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Column #6

Learn the Rules before You Break Them

Kate Sesquicentennial Star, by Beth Thomas Kennedy. This quilt was made for Texas's 150th birthday celebration. Photo courtesy of Beth Kennedy.


Sisters Past and Present, Far and Near, by Beth Thomas Kennedy. A traditional six-pointed star pattern in an nontraditional setting. Photo courtesy of Beth Kennedy.

Penny Tree

Details from 80's Ladies, A Baltimore Album Quilt for the 20th Century, by Beth Thomas Kennedy. Photos courtesy of Beth Kennedy.

Karey, Joyce and Nancy

The Texas Memorial Museum Anniversary Quilt, Beth Thomas Kennedy, Austin, Texas, 1986; collection of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin (TMM2511.1)

Beth Thomas Kennedy is known to most people in the quilting community as an acclaimed art quilter and textile artist. Noted for her strong color sense and trademark embellishment, her art cloth, wearable art, and series quilts—exploring such topics as female imagery, goddesses, and matriarchal rituals—have been exhibited and collected throughout the world. While it is true that Beth’s professional career leans toward the avant-garde, her foundation in quilting is anchored solidly on traditional ground.   

Although Beth has sewn and done needlework for most of her life, she did not start out as a quilter. In fact, she came to quilting in a rather unusual way: as a businesswoman. In 1978, she was invited by a friend to go into partnership in a natural-fiber fabric store called High Cotton.   The partners determined that it would be a good idea to offer classes geared toward using their fabrics, so Beth joined the Austin Stitchery Guild Austin Stitchery Guild and the Austin Area Quilt Guild to meet needle people. From those groups, Beth and her co-owner invited the best quilters to teach classes at their shop. Beth took the quilting classes herself, and that’s how she learned to quilt. 

After a couple of years, Beth’s partner wanted out of the store, so the women sold it and Beth found herself looking for a new source of income. She began teaching quilt lessons herself and entering her quilts in shows, all while avidly pursuing her own education in the art form. She especially loved traditional appliqué and folk art quilts. The dramatic, intricate work of Rose Kretsinger, as well as quilts in the Baltimore album style—with their inscriptions of dedication and poetry—were special inspirations.

While serving as Program Chair for the Austin Area Quilt Guild in the mid-1980s, Beth invited the well-known quilter Roberta Horton to present a program and teach a workshop for the guild.  At the workshop, Roberta had the students work with non-traditional Japanese fabrics to make traditional quilt patterns. This blending of traditional and non-traditional was a watershed event in Beth’s quilting career.

“When I started to enter the professional side of quilting, I discovered that it is important to have a personal style,” Beth explains. “While I was drawn toward the innovation expressed in art quilts, the ones that influenced me most were those that had a connection with traditional quilts.  My style has evolved through the years, but I’ve always tried to maintain that connection in my work.”

The kinship with the rich heritage of quilts and their makers can be found in all of Beth’s quilted pieces, many of which incorporate a traditional block or pattern as a theme or underlying element.  A good example of this can be found in (A Nuestra Señora, La Virgen de Guadalupe . Beth based it on a traditional appliquéd medallion pattern, but embellished it heavily with embroidery, yarn dolls, and milagro charms. This quilt was selected for exhibition at Quilt National in 1991 and is featured in The New Quilt l, Catalogue, Quilt National, Taunton Press, CT, 1991.

“I believe that if you’re going to break the rules in making an art quilt, you first need to know what the rules are,” says Beth. “I learned to quilt from quilters. They taught me the rules and that has been invaluable to me. No matter what style of quilts you make, workmanship is primary.   Sometimes with art quilts, that is forgotten. People with an art background but no quilting experience don’t know the rules, and so when they break them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Beth’s artist’s statement sums up her philosophy: “Working with cloth is comforting and challenging at the same time. It is tactile evidence that we were here and left something of value—a mirror of ourselves and our accomplishments. My quilts are a natural continuation of the tradition of contributions that women bring to their cultures, although I admit to a preference for breaking the rules.”



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Archived blogs:

Column 149: Rosie’s Redwork
Column 148: The Quilt of Belonging
Column 147: Kanthas—The Quilts of Bangladesh
Column 146: Patterns
Column 145: Suzy on Carolyn Mazloomi's Groundbreaking Quilt Exhibit
Column 144: Texas Community Marks Juneteenth Sesquicentennial with History Quilts
Column 143: Maya Embroidered Patchwork
Column 142: Huipil Patchwork Quilts
Column 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery

See other archived columns here


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