It started inconspicuously in 1975: Jean Wells Keenan simply hung a dozen quilts made by her students outside her shop on one Saturday in July. Over the years, though, a few more quilters showed up, and then a few more, and so on, until nearly every square inch of the small town of Sisters was covered in quilts during the second Saturday of July. There are traditional quilts with starbursts of color and elegant patterns, and quilts that behave more like a canvas, showing off portraits of sunflowers and cactus.
Four decades after its start, and staying steady through a few major economic twists and turns, the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show has become as much a calling card for summer in Central Oregon as floats down the Deschutes River or outdoor concerts—although it is, perhaps, ironic to celebrate blankets in the hottest time of the year.
"It is amazing," says Jeanette Pilak, executive director of the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, "that one woman [founder Jean Wells Keenan] and an army of quilters could sustain the economic ups-and-downs over 40 years, still keep the show free and open to the public, get world-wide recognition, and build community support is astounding in today's terms."
"It is everyone's bucket list quilt show to attend," explains Pilak.
Pilak goes on to say that she believes a lot of the appeal is its populist, come-all openness. "It is a non-juried show," she points out. "Anyone from beginner to master may show their quilt, and visitors come from all 50 states and 17 different countries."
It is also a surprisingly party-like atmosphere. In an interview earlier this summer, the organizers of the rodeo quipped that the quilt festival consumes far more alcohol than their event—a point that Pilak confirmed, "The owners of the Gallimaufry [a hodgepodge general store]," says Pilak, "note that they have more sales quilt show week than in rodeo and folk festival combined." But she hastens to temper that image of guzzling grandmas, "That includes the gift items in their store...not just spirits!" she says.
Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show
9 am-4 pm, Saturday, July 11
Cascade Avenue, Sisters