Kitty Pippen, award-winning quilter

kitty pippen: still great at 95

By Patricia Belyea

LA CONNER WA  How often do we get to meet a living legend? That was my joy when I visited Kitty Pippen, and her husband Eldon, at their retirement residence in historic La Conner. This charming couple, now married 72 years, live in a bright, two-bedroom, corner apartment.

La Conner Retirement Inn, home of Kiitty Pippen

When I arrived, the apartment door was ajar. I found Kitty sitting by the living room window with a ukulele in her lap. On the sill lay a hand-stitching project and some knitting. Obviously at 95, Kitty continues to be engaged in new endeavors.

Arriving at Kitty Pippen's home

Kitty started by telling me a quick synopsis of her life—born in China to missionaries; homeschooled by her mother until she, her twin sister and brother were sent to a boarding school near Peking for middle and high school; came to America for university; married Eldon when she graduated; and then moved to California four years later when Eldon attended grad school at UC Berkeley.

It was Koji Wada at Kasuri Dyeworks in Berkeley who introduced Kitty to Japanese textiles. Kitty bought four small pieces of yukata cotton and tucked them away until she tried a quilting project after she retired.

Quilt by Kitty Pippen

Kitty made a king-sized quilt that was accepted into the AQS show. The show organizers called to say Kitty had won a prize. Kitty remembers boarding a plane by herself and, when she got to Paducah, learning that she’d taken first place for Innovative Quilts! I’d already seen Flight, the remarkable quilt that took Houston by storm in 1994. This May, Kitty mounted a one-woman show at La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum. It was there I met Kitty—so petite beside her 64" x 87" winner.

Flight, a quilt by Kitty Pippen

Look how Kitty’s design puzzles together small to big triangles, small to big hexagons including 3D combos, filler strips and a band of sashiko! The thoughtfully pieced quilt top reads as one elegant composition.

Details of Flight quilt by Kitty Pippen

Back to my recent visit: Kitty pulled out wire-bound copies of her two books Quilting with Japanese Fabrics (2000) and Asian Elegance (2003). Kitty announced “The secret to my design is in my first book.” Then she read me the chapter entitled Designing An Innovative Quilt.

Books by Kitty Pippen

Kitty wrote: "Have you ever been so excited about making a quilt that you lose all track of time? New ideas flood your mind, everything seems to fall in place, and the hours fly by. These are wonderful times.”

Here are some of Kitty's pointers for quilt design:

-The most difficult step is choosing the fabric. “I feel much of my success in quiltmaking is due to the fact that I use Japanese fabrics almost exclusively." (Kitty is my kind of gal!)

-Audition your fabrics and narrow your choices to those you treasure. -Quilters are often reluctant to cut up their expensive fabric but this is necessary.

-It's easier to stitch sashiko patterns through one layer of cloth rather than the quilt sandwich.

-With paper piecing, sashiko and silk can utilized in quilts.

-The challenge of innovative quilting is endless!

We moved to Kitty's bedroom to see a special quilt on the wall—symmetrical with silk chirimen “tiles” hand appliquéd to a black background.

Silk quilt by Kitty Pippen

Next we stopped by to see Eldon in his room. A talented woodworker, Eldon was handcrafting a model of the first ship in the US navy. A two-masted sailing vessel with four canon ports, the original Hannah served under General George Washington.

Eldon Pippen and his model of Hannah

Back in the living room, Kitty opened up chest of drawers made by Eldon, filled with her quilts.

Chest of drawers filled with quilts by Kitty Pippen

Shibori, shown below, won First Place for Innovative Applique at the Quilt Festival in Houston. It combines different applique and stitching techniques.

"Shibori" quilt, by Kitty Pippen

Kitty produced Tribute to Mr Hama, below, to honor a kasuri artist she met in Japan. The design includes some solid rust-colored fabric that matches rust dye in the kasuri cotton.

Hama quilt by Kitty Pippen

From the deep drawers, Kitty pulled out a paper-pieced Grandma’s Flower Garden quilt that she’d completed in the last year. Japanese cottons with an indigo-colored background transform the traditional pattern into a restrained yet exotic quilt.

Grandma’s Flower Garden quilt by Kitty Pippen Duo

Kitty’s daughter, Sylvia, lives nearby in La Conner. This mother-daughter duo co-wrote Asian Elegance. Sylvia also speaks and teaches. Her company, Sylvia Pippen Designs provides quilters around the world with sashiko and applique patterns and supplies.

How wonderful for Kitty to see her work continue—through her supportive daughter, all the students she’s taught over the years, and her book readers. Plus you can sign me up for her No. 1 cheerleading squad!

