Bonnie Browning
Featured Quilt Artist

By Gloria Massard

Bonnie Browning
Bonnie Browning
Paducah, KY
I'm honored to interview Bonnie Browning, quilter extraordinaire. Bonnie carries many titles these days including author, photographer, teacher, quilt judge, quilt show organizer, editor, designer and editor of the AQS (American Quilter's Society) newsletter.

Bonnie has appeared on several television shows including "Sew Young-Sew Fun," "Simply Quilts," and "American Quilter."

Not surprisingly, Bonnie has won numerous quilting awards. One of her quilts, "A Little Bit of Candlewicking" won third place at the 1986 AQS Quilt Show in Paducah, Kentucky. That quilt now resides in the National Quilt Museum of Paducah.

Two of Bonnie's quilts are featured in the "Artists of Iowa Collection" in Waterloo, Iowa. Her quilts were the first to be added to this collection. Bonnie has always loved breaking new ground.

In 2004, Bonnie designed her own fabric line with Marcus Brothers Textiles of New York. She named her collection "Traditions." True to its name, the collection featured classic colors of red/white, blue/white, yellow and green.

Bonnie seems to have her hands in every aspect of the quilting world, both personally and professionally. The desire to create stems back to her childhood. As a young girl, Bonnie loved to create things with her hands. So, when her mother, Mary Kirkland, taught her how to sew, it was a natural fit. Bonnie has been sewing and designing ever since.

Let's find out more about this talented quilt artist!

How long have you been quilting?

I started quilting in the late 1970s, when most of the fabric was polyester/cotton, with just a few 100% cottons available. My first quilt top (which still has not been quilted) was made using a brown/blue print, a blue print, and an off-white poly/cotton solid fabric.

Bonnie Enjoying the Great Outdoors
Bonnie Enjoying the Great Outdoors
Of course, it didn't sew together very well, because I mixed the fabric contents. It was a sampler quilt that I made with a Welcome Wagon sewing group in Burlington, Iowa.

But I learned a lot by making all of those blocks - including one block of Grandmother's Flower Garden (I swore that was my lifetime achievement of doing that design).

I then moved on to make my first finished quilt using some screen-printed blocks of weather vanes that I had drawn for an art class that I was taking at the Community College. I made those blocks into a quilt with sashing and borders, and hand quilted it.

Windmill Wall Hanging
Bonnie's Windmill Wall Hanging
from the "Simply Quilts" Show.
That was my first finished quilt. And I was so proud of that quilt that I hung it on the wall in the living room...and guess what, the light faded the red sashing and borders to an ugly orangy color. So that quilt was put away, not to be seen again in years.

I really should take it apart and add new sashing and re-quilt it. I didn't do much quilting, so it wouldn't be hard to do. But it's my first quilt, so I guess I'll just save it as that.

You have an interesting family tradition. Every year at Christmastime, you create a new decoration. 

As a child, one of the highlights that we always did at Christmastime was to make a new ornament or decoration. That was a tradition that I've continued.
Bonnie Browning
Some of Bonnie's Quilts
Now I have lots of handmade ornaments for our tree, enough to do it all in angels, or all in Santas, or all in a whole mixture of different types of ornaments.

My favorite trees are those that have just lights and our handmade ornaments. You remember lots of things when you go over the tree looking at them.

My Mother still continues to give all of us kids (I have a brother and two sisters) and all of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren a new ornament each year. When the young ones are ready to leave home, they have a nice collection of ornaments to take with them for their first Christmas tree.

How many quilts do you sew in a year? Do you enter any of them in quilt shows?

That's a good question. Since I travel and teach a few times each year, and as an instructor, you need to keep doing new classes. I am doing good these days to just get samples for my classes sewn.

Bonnie Browning Basket Quilt
Quilt Featured in Japanese Magazine
Or, I might be busy working on samples and quilts for a new book. I have to make time to sew. Sometimes I just say, "This weekend I am working on this sewing project."

