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  • Writer's pictureEmily V.

Quilter Story: Helene Mowen

I like to share stories on Instagram about quilters and the stories behind their quilts. I shared a bit over there about my grandmother, Helene Mowen, but I wanted to write a full blog post about her because there is so much more than I could fit in a little one minute video.

Helene Lucille Knipp was born in 1910 in Des Moines, Iowa. When she was born, the spelling of her name was Helen, but later in life, she added the letter e to the end in honor of a woman she admired who spelled the name that way. Her mother sewed clothes for her and made other small sewing projects. In 1915, the local paper published a photograph of Helene on George Washington's birthday, "sewing" the American flag as she was playing the role of Betsy Ross for a class activity.

In the 1930s, Helene worked at the Younkers Department Store in Des Moines at the "Will Call" department. She met and married Ralph Frederick Mowen in 1940 and they moved into the house that Helene's father built for them. The photo on the right is from their wedding day. (Aren't all those clothes so great?!) She had a son, John, in 1942 and then my dad, Tom, in 1950. I have a lot of curiosity about these years of her life. What was is like to get married at the age of 30 in the year 1940? What was it like to have a baby at the age of 40 in 1950? What was it like to have a husband go off in the Navy in World War 2? As a kid, I didn't have curiosity about these things. I was more concerned about the gift she set out for me on my special step on the staircase. One thing I know is that she kept her hands busy making things.

She made rugs from scraps of wool and and covered the floors of their home with them. When friends came over, they would joke that you had to keep an eye on your clothes or Helene would cut a bit off and incorporate them into her rugs. Here is one section of rug that my parents have in their home. I love that she used a scrappy mix of colors.

In the 1960s, she took a class on weaving at the Des Moines Art Center and got a loom and made several woven bed coverlets. My sister and I each had one of the light green coverlets in the pictures below.

She also made aprons, tablecloths for special occasions, clothes, and purses. She had a spinning wheel and would make her own yarn from wool and then knit it into sweaters. My dad tells me that she made yarn and knitted sweaters for my aunt and uncle from the thick fur of their dog's coats!

In the 1970s, at the age of 65, she became interested in quilting and made many quilts, all cut, pieced, and quilted by hand. Here are some photos of a Cathedral Window quilt she made that I have. She made four or five Cathedral Window quilts, each a different color.

This is a quilt she made for my parents that she called "Mowenville". She made a similar quilt in a different colorway for my uncle and aunt and called it "Mowenburg". This quilt was on the wall of my home for my teenage years. A design element that I find charming is that the lights in the houses are all out, but the lights are on at church. Everyone in Mowenville is at evening church, probably singing some beloved hymns and enjoying fellowship with one another.

My parents also had this Drunkard's Path quilt on their wall for many years. I appreciate that my parents put the quilts my grandma made in places of honor and prominence in our home. It was a regular reminder of my grandma, her creativity, and her love.

Something that means a lot to me is that I can clearly see my grandma's love for God and love for people in her quilts. She put so much work in to these quilts and gave them as gifts to the people she loved. She made quilts that demonstrated her faith, like in the Mowenville and Mowenburg quilts. She also made this quilt that my parents have that represents women of the Bible. Maybe you can guess who some of them represent.

I love this tulip quilt she made and my favorite part is the fence around the bottom with the little heart shaped latch on the gate. That all was her idea and design.

This acorn quilt is one that she gave specifically to me! I love the quilting on the acorns and in the green squares. I remember when I was a kid that I would go spend a week at my grandparents' house in Des Moines and that she would work on quilts while watching "The Young and the Restless". I don't remember any of the characters or plot, but I remember spending a nice time with my grandma. I'm told that she belonged to a book club for a long time, but never read the books. She was, however, required to lead one book club meeting every two years, so she did get a book read at least that often. I think the reason isn't that she didn't enjoy books, but that she liked to keep her hands busy with creative work. I can relate to that, but I'm glad that there are lots of great audiobooks now.

In the 1980s, she started making teddy bears and I benefited from that endeavor as well!

She also had collections of thimbles, spoons, music boxes, and pretty glass paperweights. It's fun to have a few of those items in my home now.

Another quilt that was specifically given to me was this cat quilt. She made it in 1991 when I was 14 years old and it was a gift for a baby that I would someday have. I did have that baby in 2004 and I had this quilt in his crib. I love the quilting that looks like a ball of yarn.

I would have loved for her to see this quilt in my son's crib. I also would have loved to have conversations about life, faith, family, and quilts with her, but unfortunately, she passed away in 1996, long before I even made my first quilt. I still miss her and think of her every time I finish a quilt. She was a kind, creative, thoughtful person. I want to be like her and keep creating, giving, and loving.

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