To buy Kitty’s books as e-books through Martingale, the original publisher +click here

To buy used copies of Kitty’s books through AbeBooks, from $3 to $40 +click here

To visit Sylvia’s site, Slyvia Pippen Designs +click here

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  • Scarlett Rose
    It’s great to see Kitty looking so good! I miss visiting her in Chico, but I’m glad she’s doing so well in LaConner.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sylvia—Kitty makes her quilt designs look easy and natural but they really are complex compositions. How great that you could spend a week with the Pippens! P.

  • Sylvia Sweeney
    I took a class with Kitty years ago (she was 83 or 84) at Asilomar. That’s where I met Sylvia P., who was helping her mother in the class. The class was not easy because there were not the usual patterns for the students to slavishly follow. Instead, you worked your way through composition, fabric selection, and design for your own one-of-a-kind wall quilt with a Japanese influence and fabrics. It was difficult, interesting, and worthwhile. I am so glad I was able to take that week-long class with Kitty. Once in a while you have an opportunity to learn from a master. This was mine. Sylvia S.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Jan—Kitty’s quilts are amazing. The way she combines all the different block shapes so fluidly is a gift. P.

  • Jan Sunstrom
    Did a class with Sylvia in Hawaii in 2013 and saw some of Kitty’s quilts which were amazing. So did enjoy my time there. Loved the interview and so good to see Kitty is still loving her craft. Hugs to all.

  • Diana Roberts
    Kitty, you inspire me to be a better quilter and also a better person.

    I loved my time with Sylvia when she came to Santa Rosa!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Diana—Thanks for commenting as Kitty will read your kind words. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Corky—It’s amazing to meet a couple who have been married for 72 years. Kitty inspires us in her quilting work and her personal life! P.

  • Corky LeTellier
    Wow – great article and I am so happy to see some of Kitty’s new quilts. Thanks for posting. I met Kitty when I was first learning to quilt at Lake Almanor and she has been a huge inspiration and a wonderful friend ! Glad to see both she and Eldon are still going strong. Lots of love, Corky

  • Patricia Belyea
    Linda—How fortuitous that the Pippens did move to the Northwest for all of us here! I agree heartily. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Thanks Nancy! As a key volunteer for La Conner Quilt & Textile Museum, you meet all the greats who come to town. Or in Kitty’s case, who live in town. So glad you have been touched by Kitty’s inspiration. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Janice—How great to take a class at Madeline Island with Sylvia. Both Kitty and Sylvia are treasures. And I look forward to meeting you one day in a class! P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Beth Anne—Kitty had the book’s Garden Path quilt hanging in her living room and showed it to me. That is a favorite pattern for her to teach to others. P.

  • Linda Callender
    Since the Pippen’s have moved to LaConner, I have had the privilege of meeting Kitty at Sylvia’s home and recently saw her at Quilt Festival. How lucky to have both of these wonderful quilters nearby. Thank you for sharing Kitty’s story.

  • Janice Sandrin
    Your quilts and designs are fabulous. I took a class from Sylvia last summer on Madeline island in Wisconsin. Learn d so much and love doing it. I hope to continue to learn more. Wish I could take a class from you too. Thanks for your inspiration.

  • Nancy Anders
    I’ve had the honor of spending time with Kitty since she moved to La Conner. She is such a gracious woman, and so willing to share her knowledge of quilting and her life’s adventures. She has inspired me to expand my quilting experiences, and her beautiful quilts are simply awesome! This article is a wonderful tribute to her and her work.

  • Beth Anne Smith
    I have both of the books. I have made several of Kitty’s quilts but my favorite is The Garden Path. Mine hangs near my front door and and I have made several more for friends. I have modified and enlarged one of her patterns to include Sashiko but that is still in the works. After living in Japan for 26 years, it is nice to have patterns that work well with traditional Japanese fabric. Thank you Kitty for the inspiration!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Susan—Is there anywhere online I can see your mom’s weaving? Thanks, P.

  • Susan Stanley
    My Mom is Kitty’s twin and she is a weaver and has always done handwork… quilts, embroidery etc.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Susan—How great! Is your parent Kitty’s brother or twin sister? P.

  • Susan Stanley
    Well, I’ve known Kitty all my life. She is my beloved aunt. She taught me years ago how to do pulled thread embroidery. She never ceases to amaze me! She can tackle anything!!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Sue—I’d love to see some of your “Japanese” quilts! P.

