Barbara Clem and her quilt, "Lullaby in 3/4 Time," a floral yellow, white and red medallion quilt.

The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show’s 2021-22 Best of Show – read a Q&A with the winner

September 6, 2023 Tara Lovdahl Leave a Comment

Hosted by PBS Wisconsin and Nancy Zieman Productions, every year, The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show welcomes quilting enthusiasts from around the state and across the country to the Alliant Energy Center in Madison to celebrate the art and artists of quilting. 

One of the highlights is the annual 10-category juried and judged Quilt Contest, which is then exhibited at the event. 

PBS Wisconsin spoke with last year’s Best of Show winner, Barbara Clem about her quilting journey and her stunning quilt, “Lullaby in 3/4 Time.”

PBS Wisconsin: Have you lived in Rockford a long time?

Clem: We call it our “second tour of duty” because when my husband and I got married we moved out here because of his job and we lived here for just shy of 20 years. And then we moved to Dublin, Ohio for about 8 years, and then we moved back here for his job. And we’ve been here 19 years again.

PBS Wisconsin: And I read in your quilt contest entry that you quit working to raise your boys. What did you do for work?

Clem: I was in finance. I did banking and accounting.

PBS Wisconsin: Where are you from originally? 

Barbara Clem: I grew up in Ohio, real close to the Amish country in Wayne County in a little town called Orrville where there’s Smucker’s jelly. Growing up, I’d heard of quilts, but I never really saw one until I got to be in my 20’s.

A red, white and blue quilt with an eagle in the middle of it.

“American Tree,” by Barbara Clem, her first competition quilt.

An embroidered poem on a quilt entitled "The American Tree"

“The American Tree,” an original poem of her grandmother’s embroidered by Clem on her quilt.

PBS Wisconsin: Did you start with sewing?

Clem: I did. My mom had us in 4-H from the time we were first eligible. Every one of us girls had to learn to sew, and we were there until we aged out. We went from the county competitions to the State competitions, and it just was part of our life.

And if you ask me to sew clothes, now I will tell you, “No.” My mother had to have the patience of Job to have taught all three of us to sew. I’m the only one of us who continues to sew, but I will not make clothes anymore.

PBS Wisconsin: So your mom was the one who taught you to sew initially?

Clem: Yes, she was a really good seamstress. She was excellent. She made clothes, she did smocking. She did all kinds of stuff to make us girls look fancy and pretty.

PBS Wisconsin: Did she enjoy sewing, or was it purely practical?

Clem: I think both. She never had the stash of fabric I have. I often look at my stash and I wonder what my mother would say because she didn’t seem to have all the extras for fabric. We’d always stop at fabric stores, and if she thought the price was right and she liked the fabric, she would buy it. But no, if I like the fabric, sometimes the price doesn’t matter [laughs]. Sometimes it does! I’m a fabric-aholic.

A floral medallion quilt of greens, reds and blues

“Square Dance” by Barbara Clem.

PBS Wisconsin: How long have you been quilting?

Clem: 1984 was when I started, but I didn’t start competing until the 90s.

PBS Wisconsin: Tell me about that quilt that originally inspired you to start quilting.

Clem: Oh, that was in a storefront window. I was shopping with my mother-in-law, Ruth Clem. She was an excellent seamstress, too. Between my mother and my mother-in-law, I’m not gonna disappoint them. We were walking into a fabric store because she liked to frequent different fabric stores, too. She didn’t quilt, she sewed clothes, but I happened to see a quilt in the storeroom display window, and I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “It’s a quilt.” 

Soon after that box of fabric showed up at my doorstep with the pattern to make a log cabin quilt. When our second child was born, and I was quitting work, she thought I needed a hobby because my husband traveled a lot at that time for work, and it was something I could do while I stayed home and continued to take care of the family. It was something to keep me occupied. It worked!

Studio portrait of Ruth Clem

Ruth Clem.

PBS Wisconsin: I read in your contest entry form that you received a lot of praise from that initial quilt that you made and that inspired you to keep going.

Clem: I did. When I finished that first one, goodness knows, it was not good. I put the top together but it wasn’t wonderful. I did okay, I mean, that was before I even had a rotary cutter.

I took it back and showed it to my family and, oh, my gosh! They just kind of flipped over doing cartwheels, and I thought, “Oh, I guess it’s good.” So I made another one. That got a lot of praise, too, so I made another one. Then I started giving them as gifts — baby quilts and stuff like that. With each one, I was getting better and better.

PBS Wisconsin: Was quilting the first hobby that really stuck with you? Did you have other hobbies before that you have held onto as tightly as quilting?

Clem: I guess it depends on what you would call a hobby. As far as needlework, yes. I did horseback competition through 4-H. I showed dogs through the American Kennel Club. Then I trained them. And I guess the next thing to land was quilting.

PBS Wisconsin: Did you continue with the other hobbies while you kept quilting?

Clem: No, no. Quilting was “consume-all-Barb.”

A floral medallion quilt with blues, purples and greens

“Spring Breeze” by Barbara Clem.

PBS Wisconsin: What did it feel like when you found quilting?

