Doreen Speckmann Remembered
On display through April 5, 2020
Remembering Doreen Speckmann
by Marianne Fons
One October in the mid-1980s, Liz Porter and I flew to Texas to serve on the faculty at the annual Houston Quilt Festival—a feather in the cap of any rising national quilt teacher back then; it still is. At the airport, we bumped into Doreen Speckmann, a fellow newcomer and fellow Midwesterner, on the faculty her first time as well. All of us on tight budgets, we shared a cab to the hotel. On the ride, she admitted she was nervous, as she was to deliver an evening lecture. In those days, Quilt Festival took place at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel & Convention Center, and everyone at Festival went to every single event. The audience was going to be huge.
Doreen’s lecture was hilarious. At home in front of a sewing machine since childhood, she admitted being afraid to make a quilt. She thought only little old ladies in church basements made quilts and every stitch had to be done by hand. But in 1977, at age 27, when she was expecting her daughter Megan, she intended to be the perfect mother, and knew that involved making a perfect baby quilt.
Doreen’s ability to poke fun at all of us by poking fun at herself—combined with formidable patchwork and design skills—quickly made her one of the most popular quilters in America. When her innovative work, The Blade, won a blue ribbon at the first American Quilter’s Society national quilt competition in Paducah in 1985, demand for her at conferences, quilt shops, and quilt guilds around the country grew.
Doreen’s patchwork genius was combining simple patchwork elements into never-made-before quilts. The method she used became more widely accessible with her how-to manual, PATTERN PLAY (C&T Publishing 1983). In true Doreen style, the text is conversational, addressing the reader personally on every page. “Let’s look at the basic components that are a part of our quiltmaking heritage,” she wrote, “and the basis of all the quilts I design.”
Having grown up in Wisconsin, one of six siblings, travel outside the state had not been part of her upbringing. Traveling nationwide with her suitcases of quilts—and getting paid to do it—was employment she embraced with joy, taking daughter Megan with her every chance she got. Soon she was heading up quilters’ cruises in the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Alaska, leading trips to England, France, Australia, New Zealand. Doreen made everything fun, and every quilter in America wanted to go with her wherever she went. Despite the stocky figure she bemoaned, she donned a bathing suit to snorkel in the topics and got out on the dance floor every chance she had.
In 1999, at age 48, at the height of her career, Doreen Speckmann suffered a fatal heart attack while on a quilting tour in Ireland. Some said she collapsed on the dance floor. Others say she had stepped outside. Her death was a shock and a tragedy for quilters everywhere. Because her daughter Megan was in her early 20s at the time, Doreen’s friend and colleague Gerald Roy put most of her quilts in storage at the Pilgrim-Roy facility in New Hampshire, where they have been until late last year.
At the Iowa Quilt Museum, we are pleased to exhibit these works by Doreen Speckmann for the first time in twenty years. If you are a longtime quilter, you will remember her. If you are newer to the club, prepare to meet a friend!