many of them are just totally different. They're very into the scenic and the artistic quilts. Their colors are wonderful.

KJ: How do the colors differ?

KB: I think they pick up the colors of the country. I think that I saw an article about that one time, the colors of a country, the vivid greens, blues, the rust color from the rocks. The tans and grays and mustards from the color of the grasses and the blues from the water. The coast of Australia is magnificent. When it's a bright blue sky day it's so much it almost hurts your eyes it's so pretty.

KJ: And did you say you were in Norway?

KB: We were in Norway. And there I found that they colors were more, I think what I'd say is pure. They were reds, blues, yellows. More primary colors, not into the other shades and varieties quite as much. The one home that we went into, the woman made quilts that had chickens on them. She was so talented, she had chicken quilts that I would love to have. She had eggs and chickens and all stages of chickens and funny chickens and chickens that were stacked up and chickens that were running all over the place. And she had a little box that she had constructed out of cardboard and fabric and it had chickens on it, and when you opened up, there were more and more boxes as you went in. The box inside had an egg in it. Just clever, very very clever.

KJ: In looking at quilts in the United States and in Europe and Australia, what part do you think that quilts have played in women's history?

KB: In women's history I believe that quilting has been something that has always drawn women together. Some women quilt totally on their own and they never work with another person. But I would say the majority of women, at one time or another, work with other people. In this day and age, a lot of us have friendship groups, a small group of women, six to eight maybe, get together and work on any project they want to. Or maybe work on a group project. I have a friendship group where sometimes there's six different projects going on, sometimes we'll work on the opportunity quilt, we'll all be doing the same thing. But we're talking about everything else in the world. It's our method of communication, and it's our outlet. We get to talk about anything we want to talk about. I think women have always done that. I heard an interesting concept. And I'm trying to think of which speaker it was that I picked this up from. But at one time, women didn't inherit things except their fibers. Where did I hear that from?

KJ: Jean Ray Laury.

KB: And so they could pass those things on to their daughters, so it was the continuity of those women. I have one of my grandmothers quilts that she made in 1933 for my aunt. It wasn't the one I wanted. The one I wanted was a crazy quilt made of satins and velvets and had all kinds of buttons and embellishments on it. I slept under it as a child. When my grandmother died at 104 I went to my aunt and asked, 'Could I have that quilt?' She sent me another one. It was the one her mother made her when she was married in 1933. So I do have that one and I'm very happy I have it. But it's a utility quilt in comparison with the one I really wanted.

KJ: I was going to ask about how you think quilts can be used? What different ways?

KB: For every quilt there's another use, I think. Wall hanging, bed quilts, snuggle-up-in quilts, to watch television or just to be warm when it's cool. As gifts. Most of the quilts I've made I've given away. My brother both have quilts, my nieces, my nephew. My grandson has eight of them already, and he's only eight years old. A lot of people. My daughter-in-law, I've given her a number of quilts. My mother-in-law I've made three quilts for her. And she doesn't like to sleep under them.

KJ: The quilt you hoped you'd get, why was it so important?

KB: Because my mother and I would take the trip to visit my grandmother. She lived in Michigan and we lived in northern Wisconsin. It wasn't a long trip by today's standards, but it seemed like a big trip back in the 40's when I was a child. I was born in 1940. My mother was almost 40 years old when I was born. Every summer we would go to visit her mother and father on the farm. I slept in what was their guest room when they moved into the new house that was built then. It has this feather thing that covered that mattress and it had this beautiful quilt on the top of the bed. I can remember laying there and tracing the shapes in the designs, and the pieces of fabric that were cut in triangles. They were kind of all muted colors like dusty pink and mauve. Some blue, some soft, soft yellows. There were some ribbons that decorated the seams. There was a lot of fancy stitching that you see on crazy quilts. There were buttons. There were pearls that were sewn on it. It was just a magnificent quilt that I remember tracing and tracing. I still had to take a nap then, so that was my way of filling in my time. I just loved it, loved the feel of it.

KJ: How do you think we should take care of quilts to keep them for the future?

KB: Some quilts, I think, need to be protected, carefully washed, carefully stored, rolled up or folded and refolded many times through the year to keep them from getting creases. Other quilts, no we shouldn't worry about the future, we should use them. I make quilts for my grandson with full intentions that he gets to use them every year. I made a quilt for him with fabric that has a road on it so he can play with his little cars on his bed. I want those kinds of quilts used. Other ones, I hang up on the wall for decorations. They're the art that is in my house. I don't collect other kinds of art, so that's one of the things that decorates my home.

KJ: I skipped over a little bit earlier. You talked about your experiences in your guild, and some chairmanships. Could we go back to that?

