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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in the living room, Kitty opened up chest of drawers made by Eldon, filled with her quilts.
Shibori, shown below, won First Place for Innovative Applique at the Quilt Festival in Houston. It combines different applique and stitching techniques.
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.
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.
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 used copies of Kitty’s books through AbeBooks +click here
To visit Sylvia’s site, Slyvia Pippen Designs +click here