Viewing Jan Patek’s quilts, you glimpse the rural northern Missouri countryside she calls home, and you glimpse her soul. The subtle yet rich Midwest colors of her quilts and fabric collections invite you into a world where family, home and the land take center stage.
“My colors are the colors of wheat fields, plowed dirt, blue skies and green trees, but they are not bright,” Jan said. “When you see a wheat field, you see gold but not glittery gold. My colors come from fields, dogs, cats, kids. They all leave dust and dirt. I don’t do white hardly. My colors are warm, homey, inviting. They say, ‘Come join us.’”
Texture is also important. Her fabric collections include soft homespuns, which she finds are great for getting smooth appliqued curves using her needle-turn technique, which she has developed into a new online video course.
“Feeling is why we like fabric; it feels good,” Jan said. “If I’m going to work with something, I want to feel it. Working with fabric and petting cats are supposed to bring your blood pressure down.”
Her recent creation Pleasant Grove Primer, available as a kit with fabrics from her Sycamore collection, features her house and a cat surrounded by baskets, flowers, stars, pineapples and a flag. Several blocks give a nod to traditional patterns including nine patch and churn dash.
The images in Jan’s quilts come from what she sees around her. She and her husband, Pep, own a farm eight miles north of Cameron, Missouri, in the northwest corner of the state. They don’t farm the land though they once did.
“We had one really good year and then a few years of drought,” Jan said. “I told my husband I couldn’t handle the stress of whether it rained or not. We couldn’t make it rain.”
For a while, Jan commuted an hour to Kansas City to work and Pep went into security and law enforcement. In about 1980, Jan became a stay-at-home mom quickly followed by her discovery of quilting.
“I decided I wanted to learn to quilt and to paint a set of Christmas china because I was afraid I would be bored,” Jan said. “I never got past learning to quilt. I bought the Christmas china.”
She and Pep have continued to live on the farm enjoying the space and the routine that farm animals and pets require. It’s an environment that has inspired her many quilts, fabric collections, and 44—soon to be 45—books on quilting.
“We had a dairy cow, Suzy, for years, and we had chickens, ducks and sheep but not on a large scale,” Jan said. Suzy appears often in her quilts as do other farm animals, her house, and flowers and trees of the Midwest. She frequently includes stars, birds, angels, children and baskets.
When Jan began quilting, she was drawn to art quilts and took two classes, one with Nancy Crow and one with Michael James.
“I did a weeklong workshop with Nancy Crow,” Jan said. “I made a quilt called Suzy in the Morning about our cow. Milking is a very relaxing thing. I started out milking Suzy in the spring in the barn. Later in the summer, she would come up from the pasture to where I had my milking stool under a shade tree. I liked the rhythmic sound of the milk in the bucket. I was trying to get that feeling in the quilt. I wanted sharp lines for the morning sun. Nancy kept asking me if that’s really what I wanted. It was. In the end, she liked my quilt.”
Through the classes, Jan began to discover her style as she gained insight into how quilting could become a key part of her life. She knew she didn’t want to sell her quilts; she wanted to keep them. And she knew art quilters must sell to make money. While her teachers’ quilts were fine art, Jan learned she was drawn to folk art. She says the two are not so different.
“Modern art tries to go to the essence of things and so does folk art,” Jan said. “Both pare away the extraneous and go to what is really important.” While some folks describe Jan’s work as “primitive,” she prefers to call it folk art. She’s quick to add that folk art is not sloppy art. She wants her blocks to be square and to hang properly. That doesn’t mean the patterns in the fabrics and appliqued motifs will be straight.
“Recently I made a block with a plaid dog,” Jan began. “The plaid came out straight, and it didn’t look right. Dogs move, especially my dogs. I made the block again with the plaid at a slight angle. It looks much better.”
Jan’s entrance into the business of quilting came a bit unexpectedly when her children, Brian, Kelly and Max, asked her to make a Christmas quilt. The quilt she made, Snowbound, features the kids on sleds and building snowmen along with winter scenes that include pine trees, angels, stars, farm animals, pets and Jan’s house. All of these images are captured on blocks of varying sizes that interlock but not in a regular grid. This block style is now a signature look of her quilts.
When Jan shared the quilt with Gerry Kimmel-Carr of Red Wagon Quilts, a shop that was in Liberty, Missouri, Gerry asked Jan if she’d like to pattern the quilt. Jan changed out a few blocks she’d included that were other people’s patterns, then Red Wagon published the pattern. Jan’s patterns and books have been top sellers since.
Through the Red Wagon, Jan met Linda Brannock, who became a longtime collaborator on books and fabric lines. Jan credits Linda with helping her learn to prepare for Quilt Market. The first year Jan went to market, she and Linda, then owner of Star Quilt Company, had adjoining booths. Both were drawn to the colors in antique quilts and began to overdye new fabrics to look old.