KB: Sure. I was the program chairman for the El Camino Quilt Guild for two years. I moved there after having been a guild member in Las Vegas for a couple years. I joined that guild because it was close to my home. It was a daytime guild. It filled that need of being close to home and something that was easy access to. I also joined at the time, the Canyon Quilters in San Diego, bringing the best teachers and the best programs. I joined them not just so I could work for them, but so I could go to all their workshops and see their programs. The first year I was with the El Camino Quilters, there was about 16 members, and they were kind of set in their ways. They didn't want to change things. I kind of felt that maybe there could be some change. There were some other new members coming in from other areas also, northern California. They had been quilting in larger guilds so between them, we all discussed it before we became program chairmen and other officers, that maybe some changes could happen in this guild too. We decided that we would get in more speakers. We'd get on the board so that the money we had accumulated could be used for getting in good speakers and inspiring people to do more and better than they had done. The guild has some excellent people, people that do excellent appliqué. They do stunning work. Their work should be hanging here in Houston and it's not, because they haven't gotten into the competition type of thing. Which is nice, but it's not necessary of course, to be in competition. But it's a lot of fun.

KJ: You've contributed in that way. Do you also teach, Karen?

KB: I taught one class. When I still lived in Las Vegas they asked if I would teach a class and at that time, Colorbar Fabric had just come out. There was a pattern in the fabric and they asked could I teach that. And I said, 'Yes, I can.' And I thought, 'Well, I better make the quilt before I teach it to someone else.' I had to completely redesign the pattern because they had a wrong measurement in it and there was no way it went together. I redesigned it, made it a different quilt altogether. I taught the class. Everybody finished a quilt, made with the fabrics. The Colorbar is a fabric that starts out as a light color, it can be any solid color, and it graduates deeper and deeper until it's a very deep shade of the same color. I have a picture of that quilt top also. I never have finished the quilt, I just made the top. I do that every once in a while. There.

KJ: Oh, that's beautiful.

KB: It should have been a twelve inch block, but when I finished designing it, it was a nine inch block. It was a lot of fun to do. And I think I learned a lot more from teaching that one class than I did from most of the classes I've taken. But I've taken classes under a lot of wonderful, wonderful teachers. Carol Bryer Fallert is one of my favorites. Blanche Young, Ruth McDowell, I just recently took a class with her, Cynthia England, who had a magnificent quilt in here this year that won. It's been wonderful to have those classes available, to meet these teachers, and to hear their stories. They're like the kid next door. They're not different from you or I or anyone else. They're just wonderful women that have used their talents and are sharing them with other people.

KJ: I think sharing is one of the best things we do as quilters. Thank you for sharing the book, your book of photographs. Is there a quilt in here that's your favorite? I know you brought this one.

KB: I brought this one because I could. They're all my quilts. They're things that I took for class projects. This quilt is a quilt that's just pinwheels, white background with blue sprays and light blue and pink floral pinwheels. The sashing is fabric that I picked up in Norway. It was on a roll, it looked like a roll of toilet paper. Only it was sashing. It was in a roll of fabric, like this. I had to find a way to use that, so I used it around that quilt. My nephew got married, so I gave it to him and his wife. I've probably made four quilts using fabric from that roll of fabric that I brought from Norway. So that was a favorite. This little quilt, it's just a bug in a jar, I think a lot of people have made, mine is frogs in a jar.

KJ: Rows of jars and they have the bug fabric.

KB: This one's frogs because our first quilt show that we had at the ranch I was telling you about in California, the name of the ranch is "Rancho Guajome" which means "Frog Pond" or "Home of the Frog." So frogs were our challenge for that year, we had to make a quilt with the frog on it. So I made frogs. I found all the quilt fabric with frogs on it that I could and put a different frog in as many different jars as I could.

KJ: So you have six rows of six jars of frogs. That's a lot of frogs.

KB: That is a lot of frogs. And I ran the challenge that year. Somebody said, an older lady said, 'People in this guild, they don't do challenges.' I said, 'Oh, I think they will.' And so we had 22 that completed the challenge because I bugged them every meeting to make these things. All I had to do was use one fabric that I had chosen and put a frog on it. And we had scenery quilts, we had pictorial quilts, we had pieced quilts. Twenty-two different ones and it was really hard to judge them. I knew I wasn't going to be able to pick a winner so I devised a sheet of an award certificate on the computer and it said, 'Congratulations!' And in very small print, 'You are a winner,' and in big print, 'Because you competed the challenge.' Just doing the challenge makes every one of them a winner because they've stretched their imaginations. So challenges to me are a real fun thing. I've done quite a few of them, and running that one, being on the other end of it, telling other people what to do for a challenge was really different.

KJ: One of the challenges we have here Karen, as you know, is staying on the time schedule. And we're getting close to running out of time. Is there something that we haven't touches on that you'd like to share with us?

KB: Just that I intend to keep quilting. I picked up a little heart shaped pieces of wood one day, at a quilt show up in Alpine, California. On it, it says, 'God put me on this earth to make a certain number of quilts. And I'm so far behind, I'll never die.' [laughs.] And that pretty much sums up how I feel about it. There's so many things that I love to do with the fabric. I have quite a lot of it, I don't think I'll ever use it all up, but I'm going to try.

KJ: I'd like to thank Karen Bennick for allowing me to interview her today as part of the 2000 Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Our interview concluded at 3:30, November 3, 2



“Karen Bennick,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1266.