Note: This continuing series will repost some of the most memorable columns of Suzy’s Fancy, which ran from 2009-2020. This piece originally ran in February 2009.
Anybody who has been around quilts for any length of time knows that a template is a pattern for tracing pieces or for tracing lines to be quilted. Templates guide us, show us what to do, where to cut, what to leave whole. In a larger sense, most of us are lucky enough to know people who act as templates for the way we live our lives.
Kathleen McCrady is a template for me. I daresay that many people who love quilts know who Kathleen is, but if you don’t, then let me tell you about this truly amazing person who inspires and encourages everybody she meets.
Kathleen makes quilts. Those three simple words make up a short little sentence that, while certainly true, hardly conveys the depth beneath its surface. It’s sort of like saying Mozart wrote songs. Kathleen has made hundreds of quilts, more than a few of which could rightly be called masterworks. She is from Austin, and is a member of the Austin Area Quilt Guild
The awards and prizes she has won could almost fill a room and her work has been featured in magazines, books and exhibits throughout the world. She is astonishingly prolific, yet her workmanship is unfailingly fine. Yes, Kathleen makes quilts—really, really good quilts.
She learned to quilt when she was very young and she grew up in a time and place (1930s Oklahoma) where quilts were an accepted and necessary part of everyday life. All through her school years, as a young wife throughout World War II, during the years she raised her family, as a career woman, and on into retirement, she made quilts.
When many of her generation took a hiatus from quilting or stopped altogether during the 1950s and ’60s, Kathleen kept on, jokingly calling herself a “closet quilter.” When the quilt revival occurred in the 1970s, Kathleen didn’t need reviving. Not many people can say they’ve been actively quilting for eight decades, but Kathleen can.
Although she is truly a master of her medium, she always seeks to learn more, to be better. With a curious mind and energy that daunts those half her age, Kathleen is a passionate student of her art, ever hungry to try a new technique; to re-draft an old pattern; to read yet one more book about any aspect of quiltmaking; to attend another exhibit or travel to museums or visit private collections; to meet and learn from other quilters; to research the history of textiles, dyes or fabric printing; or to learn about quilt dating, appraisal, restoration and conservation.
Her search for knowledge turned her into an avid collector of textiles, antique quilts, quilt tops, sample blocks, patterns, and quilt-related books, magazines and sewing tools. She is the proverbial “walking encyclopedia” of quilt information.
She amassed so much data and material that she felt compelled to share it with others and in the late 1990s, Kathleen launched a training program that she called the Quilt Study Hall. From a separate building at her home that housed her collection, she offered classes free to the public on the history of quilts from 1840 to 1970.
Hundreds of people took the class and when that effort became too burdensome, she donated the contents of her Study Hall to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. This treasure trove and the promised future donation of selected quilts will serve as a fitting legacy for Kathleen, along with the book she wrote: My Journey with Quilts—Over 70 years of Quiltmaking 1932-2003.
Kathleen never touts her deep expertise. She is modest about her accomplishments and ever willing to share what she knows, be it as a teacher, a guild officer, a bee member, a mother, a mother-in-law, a grandmother, a program presenter, a show judge, a certified appraiser, a consultant to universities, or—in my case—as a beloved friend.
In Japan, the government recognizes certain people who are exemplary in carrying on Japanese traditions as Living National Treasures. I wish the United States had a program like that. If it did, Kathleen McCrady would surely be on the list, a template for us all.