Irene Kahmann




Irene Kahmann




Irene Kahmann


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date



Groebenzell, Germany


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave and I'm conducting a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Irene Kahmann and she is in Groebenzell, Germany, and I am in Naperville, Illinois, so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is November 21, 2009. It is now 12:05 in the afternoon my time. I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to me. Please tell me about your "Fabric Forest."

Irene Kahmann (IK): I am living on the outside of Munich, a big city, in Groebenzell. Nearby there is a nice wood, a forest and I'm walking or jogging several times during the week through this little forest. I can see all the trees and I look at the trees and the barks every time so one day I thought it must be wonderful if I can translate the barks of the trees into fabric. I started out to think what technique I could use and I tried to think, how I can make the shapes for the trees. When my idea got better and better I invited two of my groups to start with me a few trees in my house. We finished a few trees. Then we showed them to the group and I told my group members--I'm the leader of the group, I told them we could make a forest and show it at our next exhibition which was in 2008. They liked my idea and because I know that not everybody of my group members are real artists and not so good in skills, I thought it would be better if we go together in a camp so we went in a camp in February 2007 for one week and we worked together. We sewed most of the trees at this time. I could help the people if they didn't know how to do and also we helped each other so everyone was able to finish one tree. There is a lot of work in one tree. It turned out a nice forest as you saw.

KM: How many trees are there?

IK: 33. There are 33 trees. Nineteen members of the group went to this camp. We are 24 all together, but 19 had time and we went there. We spent also a wonderful time together and we worked in small groups. I divided them in small groups and they helped each other. If there was a lot of sewing, they sewed together. You understand? [KM agrees.] They helped each other. We had more time for experimenting and they could think about their ideas. Maybe I have to say I asked everybody in the beginning, what kind of a tree they wanted to make and then they started. There were three or four in one group. In my group was Heidi for example. She said, 'I like to make a birch tree and I like to braid strips together.' So we helped her to tear the fabric she choose and to cut the strips and then we braided them together. We helped to sew them on a segment and then when we finished, we started the next tree on the next day in our group. We helped really each other a lot with all of the trees, which we made in this camp.

KM: How many trees did you make?

IK: I made four trees.

KM: Which trees were they?

IK: The first tree I made was--I forget how to say in English, I don't remember. A willow tree. I think, Zigzag willow tree. I made it with folds. I made different kind of folds in this tree. Little triangles so it looks like a zigzag. The second tree I made was an American Oak tree, a Red Oak tree. I used the color and then I used different kind of smocking. You understand smocking? [KM agrees.] Is the right word? [KM agrees.] These two trees I made before the camp. The third tree I made in the camp. I sewed it in Mola technique. The fourth tree I made all by myself at home. I made an apple tree, which was a memory from my childhood and I thought I had to make it.

KM: How did you determine how high and how wide to make them?

IK: I gave out several rules. The first rule was, to make them small and long and I told them to do them between, oh I can only say it in centimeters.

KM: That is all right, you can do centimeters.

IK: They should be between 220 to 250 centimeters long [approximately 86.5 inches to 98.5 inches.] and between 30 centimeters and 50 centimeters wide [approximately 12 inches to 19.5 inches.] and I wanted to have them doubled. You understand? Two sides because they should hang free so people could see them from each side. They had to be made in the same design on each side. The next rule I had, I wanted to have them in several segments, vertical one upon another and the segments should be structured with any kind of techniques they wanted to do. Between these segments they should add fabric cut in wedges. You understand? [KM agrees.] So there are diagonal lines. For me, the wedges symbolize the branches of the tree. This way all trees looked similar, because they have all the same construction you know. Even though, every tree is very, very different, but with the same construction they had something in common. For the colors and the fabric I wanted to have them in mainly matching colors and for that we dyed, hand dyed fabric ourselves for the whole group. This was our first step we did before we went to the camp. We bought some new fabric. Most of the fabric we already had. We got it through heritage from very old quilters. We overdyed those fabrics. For that reason, a lot of fabric was available for all group members. They brought also some fabric from themselves but most of the fabric we took to the camp so they could choose there what they liked to use.

KM: How has the exhibit been received? What do people think of the exhibit?