I make gifts for our families and have done that for years - usually in the fall I begin working on whatever gift I've decided to make for everyone. These are usually not large gifts, but I have a lot to make, so I have to budget my time to get them all done.

I haven't entered any quilts in competitions for a number of years. I have a record of winning something every time I enter a quilt...and I haven't taken the time to do a "competition" quality quilt for a while. I have certainly shared a lot of my quilts at shows where I've been teaching, so people have seen my work in those kinds of exhibits.

Please tell us about your role as director of the Paducah Quilt Show.

Paducah Quilt Show Entrance
Quilt Show Entrance
In 1994 AQS (American Quilter's Society) hired me as the show director for AQS. That means I oversee all of the activities related to the quilt shows - all three of them. We now do shows in Paducah in April, July in Knoxville, TN, and October in Des Moines, IA.

We have a staff of seven, counting me. We have coordinators who handle the contests, registration, vendors, a graphic designer, a director of show operations who makes sure everything is set up at the shows, and a part-time staff who assists whoever needs help.

We are working on two years of shows all of the time. Currently we are working on the Knoxville show that will be held July 22 - 25 at the Knoxville Convention Center. Today the quilts in the contest were juried so the letters will go out to all of the contestants in the next week or so.

Paducah Quilt Show
Paducah Quilt Show
The deadline for entering the Des Moines contest is June 24, so we'll start the process of entering all of that information into the computer so those quilts can be juried next.

And, we are working on our teachers for 2010, so we can get the top national quilting instructors that everyone wants to learn from.

It's a very busy office, and you have to like detail, and be able to multi-task because we work on a lot of different things and shows at once. I have to travel to each of our show sites at least twice a year for planning meetings with the staff at the convention centers. My job is definitely not a 9-to-5 job.

Bonnie Rests Her Aching Feet
Bonnie Rests Her Aching Feet
Often I bring home materials that need to be proofed before going to the printer so I can have quiet, uninterrupted time to read through them. It's a constant battle for me to keep the piles of paper in my office from getting too deep.

Like now, just after a show when we are going through and throwing all of the working papers out. Even with my piles, I know where things are.

I also serve on the book acquisitions committee for AQS. If anyone has an idea for a book, they can contact me to forward it to the committee. Whenever I am out there teaching at guilds and conferences, it is always amazing to hear the great ideas that quilters have.

What other events surround the show? What is the most popular attraction?

Ricky Tims
Ricky Tims Performs
Carson Four Rivers Center
Our surveys always tell us that the quilters come to our events for three reasons: quilts is #1, merchant mall is #2, and education is #3.

We always plan some special events and look for a variety of entertaining instructors who can perform for a special event.

Here in Paducah there are many other things that go on around the city. The Rotary Club always has an antique quilt exhibit at the Civic Center. And everyone just "has" to stop at Hancock's of Paducah.

Eleanor Burns has her tent city at Carson Park, the window contest downtown...and the list goes on.

As a certified quilt judge, what are some of the things you look for when judging quilts? Do you scrutinize your own quilts by the same standards?

Last Roses of Summer
Bonnie's "Last Roses of Summer"
Quilt judges look for design, color, fabric, scale, compatibility of quilting designs with the overall look, and technical workmanship. The show sets the standards they want the judges to pay attention to.

For instance, in some shows, they want design to be the primary criteria for certain categories.

Others want a balanced review of the quilts. And, yes, I know how certain elements should look, and I hold my own work to those standards. I am not afraid to use the froggy tool....rippit, rippit, rippit, if needed.

You've written nine fantastic quilting books. Is it true you're working on book number 10? If so, can you tell us about it?

Yes, I have written nine quilting books. Currently I am working on #10 - which will be a book using piecing. I've not honed in on exactly what I'll do in the end.
Bonnie Browning's Books
Bonnie's Quilting Books
One thing about working for the publisher is that I can tell them not to advertise the book until I turn in the manuscript. I've been known to be late a time or two and that really messes up the advertising plan for a book.

