Redmond-native Jean Wells remembers the first skirt she ever made. She saved up her babysitting money for the fabric: an adorable boat print. The problem was, she sewed the skirt with the boats going sideways.
“I didn’t know how to do a zipper or anything,” she says, laughing. “So I came up with this waistband and pinned it together.” She changed in and out of the skirt at school so her mother – who disapproved of her daughter making any clothes before she took a formal sewing class – wouldn’t see.
From a young age, all Jean wanted to do was sew. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer.
A home economics major at Oregon State University in the ‘60s, Jean enjoyed the diversity of her courses, but sewing classes were her favorites. Students who choose to focus on fashion today study in the School of Design and Human Environment, part of the College of Business.
After graduating in 1965, Jean pursued a master’s degree in education at Portland State University. She lived and taught in the metro area for eight years before returning home to Central Oregon.
It was while teaching middle school home economics that she fell in love with quilting.
“I needed a project for the ninth grade boys to work on,” she says. “I saw a picture in a book of a pillow made from different squares, and that’s what first got me interested in putting different fabrics together.”
In 1975, Jean opened a quilt shop in Sisters, The Stitchin’ Post. She believes the shop might be one of the first exclusive quilting shops in the country.
Quilting may be Jean’s passion, but she’s also a businesswoman. Her secret to the store’s success is constant reinvention and staying on top of trends in the industry, such as the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) movement. Jean has written and published 27 how-to quilting books and traveled all over the world teaching classes on quilting techniques. Now she’s working hard to provide online solutions to a new generation of quilters.
Several of Jean’s quilts are on displays in galleries worldwide. But her favorite place to show off her work is at the annual Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, which she started with a friend as a show-and-tell project for the community. The show has now grown to an average annual attendance of 12,500 with an estimated economic impact in the Sisters area of $1.7 million per year.
The show and Jean’s classes draw aspiring quilters to Sisters from all over the country. At 71, she doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, and she says she will always quilt, reinventing herself time and time again in the beautiful fabrics she sews together.
“You know some people in our industry will pick one sort of quilt, and that’s what they do their whole life,” she says. “But I would just be bored. There are always new things to do if you’re interested.”