IK: It was wonderful. Everybody liked it very, very much. We really got a very good commentary in the newspapers. We never got so much attention before in the newspapers and people liked it really very, very much, when we showed it the first time.

KM: How did the exhibit end up in International Festival in Houston [Texas.]?

IK: I think it went wonderful there, too. I looked at guest book, which Gabriele took to the quilt festival. We received 18 pages of signatures in our guest book and everybody said, 'Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.'

KM: How did you get the exhibit from Germany to Houston?

IK: How I got it there? [KM agrees.] I have been invited in Houston every year. Last year I had a quilt there and they invited me this year again I told them, 'I'm sorry I can't send a quilt this year, because I needed my newest quilt,' which were the trees and they were in an exhibit. We showed our forest also in France in September. That is a European event so I couldn't send a quilt to Houston. I know Karey Bresanhan from Quilt Festival Europe if you remember. [KM agrees.] I had been at quilt festivals in Europe, so I know her from this time. I wrote an email to her, told her about our forest and asked her if Houston would have interest to show them. They invited us for this year, which I didn't expect. I couldn't come with the exhibition myself because I had already other obligations at this time, so I sent another group member there.

KM: It was very nice.

IK: Did you see it?

KM: Yes I did, it was very nice.

IK: It was a different hanging like Gabriele [member who attended International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas.] told me. The trees were hanging from very high up, because it is a fair hall isn't it?

KM: It's a convention center so the ceilings are very high.

IK: We had lower ceiling for them when we showed them. In France, they hung in a church and in Groebenzell, we used a stage of a theatre. It must have been very different [laughs.] in Houston. [KM agrees.]

KM: I can see that, but it was very nice. It was always very crowded.

IK: In France it was the same at our exhibition too.

KM: It was very, very nice. I had lots of great conversations with people about the trees.

IK: I found out in conversation with people in France, that traditional quilters liked it as wall as art-quilters. I think the traditional quilter could follow the techniques easily. And people who liked art-quilts, they liked it the same way so the trees were for both. I think this made the forest so special.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking.

IK: I started quiltmaking in the USA [laughs.] a very long time ago. In 1975 to '77, we have stayed three years in North Carolina in Raleigh and there I have started quiltmaking. In 1980, I started to teach quiltmaking in Germany and since this time I have been teaching. So it's a long, long time and I still teaching classes. At first I taught only in Groebenzell, then in Munich and then in all parts of Germany. Then in different parts of Europe and then I got even invited in New Zealand twice as a teacher. I have made many, quilts. I have also made art quilts. I got once in Quilt National. It was, I think in 1989 and I got the first prize in a European quilt contest. I've done a lot of quilting I think. I always tried to do my own ideas and I worked very early in contemporary design. I did not so many traditional quilts. I have written four books in patchwork and quilting. The last book I did was published now just this year in September. It is about the trees. I made this book so people also can copy our trees. There are descriptions how to make them.

KM: Very nice.

IK: I think, I have talked to lots of people and they think it turned out very nice. It has all the trees in it, details and descriptions, little stories, so I think it's good going with the exhibition.

KM: What is the name of the book?

IK: It's called--it is very hard in English, it's called "The Fabric Where the Trees Are Made From." In German, I think--do you know the author Johannes Mario Simmel? [KM agrees.] He had one time a title which called, "The Fabric Where the Dreams Are Made From." [KM agrees.] Do you remember?

KM: Yes, I do remember that.

IK: We used this title and called it, "The Fabric Where the Trees Are Made From," if I translate it this way.

KM: Very nice. What do you like about teaching? Tell me about your teaching.

IK: What do I like about teaching? I tell them my ideas and I show them how to do some techniques and they come out with their own quilt. When they come out with a nice quilt, I'm happy. I'm glad, that I could help them, and I think I have taught already many students. If I think about some of my former German students, they are great artists in Germany now. [laughs.] When they started quiltmaking in my class, it gives me a good feeling. I always try to teach a technique or to show them, how to work their ideas, but I always expect they make their own way. So, I don't try, that they don't make a quilt in my--how can I say this? How I would make it myself. I try to support them to make their own quilts.

KM: Tell me about quiltmaking in Germany. You don't have a tradition of quiltmaking do you?

