kitty pippen: still great at 95 :: Okan Arts
kitty pippen: still great at 95

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 PippenWhen 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 PippenKitty 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 PippenLook 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 PippenBack 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 HannahBack 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 PippenKitty 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 PippenFrom 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

DuoKitty’s daughter, Sylvia, lives nearby in La Conner. This mother-daughter duo co-wrote Asian Elegance and they sometimes teach local classes together.

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 leave a comment on how you know Kitty or how she has impacted your quilting life, please share below.

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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70 comments to “kitty pippen: still great at 95”

  1. Edlamae Thompson Baird says:

    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.

  2. Linda L. says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  3. Margaret Horton says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  4. Peggy File says:

    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.

  5. Janet Wright says:

    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 says:

      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.

  6. Betsy says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  7. Barbara says:

    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 says:

      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.

  8. Anna Smith says:

    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 says:

      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.

  9. Susan Scott says:

    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 says:

      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.

  10. Vivian Roop says:

    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.

  11. Linda Gaines says:

    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 says:

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

  12. Colleen says:

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

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  13. What a wonderful, inspiring woman!

  14. Sue Hunt says:

    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!

  15. Susan Stanley says:

    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!!

  16. Beth Anne Smith says:

    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 says:

      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.

  17. Janice Sandrin says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  18. Nancy Anders says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      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.

  19. Linda Callender says:

    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.

  20. Corky LeTellier says:

    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 says:

      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.

  21. Diana Roberts says:

    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!

  22. Jan Sunstrom says:

    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.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

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

  23. Sylvia Sweeney says:

    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 says:

      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.

  24. Scarlett Rose says:

    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.

  25. […] Patricia Belyea, a wonderful quilter, teacher, and importer of Japanese fabric came to La Connor for Quilt Festival and interviewed my mother, Kitty Pippen. Thank you Patricia for a terrific article! Read it here. […]

  26. Sharon Roberts says:

    I was privileged to visit Kitty in her home on Lake Almanor with my Monday Night Quilter friends. I was in awe of her and her husband. I even photographed his wood shop to show my husband. Then I took a class from Kitty in Red Bluff. I was still in awe. Plus I ran into her daughter in a quilt store in Hilo, Hawaii. Still in awe.

  27. Mary Williams says:

    How lucky was I to belong to a group of eight with Kitty as our leader back in the 90’s. We had such fun! She basically taught me all I know with the patience of a saint. I treasure those memories with her — and I especially treasure the quilt she gave me of dogwood — my favorite. God Bless Kitty (and Eldon)!!

  28. Phyllis Fitzgerald says:

    How wonderful to meet this talented artist whose work has inspired so many to try her techniques. I bought her book to do The Garden Path. It hangs in our bedroom , one of my favourite pieces. It encouraged me to jump into quilting both hand and machine quilting. Thank you for your wonderful work. Keep well.

  29. Barbara Sullivan says:

    Oh, my. I live in Seattle and had no idea Kitty and her daughter loved so close to me. I have treasured Kitty’s book “Quilting With Japanese Fabrics” ever since I first saw it in In The Beginning quilt store. I’ve been collecting antique Japanese fabric from Kasuri Dyeworks and others to make my own version of Friendly Tribute, which I’ve seen up close. Thank you for letting me know.

    Barbara Sullivan, Seattle

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      Barbara—I was also surprised when I learned that Kitty and Sylvia were in our own backyard! We are blessed to have them so close by. Please consider coming to JaponTex on the first Friday and Saturday of December in La Conner to see Sylvia and hopefully Kitty. The website isn’t updated for 2016 yet but you can read about the event at Best, PB

  30. Mary DeRay says:

    My dear Kitty, you are the reason I am a sashiko enthusiast! I found your books a number of years ago and you were my mentor through the pages of those books. I design patters under Simply Sashiko Designs now and teach how to incorporate sashiko into our western style of quiltng in simple, easy to follow steps. A quilting friend and I took a once in a lifetime trip to Japan this January for the Tokyo Show and textile tour. We both enjoyed it so much and came back even more inspired to share the beauty of Asian textile. Thank you very much for influence in my sashiko journey! Mary D

