Spotlight: Bonnie Browning, Executive Show Director American Quilter’s Society
Bonnie K. Browning is well-known in the quilt world. If you don’t recognize her name, you will know her tremendous impact on quilters all over the world. She makes the magic that organizes six huge, competitive quilt shows a year for the American Quilter’s Society, including the spring and fall AQS Quilt Week shows in Paducah, Kentucky. In addition, Bonnie is an author, teacher and quilt show judge! We wanted to learn what makes this quilting powerhouse tick.
As the Executive Show Director of the American Quilter’s Society, do you have a typical day? What might be waiting on your desk when you go to work?
Every day as the Executive Show Director is similar, but always different.
When it is show season (Spring and Fall), we are working many months before the show to prepare for the shows. We just started 2019, but in the office we are already working on 2020 and 2021 shows. It takes about 18 months start to finish to develop the plans for one show… and we are currently doing six shows a year. That means we do not have much “down” time.
The first thing I do each day is answer emails. In fact, I go through my emails twice each day, first thing in the morning and again right after lunch. If you need me in between, a phone call will get my attention.
Which came first – directing AQS shows or judging? How did you get into judging quilt shows?
I was certified as a quilt judge by the National Quilting Association in 1986. As I studied for that certification, I thought I could go judge quilt shows and see a lot of beautiful quilts. What I learned very quickly was that I needed to teach quiltmaking to go along with the judging because judging is an expense for the show and they need to derive some income from teaching to offset the expenses of judging.
I entered a quilt in the AQS Quilt Contest in 1986 and won a 3rd place ribbon for A Little Bit of Candlewicking; that quilt is now in the Permanent Collection of The National Quilt Museum. My miniature quilt, Smitten with Roses, is also in the Miniature Collection at the Quilt Museum.
In 1988 I submitted the classes I was teaching at the local level to the American Quilter’s Society; they hired me to teach in 1989… mainly because I had quite a few three-hour classes and the students wanted three-hour classes. I also taught at AQS in 1992. In 1994, AQS was looking to hire someone to direct the quilt show (there was only one show then); I applied and was hired.
As I look back at that now… a door opened and I stepped through it.
What should quilters know about the jury process for acceptance to shows?
The only thing the jury sees is the two images (one of the full completed quilt and a detail photo). That means the images need to be good. The images need to be at the highest resolution your camera will shoot. Also, the quilt should be hanging from the sleeve rather than hand held or laying on the floor.
AQS has a sheet of tips for taking quilt photos on our website (quiltweek.com), under the Contest tab. The other thing I would say is: don’t be discouraged if your quilt does not get accepted for a show; the next show will have different jurors and judges and the quilts in the competition will be different.
What should quilters know about the judging process to help their quilts stand out?
The judges will be looking at a variety of things:
Design – what does the quilt convey? Does it have high or low contrast? Does the color work? Do the fabric choices work well with the design of the quilt? How about scale and proportions?
Workmanship – how well did they accomplish what they tried? If the quilt has sashing or borders that should be straight, the judges will be looking at that. Are the quilting stitches even? Does the applique have smooth curves? Are points cut off? And it doesn’t make any difference whether you are stitching by hand or by machine, these things apply to either stitching method.
Tell us about your first quilt. Did you use a pattern? Why did you make it? Where is it now?
The first piece that I made and hand quilted was a cushion for a bench. It was three blocks that I put a border and ruffled edge on. And, like most beginning hand quilters, I hand quilted those toe-catcher size stitches.
We all start in the same place as beginners. Practice is what makes us better. I still have that bench cushion and I show it occasionally to show people that you should start on a small project and work through the entire process of finishing it. The next one will be better.
How did you choose quilting as your creative outlet? What inspires you?
During the Bicentennial in 1976, I attended a meeting of a women’s club and our program was on setting goals. We all wrote down some short-term and some long-term goals.
Fast forward a few years and I was going through some boxes after we had moved to Burlington, Iowa, and I found the envelope with those goals sealed inside. I had accomplished all of the goals except one… and that was to make a quilt. At the Welcome Wagon group, we formed a needlework group and one of the members said she would teach us how to make a quilt…and that was the beginning. While taking some art classes at the local community college, I drew some weathervanes and silk-screened them on fabric for a class. I stitched them into my first bed-size quilt and hand quilted it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you about quilting before you started?
One of the problems I had when I first started was that I had trouble matching up my stitching with the lines I marked on the fabric. I would stitch on the line on top and it would not match up with the line on the bottom piece.