IK: I think we don't have much traditional quiltmaking. There are some but the most people try to make contemporary quilts, even though in different levels. If they start quiltmaking, then I think they haven't enough skills and practice, so the first quilts they make they are mostly simple traditional quilts. They are proud they finished them, even though they are simple. In a way they are always their own design. They're using maybe a traditional pattern or part of it and then try to do their own design. There isn't really traditional quiltmaking. We have no tradition in quilts because we have feather beds, so people started here very early with contemporary quiltmaking. In my classes, that's always wall hangings they do. It's not a quilt for the bed so they are mostly making wall hangings in Germany. I think this is the main part. Of course, some make traditional if they make them for the families, for their grandchildren and children, then they are making them for beds too. If I would see the scene of German quiltmaking, I think it's more on the contemporary design.

KM: What are your favorite techniques?

IK: My favorite techniques? [KM agrees.] I have done a series of spirals. I have used it in many ways. I started out to make them in a reverse appliquation technique. I also used the negative part of the spirals, which I cut out as a design part and made several quilts with that design. So I really used very many spirals. I think in the techniques and the way I use design I think it resembles a little bit [Gustav.] Klimt, the painter. You know the painter Klimt? [KM agrees.] I like to take up the ornamentals in his paintings. This is what I love to do, and I always love to work with themes of nature.

KM: Do you usually work in a series?

IK: Yes I do. When I start with one design, I think I could change the colors for another one. Sometimes I find different expressions for my theme. So mostly I work in series, but they take time. I'm not like what Nancy [Crow.] did so many in one year. What she does in one year, I finish in five years I think. Making series but in a longer period of time. Now I don't do so many quilts anymore. Well it takes more time for me and I'm not so young anymore. [laughs.]

KM: Do you consider yourself an artist or a quiltmaker?

IK: I'm not so good to tell myself as an artist. I think history will tell if my quilts are artistic. I got accepted in many competitions they ask for good design and art quilts. I start to make a design for a quilt, when I have a picture in my mind. You understand? [KM agrees.] I don't try just to do art. If it turns out to be an art piece maybe, I don't know. I'm a little bit insecure in using the word "artist" for myself. I'm a quiltmaker I think. I love to create, but in 50 years maybe, I don't know if they will tell this is art, what I have done, you know. I love to do my own designs, but if it is art I don't know.

KM: Describe your studio. The place that you sew.

IK: Yes, I have a studio. I have a pin wall [design wall.] and I working on the pin wall. I start with an idea in my head and then I put pieces on my pin wall and then it's growing you know. It's growing and I take out again some and I put in new parts. I love to work in my studio this way. It takes me much more time now, than years ago. Years ago I always tried to work for competitions so I always had deadlines. I must be honest I don't like this stress anymore. I still working but I finish some time. Sometimes I even don't mind to show my finished quilts again. I also think I am not so eager to sell them anymore. They are too valuable for me. I have sold many of my quilts but now since I don't finish so many anymore. They have more value for me.

KM: What are the plans for the "Fabric Forest"?

IK: We have already new invitations. We have offers and invitations to show them in Germany, in France, Italy and in the Czech Republic. We can't sell them now because if we sell parts of them, the forest isn't completed anymore. As long as we show them some places, we can't sell them. I think after some time, when we won't show them anymore, everybody will take her own tree. If they like to sell or to keep them, I don't care.

KM: Are you going to keep your trees?

IK: Up to now yes. [both laugh.] I think I would sell my trees.

KM: What do you think makes an artistically powerful quilt? What makes a great quilt?

IK: If it happens that the colors, the design, and the quilting makes a unique picture. This doesn't happen in every quilt, even though I want to. You start out with a great idea, but if the quilt is finished, then it might be a nice piece, okay. I think only in a few quilts I can say a unique picture really comes together. The colors can be wonderful in the design or the structures in the quilt. If I think of my own quilts, I have done maybe hundred pieces and I think maybe ten of them I think would be what I believe they have come out perfect. The others are nice, they are okay but if I look at them I think I would change some parts, you know what I mean. I would change different parts. Ten is maybe a bit few but I think 20 from 100 of my quilts I am very satisfied.

KM: Why is quiltmaking important to you?

IK: I think I can express my ideas in my head. For me it's like painting with fabric. Like I told you with the trees, I looked at this bark and there are so beautiful structures in the different kind of trees and immediately in my head I start thinking, how to do it in fabric. I not thinking to paint I am thinking how to use the fabric to paint them. I like to work in this way.

