Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Meet Karen Neary

Karen Neary has a talent in creating quilts that makes you want to try and replicate her wonderful patterns.  She has taken a moment from her studio to give us some insight into who she is and where she has soared in the quilting world.

Tell the readers a  little about yourself?
I left  teaching high school English in 1986 to pursue a full time career in quilting.  A bit of a gutsy move, but I so wanted to do this.  In 1989, Sew Karen-ly Created became a registered business and it’s been steady on since then.  When my website went up in 1993, it was one of the very first Canadian quilting web sites;  at this point, it’s probably the longest running. (By comparison, Robin Hood flour didn’t go online until 1998!!) I absolutely love what I do and never tire of being in my quilt room, or around fabric.  The hours are long, but I feel very blessed to have been able to make this my life’s work.

How did you get into quilting?  
Living in the Maritimes, quilting was all around me growing up.  I’ve dabbled in all forms of needlework but always came back to sewing and quilting.

From your blog/website, you tend towards traditional quilting but with a twist of contemporary whether it be by colour or pattern.  Can you elaborate on this? 
Nicely worded.  My roots are very firmly planted in traditional patchwork; you’ll notice there’s very little appliqué in my work.  Quilts in our area commonly had no borders – the patchwork carried on right to the edge – and I like that look.  Intricate geometric patterns and lots of contrast in colours and fabrics so that the patterns stand out appeal to me.  I like bright colours.  I find it interesting to start with a traditional block and tweak it here and there to come up with something new;  sometimes a portion of the block is removed, sometimes unusual colour placement creates a new design within the pattern. Quilts with odd shapes intrigue me.  It’s a bit like cloud watching, to form shapes and images in your mind’s eye…and then translate them into fabric.

You write your own patterns, how did that start? 
I began my business selling quilts of my own designs and more and more people began asking where I got the pattern so they could make their own.  It was a logical progression.  I submitted my first pattern to a magazine in 1989 and not only was it accepted for publication, a week later I got a phone call from the editor asking if I would consider writing a regular column for the magazine. Imagine!  I agreed on the spot, and penned “Seminole Fun” for Quick & Easy Quilting magazine for 12 years, ending when the magazine closed publication in 2001.  It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much doing that.

Do you have any favourite techniques you use while quilting ie. you seem to do a lot with points/mariners compass type quilts?
I like the juxtaposition of sharp points and gentle curves.  I LOVE New York Beauty blocks and can’t seem to get enough.  There are so many ways to vary the designs, I play with the shapes constantly on the computer.  All of my work is designed on the computer and stitched and quilted on my domestic machine (a Bernina 440).

Farrago   Farrago was a semi-finalist at the New York State Of Mind show at the Fennimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 2010 and a semi-finalist at the Paducah 2011 show.  In 2012, it toured the U.S. as part of the “O Canada” exhibit with International Quilt Festival, Houston.  It’s one of my favourite quilts.

You have a very successful quilting business and have appeared in several books/magazines. Care to elaborate on your success as a Canadian quilter breaking into the American quilting publication scene?
When I began publishing, there simply were no Canadian quilting magazines.  I’ve taken flak over the years for being part of the American quilting scene but I don’t see it that way at all. We as Canadians all read and subscribe to those same magazines, and buy American fabrics and books.  

I’d like to think I’ve added a Canadian voice whenever possible.  Often for July issues, my patriotic contribution involved something red and white, with maple leaves, and the editors were always pleased to include them. That’s something I heard many times over the years, that they welcomed Canadian input but seldom heard from Canadian designers. Now I see lots of Canadian names in the lineup, which is terrific. With the internet, our world is much smaller and things are accessible to everyone.  I am honoured to have been featured in The Canadian Quilter and Quilter’s Connection Magazine, and proud that we have such quality publications here now.  

At this point, I’ve published well over 300 quilting patterns in magazines and contributed designs to 16 books, the most recent of which is Nine Patch Panache in 2012.  In 2009, Diane Shink and I teamed up to write Canadian Heritage Quilting, which I am very proud to say was published by a Nova Scotia company, Formac Publishing.  Diane is a wealth of information on quilt history and has an extensive collection of antique and vintage Canadian quilts.  My role in the book was to update the designs and pattern them with today’s methods and colours.  It was no small amount of effort to convince a Canadian publisher to do a quilt book (check out the publishers in your stash of quilting books and see how many were actually published in our country…), and I’m thrilled with how well it has been received.  

Log Canada, one of the quilts from that book, has gone on to be part of the “O Canada” exhibit which toured the U.S. with International Quilt Festival in 2010, and last year was chosen to be part of Sandra Reford’s exhibit “Tradition in Transition”, a showing of Canadian quilts at European Carrefour de Patchwork in Alsace, France.  When the exhibit in France ended, Sandra Reford brought the show to the Joshua Creek Heritage Arts Centre in Oakville, where it hung from November to January.  At each of these shows, Log Canada was chosen to hang at the entrance to the exhibits as it looks “so Canadian”. 
Log Canada

Is there any tips, suggestions you would like to give the readers in becoming a better quilter?
Practice, practice, practice.  Enjoy the process and accept that you grow in your skills with each project.  When I do trunk shows, I always take some of my earlier work and point out the mistakes – we all start somewhere.  Quilting is technically demanding – we want sharp points and perfect seam matches.  You don’t just sit down at a machine and have that happen on the first go…but it will come.  Enjoy the journey and everything you learn along the way.

Lastly, what is your favourite food?
Is coffee a food? 

This is Roundabout Again, which will be part of the AQS Paducah show in April of this year. 

 It was a pleasure to interview you Karen and we look forward to see where you will end up next!


  1. You have an impressive dedication to your business. I admire that.

  2. Karen - my hero : ) She's creative, precise, fearless, determined and VERY hardworking.

    Great article Jackie!

  3. Great article! We quilters are so lucky to have Karen's creativity and dedication to inspire us.