I'm not sure when I'll get the book done, but I have been collecting my data and working on quilt ideas for it.

Bonnie Browning's Book Signing
One of Bonnie's Book Signings

Once I start into quilt production, then things really start to roll. After the quilts are done, it is easy to write the text to go with them.

I no longer have time to quilt all of the samples for my books, so my friend Irene Reising, who lives here in Paducah, usually does the quilting on the finished quilts that I make for the book.

You have a passion for photography. Do you publish any of your photographs in your books?

For as long as I can remember, I have been the family photographer. When you see photos of our family, I am the one missing in a lot of photos, because I was behind the camera.

Daffodils Photo
Bonnie's Daffodil Photo
Now I have a tripod and can set the timer so I can jump into the photos with everyone else now. I have photographed weddings, and other family events.

When my Mom turned 80, I collected family photos from everyone and divided the quilt into fourths so each of us kids was represented by a corner of the quilt.

Mom and her family were featured in the center. I take photographs all year long, and many of the photos I've taken have appeared in some of the AQS books, ads, and other printer materials that we do for the shows.

For my last book, I shot more than 200 photos for the step-by-step photos that we used throughout the book. Our staff photographer shot the full quilts, but most of the other photos were taken by me.

Bonnie's Hyacinths and Daffodils
Bonnie's Hyacinths and Daffodils Photo
If you look at the AQS Quilt News Blog, you'll see a lot of photos that I've taken of the remodeling of the convention center and of the Executive Inn, Ricky Tims and Eleanor Burns on stage at the Four Rivers Center Performing Arts Center at the show, and lots more.

I carry a small Sony camera in my purse all of the I'm never far from a camera. I've taken some great online classes that really helped me learn more about using different features on my big camera, a Canon 30D, and also on framing the shots so you don't have to do so much work in Photoshop.

Usually I try to leave a small frame around my actual shot in case you need to straighten the photo. You can always crop a small margin off, but you can't put it back on once you've taken the picture.

Do you design all the projects in your books, or do you collaborate with other quilt artists?

HGTV Alex Anderson & Bonnie
HGTV Alex Anderson & Bonnie
I do design projects for my books, but I certainly do ask others to use their quilts or to use their patterns to be included. I think that just makes it a better book.

My books are usually a collaboration on a topic...and I love being able to show the beautiful work of other people who may not want to write a book but love being published.

When you get an idea for a quilt design, do you sketch it on paper, or do you just start sewing?

I am a big fan of Electric Quilt. I was one of the first testers of their software and have had every version of it. It is easy to learn to use and sure saves a lot of time when planning a quilt.

Electric Quilt 7
You can adjust the scale of all of the elements from the size of the blocks, to the borders, and even the quilting designs. And you can use the Stash collections to use the actual fabrics (or close anyway) to test color schemes.

I love EQ. You do not need to be an experienced computer user or experienced quilter to use it either. They have a great manual and videos in their help screens to help you out.

I subscribe to their online EQ digest, and they offer a lot of help there too if you get stuck on working on a design.

You meet a lot of famous quilters in your line of business. Who influences you the most?

Oh, my goodness, now that is a good question. I am one of the Bernina National Teachers and love getting an opportunity to meet with about 100 other national instructors at the Bernina corporate headquarters in Aurora, IL each fall.

Usually, when we are out there teaching, we don't get to really socialize much. This reunion each fall gives us all an opportunity to visit and discuss what is going on in the quilting world.

Bernina Reunion Group
Bernina Reunion Group
I am definitely influenced by Meredith Schroeder, President of AQS. This whole society was her brain child. Her vision that quilters needed to be recognized and rewarded for their artistry has helped to elevate quilts as art.