KM: Do you own a lot of fabric?

IK: Oh yes, I have a lot of fabric in my studio, yes a lot of fabric. Most of my fabric I dye. I still collect fabric, also old fabric. Some I overdye or sometimes I bring home fabric from different countries, when I travel. So I have a lot of fabric. When I start a quilt I don't go to buy fabric. I always look first what I have and then I make my choice for the quilt design. Sometimes I dye extra fabric, but mostly I just look what I have and try to work with what I have. I have done a commission last year for a Lutheran church. Do you know Lutheran church? [KM agrees.] They have what we call Antependium. Do you know this name "Antependium"? It is a hanging in front of an altar and also in front of a pulpit, where the minister talks. They are in four different colors over the year. In green, in red, in white, and in violet and I have done them all. I worked two years for it to make them. Their designs are different kind of symbolic expressions, which the minister had given me.

KM: Do you like doing commissions?

IK: Not many, no. I don't like too much in commission but if somebody asked me to do something then I do it. I liked to do it with the church because they gave me the colors, the size and the biblical text and I had to find my own expression for the design.

KM: Very nice.

IK: I loved to work them.

KM: Do you work mostly with a sewing machine?

IK: Yes I mostly work on the sewing machine but I do still a lot of quilting by hand. I do very very few quilting with the sewing machine. I like more hand quilting. It looks smoother for me, I like it better. Some machine quilting is nice but not all I like. Some pieces are too much quilted for me. Yah, but the most sewing I do with the sewing machine. There are some appliqu├ęs I do also by hand. Of course there is a lot of doing with my hands, but I think the main sewing is done by sewing machine.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

IK: Oh advice. To start with traditional quilts because I think it's still the best way to learn and to start a quilt. There are different points I think I would say, to start traditional. It is an old way to learn to work precisely then you learn to be patient. It helps you because it is very structured in a way so you can follow each step but you can still choose your own colors if you like. When you know how to do the skills, you can go forward. I think as a beginner you should always start at a lower level and then continue more and more. I have students coming in my class and they have seen a picture of a quilt which was very contemporary design, very artistic and they like to do it, but they have not the skills and the experiences for it. When they have never done a quilt before, they mostly struggle and can't finish so they don't like continue the project. I think I always tell my students they should start small and in a simple way. I think then it can turn out a really nice piece and they will be proud about it. This would be my advice.

KM: It's good advice. Whose works are you drawn to and why?

IK: Whose works? [KM agrees.] In the late scene of contemporary artists I don't know everybody anymore but I know Michael James and I know Nancy Crow personally and I think I like both very much. I like the way Nancy Crow developed. The way she started and how she continued her way up to today. I watched her a long time and well even though, I don't know exactly how she works at the moment. What I remember I liked very much the progress in her work. Michael James work I liked more when he did his wonderful stripe designs. [KM agrees.]

KM: Is there anything that you would like to share that we haven't touched upon before we conclude?

IK: What do you mean?

KM: Is there anything that you would like to say before we conclude?

IK: No, I think I told you everything about the forest and about my quiltmaking, about my teaching. I would have a wish. I wish that my last book with the trees would be in English because I have so many friends all over the world.

KM: I think that would be wonderful. Have you looked into publishing it in the United States?

IK: Yay but it's the problem. My editor would love to translate it but I don't know if she has somebody in the [United.] States or in Great Britain who would like to publish it. That I don't know but I would love to have it in English because I have so many friends all over and they speak English [KM agrees.] and I tell them about my book but they can't read it especially the last book about the trees.

KM: I hope it happens. That would be wonderful. I would buy a copy.

IK: This would be a wish I would have. What else? No, I don't think so. I think I have told you everything.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

IK: As a good quiltmaker. When they see my quilts, they remember me. [laughs.] In a way, I think, I don't know, I don't know if somebody will remember me or not. I have no idea. It would be a nice thought if they see some kind of quilts and they say, 'Oh this was Irene Kahmann teaching me, or her quilts, or her ideas.' In this way, I think I would love to be remembered.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.

IK: Okay, thank you.

KM: We are going to conclude our interview at 12:41



“Irene Kahmann,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,