  • Sue Hunt
    Thanks for this article. I was fortunate recently to meet Kitty and have her show and talk about her quilts to a friend and me. Her first book has so inspired my quilt journey for the last 14 years. I was even lucky enough to live in Japan, so you can imagine what my quilts look like!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Colleen—Kitty has been blessed to live so many years past her retirement so she could create a real wealth of innovative quilts to inspire us all. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    David — I agree. The fact that she is still so engaged with being creative IS wonderful. P.

  • David Owen Hastings
    What a wonderful, inspiring woman!

  • Colleen
    What a lovely story! Oh, to stay creative and engaged in life like Kitty and Eldon! They are truly inspiring. Thanks for sharing, Patricia.

  • Linda Gaines
    I was so lucky to live in Red Bluff when Kitty resided in Chico. I was able to take several of her classes. My favorite quilt is ‘Cherry Blossoms’ which is a one of her

    patterns. Kitty’s work is amazing & an inspiration to all quilters!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Linda—How great that you got to take classes with Kitty. Her generous spirit must make her a great teacher. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Susan—It’s amazing too that Kitty’s whole quilting career began after she retired. And of course it’s so wonderful that Kitty has made it to 95 so she could impact many quilters’ lives. P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Vivian—Kitty spoke fondly of the 15 years that she lived in Chico. She remembers everything! P.

  • Vivian Roop
    Thank you for the wonderful news about Kitty. She was often a speaker and teacher in our community — always informative, helpful and so cheerful. She opened her home in Chico, CA to our stitching/quilting group to see all of her beautiful work first hand. She has been an inspiration to all.

  • Susan Scott
    I took an English paper piecing class from Kitty years ago at the quilt show in Burbank, California. She was SO sweet and generous with her knowledge. It was one of the first classes I had taken from such a renowned teacher. I learned a lot from her. I am so glad she is enjoying her new home in LaConner and is still able to create such beautiful things.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Anna—What is a pleasure it is for me to get to visit with greats like Kitty! I’m glad she excites you as much as me. P.

  • Anna Smith
    Patricia – thank you for this wonderful article on Kitty Pippen – it’s so good to get an update on her latest work and doings and know that she is doing well. I have been obsessed with her quilt design since I discovered her first book years ago. Hence you can imagine my excitement when I learned about your work when I attended your presentation at City Quilter in NYC!! I only wish you & Kitty were not so far away. Thank you both for all the inspiration & sharing your joy —

  • Patricia Belyea
    Barbara—Kitty loves to teach. When she learned that I didn’t know how to paper piece, she was prepared to teach me on the spot! P.

  • Barbara
    Coincidently I was reviewing these two books just before I opened this email. They are treasures full of inspiration. I was privileged to take one of Kitty’s classes years ago. The resulting little quilt still hangs by my stairs where I see it every day. Thank you Kitty!

  • Patricia Belyea
    Janet—I’ll be inviting Kitty and Sylvia to visit us this May. No promises but there’s a good chance we’ll see them again. Best, P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Betsy—You can imagine that I was on Cloud Nine when I visited. Although I had met Kitty once and seen her quilts, I had no idea about many things in her life. When I learned that she is a twin and I’m a twin—I felt so connected. I’m so glad you appreciated learning about Kitty! P.

  • Betsy
    So many wonderful things about this story. All that creative energy waiting to happen until she retired and then won a prize on her first quilt. The Asian influence from her childhood. Creative family…72 years of marriage.

    She is quite beautiful at 95, radiates love of life.
    An inspiration on so many levels.

  • Janet Wright
    FIQ had a class years ago where Kitty taught. It started my love of sashiko. I already loved everything Japanese. It was great to meet her again at the Yukata class last May.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Peggy—Lucky you! P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Margaret—When I went to take Kitty’s photo, she fussed about her hair like a 16-year old. She does look great—I agree! P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Linda—My mom is slowing down in the quilting department these days but, at 88, she’s still working on a few projects. These gals are my inspiration because I hope to live to 95! P.

  • Patricia Belyea
    Edlamae—I’m also thrilled that Kitty is here! P.

  • Margaret Horton
    What a great newsletter, Kitty is so inspirational and does not look anywhere near her 95 years. Thanks for taking your time to bring us the news of this superb quilter.

  • Peggy File
    It was so wonderful to be able to take a class from Sylvia and to get to meet Kitty Pippin. She is such a gracious lady.

  • Linda L.
    ammmazing Kitty looks good . My mom is still quilting simple things. She is 94. Wonderful article.

  • Edlamae Thompson Baird
    Your inspiration gives me purpose for the yukata quilts I have already made and the “stash” beyond belief of repurpose-able fabric. So glad you have moved from Berkeley to our Pacific Northwest.