Jenny Doan arguably may be the most well-known quilter in the world today. Her hundreds of YouTube quilting tutorials have 590,000 devoted subscribers from every part of the globe and over 160,000 million views.
Thousands of fans flock to Hamilton, Missouri each month to visit the business that she founded along with her family, the Missouri Star Quilt Company. The company has revitalized a whole community, has an annual revenue upwards of $40 million, and it received the Small Business Administration’s Small Business of the Year award at a White House ceremony in 2015.
It has been prominently featured on the “Today” show, MSNBC’s “Main Street USA,” and the “NBC Nightly News,” among numerous other high-profile recognitions. Jenny and her husband, Ron, lost their entire life’s savings during the Great Recession prior to starting the company, and her remarkable rags-to-riches story has been retold countless times in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Inc., Forbes, and Parade to name but a few. Such is Jenny’s renown that one of her nicknames is “the Oprah of quilting.”
Talking to Jenny in person, it isn’t difficult to understand either her appeal or her success. As warm and comfortable as the quilts she makes, she wraps her considerable skill set in a manner that is approachable and nonjudgmental. She is relaxed, fun, and funny, with a rare ability to present sometimes-complex instructions in an understandable, unthreatening manner. But how did this super-star of the quilt world learn to do what she does?
In Jenny’s immediate family, no one sewed and nobody made quilts, although she did come from sewing stock, so to speak. Two of her great aunts immigrated to New York from Sweden in the 1800s to serve as seamstresses for the household of the noted American landscape painter, George Inness. (Interesting aside: Jenny’s great-grandmother—the seamstresses’ younger sister—also immigrated when she was seven-years-old in 1912, taking a barge from Sweden to England intending to board the Titanic, when the family learned that the ship had been overbooked and they had to wait for a different vessel. “I wouldn’t be here, otherwise,” Jenny laughs.)
“I guess I got the full whack of the sewing gene from my great-aunts, because I discovered scissors early on and I started cutting up my mom’s clothes to make things for my dolls,” she continues. “I was stapling and taping the pieces together, and since my mother couldn’t afford to lose anymore clothing, she decided I needed an intervention. She signed me up for 4-H when I was 10 and I learned to sew there. I became obsessed with fabric and sewing. Sewing became my go-to for every emotion. When I was happy, I’d whip up something small. When I was angry, I’d make a whole new outfit!”
Jenny and her husband have seven children and she always made their clothes when they were growing up. A talented singer, she became involved in community theatre and in addition to her performing roles, she also served as the costumer in whatever production she was involved with. Her grandmother would embroider flowers on squares of denim and Jenny would sew the squares together to make wallhangings and gifts for family members. “I was making quilts, but I didn’t know I was making quilts!” she says. It was her husband who suggested that she take a quilting class at a technical school after the family moved to Missouri from California.
“I told him that only old people do that,” Jenny recalls. “But I took a class on Eleanor Burns’ Quilt-In-A-Day method, and I got hooked. The Log Cabin pattern was such a revelation to me! I was fascinated by all the different ways you could put things together. I got so excited that before I knew it, I had made 12 quilts.
“All of my creative processes start with the question, ‘What happens if…?’ And I’ll try anything! I was so used to making costumes and taking shortcuts to make something quickly that looked good and got the job done, that I didn’t worry too much about the rules of making things a certain way. I always say that getting something finished is better than getting something perfect. I think that’s one of the keys to the success of my YouTube videos. I’m not the quilt police. I don’t make people feel that things have to be ‘just right.’ I think people have a lot of anxiety about that, and for those who watch my videos, the ability to fail in their own home without others judging them is really liberating. I let them know that everybody makes mistakes and it’s okay.”
When asked what it is about making a quilt that most appeals to her, Jenny responds: “For me, it’s longevity. It’s not just sewing—it’s something beyond that. A costume I make might last only a couple of weeks for a performance. But a quilt I make will outlive me and maybe have a whole new life beyond anything I could have dreamed of. Isn’t that great?”