By Stephen Burnett
One of Janet Serrenho’s colorful, hand-stitched art quilts hangs somewhere in the University of Kentucky Medical Center, as she’s been told. Others have bought her quilts in Berea or at other quilt shows, including an Indianapolis couple who bought one quilt, returned home, then called to let her know it was doing very well.
Janet Serrenho with one of her quilts (Photo by Stephen Burnett)
Yet Serrenho doesn’t consider herself an expert by any stretch — or stitch. Still, she certainly enjoys putting together diverse and colorful fabrics to match a particular theme, such as the American Southwest or Africa, or simple arrangements of colors.
Such quilts are both artistic and practical, she said, making them a perfect gift or hobby. “It’s something that could be useable and washed, but actually — it’s useable art,” Serrenho said.
Upstairs in her south Lexington home are both her sewing rooms: the smaller room that she quickly outgrew, and the larger one where she now works. In the smaller room are wardrobes full of fabrics and dresser drawers full of squares and finished potholders (another item she enjoys making). In the larger room are chests full of fabrics, wire baskets and even pizza boxes that hold more fabric squares, worktables, and, of course, her sewing machine.
Quilt-making runs in Serrenho’s family, though it took a while for her to take up that trade.
“Two of my aunts made quilts, and my grandmother made quilts on a treadle sewing machine,” she recalled.
Back then, the hobby — or practical skill — was more difficult. Cutting straight edges on the fabric squares to sew them together took careful eyes and a steady hand with scissors.
“Quilting was revolutionized in the early 1980s by the invention of the rotary cutter,” Serrenho explained. With that tool, quilters can easily cut four or five layers of fabric at a time, yielding 100 near-perfect squares within a few minutes.
As an engineer herself, Serrenho said she can appreciate that time-saving device. In 1969 she earned her own civil engineering degree from the UK, and for the last dozen years, she worked in transportation maintenance at the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.
Serrenho in one of her home's two quilting rooms (Photo by Stephen Burnett)
In 1999 she retired from that job. That left her with time and motivation to take some basic quilting classes, after she had begun “messing around with fabric” some years before.
“It was just a hobby, and it was so simple, with the tools available today,” she said. “I made one or two [quilts] for me, and went on. … It’s just fun. You can express yourself. It has become a hobby that partially pays for itself. I don’t think I’m making money. I’m almost breaking even.”
On Aug. 4 her quilts were featured at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea in a quilting event hosted by the Berea Arts Council. Serrenho has done similar demonstrations there before, showing onlookers how she does foundation piercing. “It’s easier to show than tell,” she said. “You’re sewing on a line, on a piece of see-through paper … and of course you are sewing two pieces of fabric together.”
In Serrenho’s upstairs guest room, one of her newer quilts is on the bed. “I am really short on what I call art quilts,” she said. “Here’s one of them. … That’s a Southwest theme.”
On it are the colors of rust-red mountains, dark brown soils, orange rocks and sunsets, and silhouettes and images of running horses, cattle, cowboys and Native Americans.
Those patterns also continue on the back, she pointed out. “It’s my most recent one,” she said. “I’ve had this less than a month. … I’m working on a collection of four themed quilts, all different themes, and when I get them together I’ll go [get] wall space to have a little exhibit.” That may include her African quilts. Africa themes proved so fun and so popular that she had to give up trying to invent derivative names for the art quilts — Africa Safari, African Jungle, and such — that she went to numbers. “So the same of that [one] is Africa number 25.”
All the quilts are 100-percent cotton, washable and useable. Yet Serrenho always includes a sleeve on the back, just wide enough to accept a curtain rod.
Plenty of quilts have been sold, but apart from the Indianapolis couple who called, amusingly, to let her know her work had a good home, Serrenho doesn’t know what happens to them. She hasn’t even seen the one that hangs in UK Medical Center.
After all, quilting lends not only to showcasing and profit, but to time and practice with friends. Quilting is quite the hobby around the nation and in Kentucky, with the Kentucky Heritage Quilt Society listing hundreds of members. Groups like that also make available directories that list every fabric shop in the United States, giving quilters plenty of fabric-finding options for their work.
One can join that group for $25 a year, Serrenho said. It helps her keep up with other quilters and pursue continuing education opportunities all over the state, hosted by various quilting groups and by the UK Cooperative Extension Service in Jabez.
Classes are essential to getting started if you want to learn quilting yourself, she added. “I think every county — through the agricultural extension, the homemakers part of it — has some kind of small quilting group.” Find a rotary cutter device, which may cost about $40, she said. From there, practice, learn from others and enjoy finding fabrics and assembling designs.
“To become an exhibiting member of a Kentucky guild of artists and craftsmen, you are juried in,” Serrenho said. “They looked at my quilts and they juried me in as an exhibiting member.”
That was likely around 2000, she recalled. That led to the showings and demonstrations in Berea, as well as a 2007 gallery presentation at Central Library Gallery in Lexington, the Gateway Regional Arts Center in Mt. Sterling, and Christ Church Cathedral in Lexington.
Like the Indianapolis couple, others have bought her quilts after passing through Berea. One woman, who visited the artisan center, also called Serrenho after returning to her Texas home. “She was calling me and she just wanted me to know that my quilt had a good home,” Serrenho said. “Well. That was all right.”
Whatever buyers’ reactions, Serrenho will keep sewing. She’s already collecting and cutting fabrics for another Southwest theme, another Africa theme, a music theme, and a wine theme, which will feature fabrics with wine-like and images of French rolls, wine glasses, and grapes.
But don’t call her a professional quilter, or even advanced, Serrenho added with a laugh. “Hardly anybody says they’re advanced. Most people say they are ‘experienced beginners.’”