The first time I saw one of Tom Korn’s ribbon quilts, I was speechless. I’d never seen anything like it in more than 25 years collecting and studying quilts. It was a quintessential expression of patriotism and modernism, elegant and poignant.
When I got home, I posted a picture on Facebook and wrote, “I saw this quilt at the Oregon State Fair today. Made by Tom Korn, it depicts Vietnam Era Medals: National Defense Medal (top), Vietnam Service Medal (center) and Vietnam Campaign Medal (bottom). It was one of the most simple quilts in terms of design, but one of the most complicated in terms of content and meaning. I thought it was brilliant.”
Korn’s quilt made a big impression at the show, which was the 2013 Oregon State Fair in Salem. The quilt looked exactly like a military ribbon pin, but many times enlarged. It was very clear from a distance and it was nicely made. The binding matched the colors all the way around the perimeter, and linear quilting cleverly replicated the texture of the ribbon. The quilt also made a big impression on the judges, who awarded it a blue ribbon in the innovative category.
With just a year’s experience under his belt, Korn was brand-new to quiltmaking when his quilt appeared at the state fair. Korn, a soft-spoken man, was born and raised in Oregon. He grew up with seven sisters and four brothers and was the oldest boy with two older sisters. When asked what it was like growing up as one of 12 kids, he chuckled and said, “Crowded.
“There were a lot of hand-me-downs,” he said, “and we had to work during the school year. We picked strawberries, green beans and blackberries, among other things. If we wanted spending money, we had to work. Being part of a large family taught us work ethic.” At an early age, Korn’s parents taught him about gardening, cooking and canning.
“We had a huge garden, close to where I live now. It was a big lot next to the railroad, and we had corn, cucumbers, squash, green beans, tomatoes, pumpkins – a whole assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables.”
When he was 18, Korn enlisted in the Navy. He went through special training to prepare for service as an engineman on a nuclear submarine in the South China Sea. He served as part of the blue-water navy from 1968 to 1971. The submarine was stationed in deep waters just outside the country, close enough to be on constant guard.
“I always wanted to be a submariner,” said Korn, “so in boot camp when they asked for volunteers, I was the first one to raise my hand. We would get an extra $100 per month in hazardous duty pay. The first boat I was assigned to was a diesel called the Cusk. I was an engineman ‘oiler’ and was always oily and smelled of diesel. We were only allowed a shower about every four days because we could only make 1000 gallons of water a day if the stills were working.
“There were 100 guys packed in a space built for 60. Walking down a passageway, if you ran into another crewmember you both had to turn sideways to pass each other.” Korn said a common practice for the lower ranks was hot bunking – when soldiers going on and off watch would replace each other in the bunk, in an effort to maintain heat.
“The mission for a sub is to avoid being seen,” Korn said. “Our ship’s plaque said ‘Festina Lente’ – or make haste slowly. We were also very quiet. We operated in the South China Sea twice. That’s where we stayed down for 45 days. There were at least 40 Russian ships and subs in the area. It was not unusual to be within 100 feet of one taking pictures of their hulls. If you dropped a spoon they would hear it and the consequences would not have been good.
“There wasn’t a lot of spare time when you had to learn all the systems on board in order to qualify to stand your division watches without supervision, and when you qualified they always took a guy away from the division, leaving you standing ‘port and starboard’ watches. That’s six hours on and six hours off. One of the off times you had to do division maintenance, the other off time was for sleep and or recreation, watching movies, any kind of card games, and reading.”
Following Korn’s distinguished service in the military and career as an electrical contractor, quiltmaking was an unlikely choice of hobbies in retirement.
“My father was a carpenter,” said Korn. “I started getting into woodworking in Boy Scouts.” His artistic endeavors were limited, and he did not do any sewing, but his mother and sisters did some sewing. His sisters grew up to be quiltmakers, and one of them, Kathy Byrne of Eugene, Oregon, shared a few thoughts about her talented brother.
“He was the one who helped Dad put the lights on the Christmas tree. When he got his driver’s license, he sometimes drove the rest of us around,” she said. “In the day, boys did outdoor work and girls did house work. So, he used the lawnmower rather than the sewing machine.
“He was wanting a hobby after retiring and moving back to Salem,” said Byrne. “We sisters had been quilting together for a while, and he joined us.” Even though Tom never made a quilt before 2012, he always admired them. So, Byrne didn’t seem too surprised that he asked to join his sisters. “He is a natural! Officially, he is Hairy-Faced Sister.”
Korn enjoys piecing. His ribbon quilts are simply pieced, each one 45-inches long and 15-inches tall. They were exhibited in special displays at the Northwest Quilters 41st Annual Show and the 2015 Oregon State Fair, among other places, and he also made quilts for an official at the Department of Justice. His quilts always draw crowds, especially veterans. Now a member of the Mid-Valley Quilt Guild in Salem, he gives back by volunteering to longarm Quilts of Valor quilts, and in 2015, he was awarded a Quilt of Valor of his own, made by the Northwest Quilters.
When I visited with Korn at his Salem home, “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash played on a radio in the kitchen, and there was a huge Pfaff longarm quilting machine in his front room.
He had several new ribbon tops in the works, and a client’s T-shirt quilt loaded on the longarm. I was impressed by how enthralled he was with quiltmaking. Looking around, I could also tell he was very busy.
“It’s a good hobby,” said Korn, “something to do with your hands, and gets your mind off things. When you’re making a quilt you are pretty much focused on what you’re doing.” It was more than just a hobby. His laser focus was uncommon for someone so new to quiltmaking, and it seemed quilts were bringing Tom Korn out of retirement, giving him a bright and promising new career.
Bill Volckening is a quilt collector and historian, photographer, and quiltmaker whose work has been published globally. Quilts from The Volckening Collection have been exhibited from New York to Tokyo, and appeared in various publications worldwide.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Quilters Newsletter.