  31. Betty Shelden Knopf says:

    I was Kitty and Eldon’s neighbor in Richmond, CA. We lived on 38th Street. I played with Sylvia and her brother David. I remember they had a wonderful sandbox. Eldon had a shop full of tools and made wood projects. Kitty gave my sister, Barbara a beautiful piece of velvet for her doll. (She still has the velvet and the doll.) Kitty bought wool jackets at thrift shops and boxes of thread to make large braided rugs for the living room. Great neighbors and memories. Betty

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      Betty—Great to hear from you. I visited Kitty in late December at her home in La Conner. She had just celebrated her 98th birthday. We had such a pleasant time talking about quilting and English paper piecing. All of us are so blessed to have Kitty in our lives and memories. PB

  32. Colleen says:

    I first met Kitty in Chester, CA. She is one of the sweetest, most gentle people one could hope to know. She and her quilts were such an inspiration and she was so open and sharing about everything she had done. I am so glad to hear she is doing well.

  33. Colleen says:

    Forgot to mention that through Kitty I became a customer of Kasuri Dyeworks and I still have one of his big sample books. He impressed on me so strongly that it was an heirloom that I have never cut any of the pieces and just keep it as a look-book. I have some other fabric from him too. It is so sad what has happened to the art.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      Colleen—Please note that the story about Kitty was written a few years ago. Regretfully Kitty is getting to her twilight times—with good days and bad days. The description of sweet and gentle fits Kitty to a tee. Your sample dye book from Kasuri Dyeworks makes me very envious! Best, PB

  34. Penny Justln says:

    Kitty is married to my father’s brother Eldon “Uncle Bud.” I loved reading this article and seeing the wonderful artistry Kitty has created in quilts. I have 3 fabulous Santa little people statues, Kitty and Eldon’s daughter Nancy created. Needless to say the family is blessed with artists and love!

  35. Mary E. "Liz" Baker says:

    I heard Kitty and her daughter speak in Marin County in 2001, and Kitty signed my copy of Quilting with Japanese Fabrics. Being the granddaughter of a Japanese immigrant who died when my mother was a toddler, I had always been fascinated with things Japanese. Kitty fired up my interest. I had just purchased a bin full of parts of Japanese Kimonos from a Sheriff’s sale of leftovers from an international drug bust, and now knew what I would do with them. I went to Berkeley, spent a small fortune on more Japanese fabric and started studying Kitty’s book! In 2003, I presented my daughter and future son-in-law with a King-sized, designed by me, Japanese quilt, inspired by Kitty. It is beautiful and they have slept under it all these years until 2018, when one of the panels started to rip. I need to repair it. Interesting that it ripped the same summer that Kitty died. I did not know of her death until seeing her 2018 obit a few hours ago. What an incredible woman she was! I still have half a bin of Japanese fabric and I’m “retiring” from my 10 year volunteer stint teaching music in the elementary grades this year. I want to make another Japanese quilt. I just bought used copy of Asian Elegance for more inspiration!

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      Liz—I really appreciate hearing from you and learning your story. Kitty has been a wonderful inspiration to so many of us! PB

  36. marcy Scott says:

    i began with Quilting With Japanese Fabrics, and began teaching sashiko classes. I was teaching hand applique classes, and fell in love with Kitty’s techniques. I loved Asian Elegance when she and Sylvia worked together to produce another Asian masterpiece. I used Sylvia’s Tropical Sashiko Sampler to teach a block a month class . These two women have really influenced my love for quilting with Asian fabrics. I just am so grateful for their influence!

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      Marcy—We have both been blessed to know the Pippen women. I am the proud owner of one of Kitty’s sashiko quilts. I am also grateful for their friendship and inspiration! PB

  37. MaryBeth Britton says:

    Beautiful quilts! Kitty inspires me to believe that there is life way beyond retirement.

    • Patricia Belyea says:

      MaryBeth—Kitty is definitely a great inspiration for how to live your life fully. Sylvia talks about her upbringing where there were always materials around to be crafty. Young or old, it’s time to enjoy the delight of being a maker. PB