KEVA © 1998
Doreen Speckmann Photo: KEVA © 1998

Photo Credit: KEVA © 1998 (Click on thumbnails for larger image.)

Note: This article first appeared in the catalogue accompanying the Doreen Speckmann 20-year Retrospective Exhibit at The Sloan Museum in Flint, Mi, 1998.

Doreen Speckmann:
The Inexorable, Indisputable Law of Success
by Valerie Clarke

If you think of standardization as the best that you know today, but which is to be improved tomorrow, you get somewhere. Henry Ford

In 1985 Doreen Speckmann of Madison, Wisconsin was thrust into quiltdom’s limelight with a first place win at Paducah in the Professional Pieced Category. Her “Barbed Wire” full-sized quilt design, an ingenious layering of traditional patterns and animated fabric play, told an exciting and thoroughly readable story of how the old standards can inspire and inform the new. Moreover, as the judges that year proved, these attributes, in the hands of an expert sewer, can blow the tires off the competition in the race for first place.

In 1993, Doreen published her first book Pattern Play (C&T Publishing) which “put the hood” up for quilters around the world. Now we could see for ourselves how the engine of creative organization works at the championship level: smooth, efficient, and reliable. There, in graphic detail, Doreen deconstructed the “Model T’s” of traditional quilt blocks, redesignated them with catchy names like “Peaky and Spike” and “Wingy Things,” and otherwise made them user friendly in the creative department. In addition, the readers could see the how, what and why of Doreen’s considerable imagination at work.

I cannot discover that anyone knows enough to say definitely what is and what is not possible. Henry Ford.

A born tinker and organizer, Doreen’s approach to the art of patchwork grew from what she refers to in her book as a stash of fabric “she had no use for and ... an unnatural attraction to office supplies.” Doreen didn’t embark upon the quilting life by falling off the back of the proverbial turnip truck, day dreaming about award-winning quilts and groundbreaking innovations in the field. No, on the contrary, she had already spent many years finding out what was possible with wool and thread in other areas: knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, rugmaking.

Even before she made her first quilt in 1976 for her (then) in utero daughter, Doreen had devised a concrete vision of the creative process: available materials mixed with personal strengths matched with self-knowledge mixed with a strong desire for self-expression. As it turned out, this mixing and matching of creative elements would not only bring her to the top of the quilting world, it would form the technical basis of her signature variations of traditional quilt blocks. That she did not know, or particularly care at that time where this first quilt would lead -- except as a warm blanket for her baby -- only makes her creative process the more instructive and inspiring to the thousands of students she has mobilized through her classes, lectures and book.

There are no big problems, there are just a lot of little problems. Henry Ford.

For quilters who can’t seem to combust the engine of their imagination, exposure to Doreen’s piecing techniques can be a rite of passage, a growing up, a way to deal maturely with all the little problems of quiltmaking. For quilters who can start but inevitably stall, her methods can be the lubricant necessary to keep the ideas rolling.

Doreen uses a design wall in her studio to work out the little problems that crop up no matter how many times she has sketched, resketched and colored in the possibilities on graph paper. Even after she has chosen from her impressive fabric colleciton and attached thumbnail swatches to the graph paper next to the final design, Doreen feels strongly that “you never know if the fabric is really going to work until you work it.”

He can who thinks he can, and he can’t who thinks he can’t. This is an inexorable, indisputable law. Henry Ford.

The road to Doreen’s success as an artist and as a teacher could be summed up by a bumper sticker saying “90% of life is being there.” A product of the Arts and Crafts Revival of the late ‘60’s, the 70’s found her teaching Adult Education craft classes in her home state. After the first few quilts, it seems a natural progression to teach that too. Then on to teaching quiltmaking exclusively as the world wide appetite for American patchwork grew to its present, vast network. By the 80’s, her reputation had “gotten around” in quilting circles. When a well-known quilt lecturer cancelled a speaking engagement at the last moment due to illness, Doreen was asked to fill in. She wasn’t sure she could talk about quilts as well as she could craft one but routinely answered “Yes, I can.” As in her early quiltmaking days, she found out what she could do by doing it.

And wasn’t she the person who has so often said “Getting going from a dead stop is harder than getting going from a little trot?


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