Then I took a class from Carla Hassel, author of You Can Be A Super Quilter, and she showed me how to use a positioning pin to align the top and bottom so the stitching would be perfect. The positioning pin holds the two pieces of fabric together while you insert a second pin to hold the layers together I now often teach quilters how to use that positioning pin to align their fabric.
If you were no longer able to quilt, how else would you express your creativity?
Since I was a youngster, I loved to draw, and have used those skills to make my own designs for my quilts. Several years ago, I learned about the Zentangle® method of drawing, and in 2012 I became a Certified Zentangle Instructor®. This is a drawing method that can be practiced by anyone of any age, and it only requires a pencil, pen, and art paper. I also enjoy photography and have been the family photographer for many years.
What trends do you see in quilting today?
One of the things that changes in our quiltmaking is the fabric. The fabric manufacturers continue to give us great colors and patterns in the cotton and other fabrics that we use to make our quilts. Color is ever-changing so we see cycles of brights, earth tones, interesting batiks, and lots of beautiful solids or semi-solids.
One of the things we have been seeing recently on art quilts is using a facing instead of a binding to finish the edges of the quilt. We also are seeing more paint being applied to quilts, either quilting and then painting the whole quilt, or adding paint to appliquéd designs and backgrounds.
The definition of a quilt has evolved over the years with creative people pushing traditional boundaries. Who is helping to redefine the quilt medium today, and what is it about their work that stands out? Where do new ideas come from?
Sometimes they happen by accident and other times they are carefully planned. Creative minds continue push the envelope to see what we can do differently with fabric, thread, and quilting. Here at AQS, it is always fun to see the quilts entered in our contests because these quilters like to try new things.
What do you believe is a key element in creating a successful quilt?
I personally think that color value is one of the most important aspects of making a quilt. You can use lights against darks to create high contrast, or you can use medium-value fabrics to create a more-subtle look. The quiltmaker gets to be the designer and make it however he/she wants.
When you teach, what is the most important takeaway you want your students to have at the end of the day?
Quiltmaking should be fun. Learn the basics of making a quilt – I have spent more than 30 years teaching those basics. Once you learn the basics, you can veer off anyway you want and you will end up with a well-constructed quilt in whatever style you desire.
Tell us about Zentangle and how it relates to quilting.
Surprisingly Zentangle and quilting have a lot in common. Today’s quilters do a lot of background quilting that is easier if the lines are continuous. Zentangle is a repetition of the same line to fill a space.
Some of the Zentangle patterns can easily be stitched in continuous lines. I suggest that quilters take a Zentangle class so they can develop even more designs to use for their background quilting. Voila! New designs that you can draw yourself.
Of all of the books you have written, which one has been the most popular? What is it about that title that resonates with your audience?
I have written two books on borders, Borders & Finishing Touches and Borders & Finishing Touches 2. They have been the most popular because they give you lots of basic information. The way you finish the borders and edges of the quilt can be the crowning glory to a quilt! Both of these books are out of print, but Borders & Finishing Touches 2 is still available as an eBook from AQS. I also have an iquilt online class (iquilt.com) on Borders & Finishing Touches that has been very popular.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time? How many UFOs do you think you have?
I have to make time to sew, and sometimes I just need to sew something. It might be as simple as a pincushion (I have a whole collection of them) or start a new quilt. There are always projects in different stages. Some projects require a sewing machine, but I usually have a project that can be hand stitched on the road.
What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?
We receive a lot of tote bags when we teach at conferences – that is how I store my UFOs so I can keep the pattern and the pieces together. Every once in a while I go through those UFOs and donate them. I also store my materials for teaching classes in tote bags; when I arrive at the show, I just need to take the tote bag for that class and I know I’ll have my handouts, my instructions, my samples, and any notions that are needed for that class.
Are there indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My tools include a BERNINA sewing machine, a 6”x12” ruler and a 6”x24” ruler from the same manufacturer, a good pair of Famore scissors, and plenty of new blades for my rotary cutter. With these tools, I can sew anything.
I started quilting when we traced around a template on the backside of the fabric – before the rotary cutter. Accurate rotary cutting and the ¼” foot on my machine lets me be accurate in sewing my quilts.
When you’re not directing quilt shows and making quilts, what other interests do you have?
I like to travel and have visited 47 of the U.S. states, and Australia, Canada, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Switzerland, and Turkey. For some down time, I enjoy photography, Zentangle drawing, and reading.
As a quilter, what is your favorite travel destination so far? Where do you want your travels to take you next? Why?
I really enjoyed my trip to Australia and hope that I can teach there again sometime soon. My bucket list for traveling is to go on a safari. I would love to see the animals in the wild… and then to make some quilts featuring those animals in many colors.
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