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101-Year-Old Quilt Designer

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Her hands move nimbly with needle and thread, even though she admits the stitches aren’t as perfect as they used to be.  The colorful cotton fabric starts in three-inch-wide pieces of squares and triangles, ending up together in one of many intricate patterns.

Lena Vaughan’s been doing this longer than most of us have been alive.  She’s still hand quilting at 101 years young.  Although proficient at the sewing machine, Vaughan prefers to work without it.  “I’d rather hand quilt.  You get ’em surer, like a place like that (points to a pattern of converging diamonds), it’d be hard to get it on the machine.”  She started sewing alongside her mother as a child, also learning from a neighbor and her mother-in-law.  She’s meticulous about each detail.
Quilt Designer Lena Vaughan with
Lena’s Magic Circles from her Pattern Book

Vaughan’s niece, Linda Smith-Johnson, brought me to Vaughan’s Ozarks home for our interview.  She recalls how Aunt Lena shared her knowledge with the next generation, “When we were in high school, she’d come out on the farm and we’d use feed sacks and we made our clothes for school.  And she taught us on the sewing machine, my sisters and I.” Smith-Johnson went on to learn hand quilting from her aunt shortly after college graduation and wants to carry on that tradition. She was inspired to write the article that accompanied Vaughan’s prize-winning quilt pattern a few years back, in Quilt World Magazine.  The pattern, Lena’s Magic Circles, is one of several in the out-of-print book titled, Lena Vaughan’s Original Quilt Patterns.

Vaughan’s Design Wall
Vaughan says her mother was an artist, sometimes painting pictures she saw in the family Bible.  Early in her quilting career Vaughan decided she could try designing her own patterns, and she did.  Her niece says Aunt Lena typically wakes in the middle of the night with a new pattern idea that she must get onto paper.  “I like the designing,” says Vaughan, “I like the choosing of the colors.”  The women showed me hand-drawn patterns tucked inside the book that included lines drawn in ink and specific colors labeling each section.  Now her niece helps hand place the quilt blocks onto a design wall while Vaughan eyes exactly how they should all fit together. Smith-Johnson is happy to help, and she understands that Aunt Lena has a unique talent,  “I think the fact that she designs nearly everything she does.  She is so artistic about it, and her color coordination is phenomenal!”
Vaughan’s Niece,
Linda Smith-Johnson with a
Traditional Wedding Ring

Vaughan’s work on traditional old-time patterns includes Colonial Garden, Lone Star, Ohio Star and Wedding Ring.  Her original patterns include what’s in her published book and many more.  One particular star pattern she was working on she called Lucky Mistake and decided to keep, although she didn’t like it at first.  She keeps a souvenir quilt with scenes she likes, called her Picture Gallery, on the wall.

The mother of two, grandmother, and retired elementary school teacher has designed quilts to celebrate her wedding anniversary, births of babies, and even the end of World War II.  She tells about the peace pattern in her book, “This one was at the end of the war (WWII) and I wanted peace. So this is my Peace in Space.”  Vaughan enjoyed 58 years of marriage with her late husband, Fred, in the Pineville, Missouri area and named one pattern for her hometown.  She even weathered the change when new highway construction moved her house.
Vaughan with
Lucky Mistake Quilt Block
Her family threw a big birthday party when Vaughan turned 100, alongside her sister-in-law, Bernice Smith, who was turning 95. Even though she needs a little extra help at 101, and she’s her own worst critic, a typical day for Vaughan still includes quilting. “My eyes and hands don’t coordinate,” she says, “but I’ve done some pretty work.”
Colonial Garden (traditional)
Ohio Star (traditional)
Lone Star (traditional)
Picture Gallery Quilt

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