From the beginning, AQS sought to make sure the quilts were recognized as art and offered $10,000 Best of Show award in 1985, when other shows were giving ribbons. This year AQS awarded more than $127,000 in cash awards to quilters in our contests.

Since 1985, AQS has given more than $2.5 million in awards in our contests. We continue to strive to be at the forefront of what is happening in quilting, in our books, our shows and contests, and in our publications and Web site.

Of all your achievements, which one do you hold near and dear?

That would be the wonderful opportunities I've had to travel and meet quilters around the world. My sister, Karen, once said, "Could you have ever imagined that this little gal from Muscatine, Iowa, would get to travel and meet quilters all over the world?"

Bonnie with Bali Elephant
Bonnie in Bali, Indonesia
The answer is, "No, I would never have dreamed that quilting would take me to all of these places."

I've traveled to Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan (3 times), Switzerland, and Turkey (at the invitation of the Minister of Culture of Turkey).

I'm currently working on a tour to South Africa...anyone want to go on a safari and meet quilters in South Africa? We're still working on the details. Watch my Blog for more on that trip.

Bonnie & Nancy Kassabaum Baker
Bonnie and Her Imperial Highness
Princess Akishinonomiya tour the Great
International Quilt Festival in Tokyo
My first trip to Japan was really special, because our staff and other U.S. vendors attending the show were invited to the U.S. Ambassador's residence for wine and cheese.

Ambassador and Mrs. Howard Baker (Nancy Kassabaum Baker) were gracious hosts and shared the history of the residence.

Did you know that everything in that residence came from the U.S. - only the land it sits on is not a U.S. product? I asked if we could take a photograph with the Bakers, and Mrs. Baker said I could, but I would have to set up because she wasn't a photographer. I chose a site in the living room in front of three large arched windows.

When Ambassador Baker told us about the house, he said the spot I chose for that photo was the same spot that General MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II, and that MacArthur had only allowed one photograph to be taken...this was after his houseman had taken photos with all 25 of our cameras. We all had a good laugh about that.

As an author, photographer, teacher, quilt judge, show organizer, editor and designer, how do you find balance and prevent burnout?

If I was limited to any one aspect of what I do, I'd probably be bored to death. I am a Gemini and we can juggle a lot of different things.

Bonnie Browning & Husband
Dinner in Tokyo.  Bonnie,  Mr. Seto (center) and
Bonnie's husband Wayne (far right)
I've always been using my hands, from my days as an Executive Secretary in the 1960-70s, to running my own Pine-N-Needle business of crafting things from wood for gift shops in the 1980s (bet you didn't know I did that?), to becoming involved in teaching quilting in the mid-1980s to the present.

I'm not one to sit idle; I always have something to do in my hands, whether its a computer, a sewing machine, a needle (yes, I do quilt by hand too), my camera, and it might even be my glue gun to do a craft project. And I still do find time to relax on our back porch and watch our cat and the birds in the backyard (check out my Blog for bird visitors in our backyard), and take a nap in my porch swing.

Do you have any tips for beginning quilters?

I advise beginning quilters to start with small projects, so you can work through the whole process of making the top, adding borders, making the quilt sandwich, quilting the project, and putting on that final binding to finish it.

Bonnie's Stardust Pattern
Bonnie's Free Stardust Pattern
Once you know the process, then it is a matter of choosing projects and colors that you really want to work with - some projects take a big investment of time, and you don't want to get sick of it because it really wasn't your cup of tea.

Quilting should be fun, if it isn't, then find out why you aren't enjoying it. This isn't rocket science. It's just cutting up fabric, sewing it together, and cutting it up again to make a project. Not every project has to be a show stopper.

Where can we find information about your workshops, seminars and products?

My Website: This site lists my schedules and workshops.

My Blog: Watch my Blog for my latest news and photos that I've taken. I'm also on Facebook for short casual chats.

Thank you, Bonnie Browning, for allowing us to get to know you better. We look forward to the launch of your newest book and other upcoming projects.

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