“For example, we overdyed red with green and got an older looking brown,” Jan said.
A representative of Moda Fabrics noticed the colors of the fabrics in their quilts and asked them to design fabric for the company. Jan and Linda designed fabric together for years until the 90-minute driving distance between their homes became too much for both of them. Linda died in 2015.
Family activities and the change of seasons—climate changes and the seasons of life—provide themes for Jan’s quilts. Two books published by American Quilters Society 1993—Seasons of the Heart and Home: Quilts for Summer Days and Seasons of the Heart and Home: Quilts for a Winter’s Day—feature Jan’s quilts accompanied by entries from her journal as she waded through empty-nest syndrome, midlife crisis and menopause. The children that had populated her quilts were now adults, and she was yet to discover that the nest wouldn’t always be empty. Raising children had given her life and art meaning. With them gone, she searched for a reason to continue to quilt. It was a tough four years. Quilting pulled her through.
“I get depressed if I’m not quilting, not creating somehow,” she said. “I chose quilts because I can make them at home, and home is very important to me.”
She attributes a Mennonite heritage to her belief that each person is to leave the world a better place than they found it. She had to figure out how she was doing this through quilting. Friends and Thomas Moore’s book Care of the Soul helped her find her way. Moore writes:
“…art is not about…making pretty things. It is about the preservation and containment of soul. It is about arresting life and making it available for contemplation. Art captures the eternal in the everyday….”
Jan’s quilts capture the everyday. As she experienced her children returning home for holidays and vacations and then bringing their families with them, she created yet another landmark quilt.
“Coming Home Again was about realizing they didn’t have to live here to be family,” she said. “They would be coming home again, sometimes a lot, and bringing kids with them.”
Because Jan’s quilts stem from her life, some are created out of joy, some out of struggle.
“I believe the quilts we make reflect who we are as women,” Jan said. “My kids showed up in my early quilts; now the little kids showing up in my quilts are my grandchildren. The kids on the sled in Snow Day are Max’s kids. The three kids with the dogs and cat are Brian’s kids. Kelly’s two kids and Brian’s oldest are in college and don’t look cute in snowsuits.”
When she teaches, she encourages students who are working from her patterns to make the quilts their own.
“One woman said to me she had three cats so she put them in her quilt,” Jan remembered. “I give people a start. To make a quilt yours, you must adapt it to you. Change my house to your house. Add more flowers. Do whatever makes it your quilt.”
Jan’s quilt business continues to boom. She designs two fabric collections a year for Moda. She designs and makes six quilts to showcase each collection in time for the twice-a-year Quilt Markets. She does an annual mystery quilt as a Block-of-the-Month project. She shares a black-and-white drawing of her design in February then helps quilters make the quilt block by block throughout the year, bringing in the color as they go.
She’s currently awaiting release of her book Sleigh Bells by Martingale. It features her mystery quilt from which the book draws its title. Her fabric collection, Lilac Ridge, debuted in February, and she’s taping more and more tutorials.
Jan is one of six quilters selected by Moda to be Blockheads. All six are Moda fabric designers. They work in a six-week rotation to design blocks using fabrics from their latest lines. During the other five weeks, each of the Blockheads creates the block designed by that week’s featured designer but in her fabric line. That means Jan produces a 6- by 6-inch block every Wednesday. She is the only Blockhead whose blocks are appliqued; the rest are pieced. Though Jan’s quilt designs sometimes include piecing, she doesn’t enjoy it.
“Piecing is so restrictive,” Jan said, adding she admires quilters who do intricate piecing. “I don’t like making the same block over and over. When piecing on a machine, my brain goes someplace else, usually designing another quilt.”
Jan hires other quilters to do piecing and to help her stay on schedule with the many quilts she designs. Though she has a full schedule, she takes time to center each day.
“I have a morning routine,” she said. “I get up, take the dog outside, put the coffee on, pour a cup and listen to a devotional tape. Sewing is a meditation. I listen to tapes, mostly chants, while I sew. It’s where I get in touch with God and myself. It’s where my creative ideas come from. I sew at least two hours a day.”
Other people’s work also kickstarts Jan’s design process.
“The hardest part of designing a quilt is honing in on what I’m going to use,” she said. “Other people’s work can inspire me. I may take something I see and begin to adapt it. When I finish, my quilt doesn’t look anything like their work.”
At any given time, chances are there are designs emerging in Jan’s head and others on paper as line drawings awaiting colors. She’s not sure what directions her next creations will take but she knows they will flow from her life and her surroundings.
Dana E. Jones, a former editor of Quilters Newsletter and the SAQA Journal (Studio Art Quilt Associates), is author of Pagtinabangay: The Quilts and Quiltmakers of Caohagan Island. She lives in Gilpin County, Colorado.
To learn about Jan Patek’s Needle-Turn Applique video course and other video tutorials, patterns, kits and block-of-the-month programs, click here.