Clem: I used to do it out of necessity because I thought, okay, well, we just got married. I can justify buying fabric and making a quilt because we could use it for this bed or that bed. And then I ran out of beds. So then I made quilts for my mom, my aunt and my sister. And then I made quilts as gifts. Then I just kept doing them. I didn’t even have to give them away at that point. Now I just buy fabric because I like it instead of saying, “I have to make something because it’s got a plan.”

PBS Wisconsin: What do you think it is about quilting that really clicks with you?

Clem: I guess I enjoy the whole process. It’s just a way that your mind can work and get things to flow from the artist within, so to speak, and make the design work. 

But what I enjoy the most about quilting is sitting at my quilt frame and being able to form the design, because my quilting designs are not put on before they’re put in a frame. And that’s really odd for most people. I have a three rail Hinterberg frame. I start at one side and work all the way to the other, and it does not take basting. It’s kind of similar to a machine quilter’s frame, only they’re usually four rails and I’m on three.

I love just looking at the section that I have and saying, “Okay, what do I wanna do with it?” It may take me a while. When I put a new quilt in I have no idea how I’m going to quilt it up front, and it might take me a week or two to walk past it before it hits me. Sometimes I’ve been on an artistic block, maybe for a month but it’ll come.

A floral medallion quilt of reds, greens and yellows with blue square pots anchoring the corners and centers

“Symphony of Roses” by Barbara Clem.

PBS Wisconsin: Sounds like you’re really patient with yourself.

Clem: [Laughs] Patient. I don’t think so, because each time that happens I wonder, “Okay did I quilt myself into a hole this time?”

PBS Wisconsin: I get the sense that you’re a perfectionist.

Clem: Yeah, I am. I’m a perfectionist. If it’s gonna be done, it’s gonna be done right. It’s called “make yourself proud.” Be proud of your workmanship. Be proud of what you do. So I always aspire to go above and beyond.

PBS Wisconsin: But do you feel like quilting came naturally to you?

Clem: I do. I am self-taught. I’ve got books and I’ve learned by doing and by reading and competing.

A floral, yellow, white and red medallion quilt.

“Lullaby in 3/4 Time,” 2021-22 Best of Show,
Hand Quilted Any Wall Quilts, category, created and quilted by Barbara Clem from Rockford, Illinois.

PBS Wisconsin: Let’s talk about your 2021-22 Best of Show winning quilt, “Lullaby in 3/4 Time.” How long did it take you to make that quilt?

Clem: That one was a while. It was kind of a traveling quilt. Whenever we came home on the weekends, I would put a little bit more of her top together so that I could work on her on the road. As far as the appliqué, that was a traveling quilt. The quilting took basically a year and a half, once she got home and in the frame.

PBS Wisconsin: And what inspired you to pick that one, was that based on a pattern?

Clem: The center block is kind of a traditional pattern, but I don’t use patterns. I draw my own stuff and do it. I like center medallion quilts. I tend to go with that and then everything else just kind of fills in. 

I take a lot of pictures with my cell phone because it’s kind of like a design wall, too. And it helps me identify any blank spots that I think need more visual interest and I can work on it from there. I cut a lot of freezer paper shapes. I’ve got a basket full of discarded shapes, and sometimes if they aren’t used for the current quilt, I’ll be using them in a different one.

A green medallion quilt with pink and red tulips

“Tulip Serenade” by Barbara Clem.

PBS Wisconsin: And this isn’t your first Best of Show-winning quilt with The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show. When you enter the quilts, do you feel like you know when you’ve entered a winner?

Clem: I am surprised every time. It depends on who’s there, what’s been entered and what the judges are looking for. I haven’t got a clue.

When a quilt comes out of the frame, I might think, “Oh, hey! This is a really nice quilt. I really think I outdid myself this time.” That is until you walk into the show that you’ve entered it in, and you see what everybody else has done, and you think, “Oh, my gosh! I hope I did anything.” There’s talent out there! It’s unreal.

There’s quilts that I’ve made that I thought were really cool, and they didn’t get any attention in competition. It’s just that somebody else had a lot better ones than I did.

A medallion quilt with an eagle in the center, Lady Liberty's face on the upper left, the Liberty Bell on the upper right, The American flag on the lower right and the Constitution scrolled up on the lower left.

“Let Freedom Ring,” by Barbara Clem, her 2023 Great Wisconsin Quilt Show Quilt Contest entry.

PBS Wisconsin: A lot of people get burned out in their hobbies, especially creative ones, when they expect themselves to keep getting better but they get frustrated with themselves, and then they quit. How do you keep going?

Clem: I’ve quilted for over 40 years. Each time I thought I hit a plateau something clicked and I would go beyond. It was a growing experience. But when I get done with my quilts and I can finish them, have them bound off, and just lay them on the bed, and I walk past it and think, “Oh, that’s a beautiful quilt,” as the sunlight hits it a certain way if it came through the blinds. 

That is satisfying, when I can walk past and say, “Hey, that’s a pretty quilt.” It doesn’t have to go out to competitions or anything. But, boy, it has to be pretty in my mind.

PBS Wisconsin: Is there anything else that you’d like to share that we didn’t already cover?

Clem: Thank you for allowing me to share my story, and I hope everyone enjoys The Great Wisconsin Quilt Show this year.

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