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New book traces history of Quilt Festival…and the women behind it

Making Magic and Memories

 

By Bob Ruggiero

 

Crowds line up to get into the 1991 Quilt Festival.

Photo by Richard Cunningham

Karey Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant testify in Washington, D.C. during a 1993 congressional hearing about the Smithsonian Quilt Controversy. They also brought petitions signed

by more than 25,000 quilters from around the world.

O’Bryant and Bresenhan at the 1996 Quilt Expo in Lyon, France, one of many European shows that Quilts, Inc. produced.

Karey Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant recently.

Anyone walking into the George R. Brown Convention Center this fall as International Quilt Festival holds its Sapphire Celebration – whether veteran or newbie – is sure to be impressed by the sheer amount of things under one roof: vendors, quilts on display, and classes.

But the largest quilt show in the country wasn’t always of this magnitude. In fact, it came from much more modest beginnings in a Houston antique store owned by founder Karey Bresenhan. A place where quilts were only hung as an afterthought to cover bare walls! Bresenhan was soon assisted by her first cousin Nancy O’Bryant—though they were/are more like sisters.

The story of this show and the women behind
it frame the narrative of the new book Magic
and Memories: 45 Years of International Quilt Festival
(Schiffer Publishing). In it, author Teresa Duryea Wong (Japanese Contemporary Quilts and Quilters, American Cotton: Farm to Quilt) touches not only on Quilt Festival, but the history of the quilt industry and topics including women’s rights, business, politics, sociology, trade, and
a lot more than just piecework. It will debut on sale at this year’s Quilt Festival in Houston, and can also be pre-ordered when enrolling
for classes.

During the Houston show, Wong will also present a luncheon lecture about the book on November 1, and conduct a free onstage interview and Q&A with Bresenhan and O’Bryant on November 2.

Wong—an independent author for this project—first met Bresenhan and O’Bryant when she was named a Bybee Scholar by the Texas Quilt Museum (which the pair co-founded) in 2014. With this relationship, and what she already knew about Festival, the idea for a book started to formulate.

“After I met these two women, I began to think about their accomplishments, and I realized that their efforts had a tremendous impact on my own life as a quilter, as well as thousands of other quilters like me who had had transformative experiences,” Wong says. “Once I started serious research, I soon realized that these two women changed the course of quilt history and impacted the lives of thousands of quilters and professionals in the quilt industry. I became convinced that this was a story that needed to be preserved and shared.”

For research, Wong spent countless hours interviewing Bresenhan and O’Bryant in person. She calls the three-year process the best part of the journey, speaking with them both together and individually, “digging deep” into the early days, and covering the business right up to present day. “Some of the stories I heard were truly priceless,” Wong says.

But that wasn’t it. Wong also spoke with nearly 50 other quilters, business owners, researchers, and players in this story. She conducted extensive research of library resources, quilt media, newspaper archives, and looking at actual quilts. Finally, she had full and unprecedented access to the Quilts, Inc. archives spread over several storage facilities, studying boxes filled to the brim with photos, memorabilia, paper, business files, and other ephemera and unusual items spanning nearly half a century. And she found early on that sometimes the plan…was to not have one.

“Karey is quick to admit that they did not have a strategic business plan when they first started. Rather, I quickly learned that those early days were bare bone operations where both women worked many tireless hours, along with so many other women who supported them, for free,” Wong continues. “I felt that doing so much work for the love of quilts was a mission uniquely suited to women. And knowing all that motivated me even more to write this book.”

In addition to the history of Quilt Festival—which features many full-color historical and quilt photos—the book also tells a personal history about the struggles of two women and the business they ultimately built.

Wong says it covers the gender discrimination they faced as a women-owned business in the early days—which would surely shock any Millennial—as well as their struggles to be taken seriously as businesswomen working in quilts. This at a time most people did not associate quilting with business. Bresenhan spoke of how many banks turned her down for a business loan in the early ‘70s…because they required that she have her husband as a co-signer (she eventually got that loan, all on her own).

Highlights also include the pair’s work to protect American quilts during the Smithsonian controversy of outsourcing quilt reproductions to China, as well as what it took to put together the 2001 Festival with its last-minute exhibit of Sept. 11 tribute quilts. Bresenhan was expecting a few dozen to show up at the office—but more than 300 poured in. The exhibit was so moving that the tissue boxes placed throughout the exhibit had to be constantly replenished.

“But The biggest surprise for me was hearing details of Karey’s personal life. Once I discovered how much adversity she had faced growing up, it helped me to understand how she became such an eternally optimistic and incredibly determined leader,” Wong says. “Karey graciously allowed me to share parts of her childhood and early career in the book, and I hope when people read it, they too will begin to understand what drives her and appreciate how much of herself she channeled into deepening our appreciation of quilts as an art form.”

As far as the book’s title goes, Magic and Memories is what plenty of people—both quilters and those who just appreciate the art form—experience in that big convention center in downtown Houston. And this year will be no exception.

“When quilters walk into the International Quilt Festival, it all seems so magical,” Wong sums up. “It’s hard to imagine the effort, and decades of know-how, that enables this enormous event to be so wildly successful.”

Teresa Duryea Wong

© 2019. A publication of Quintessential Quilt Media.
No portion may be reproduced without the expressed written consent of Quilts, Inc.