As a small child, you might have aspired to be a firefighter or an astronaut. Bonnie Browning wanted to be like her mom. Decades later, Browning is still following her dreams to be a prolific sewer and quilter, and has made a successful career of it.
Browning’s mother made a point to support creativity and the value of working with one’s hands. The family would create new Christmas decorations and ornaments each year, giving the family’s skills a chance to shine. Eventually, Bonnie’s mother showed her how to sew on an old fashioned treadle sewing machine. This was fun and also practical for Bonnie, as she started creating most of her own school clothes. Her passion for sewing continued to grow until the late 1970s when she joined the Welcome Wagon Club in Burlington, Iowa. There she was a part of the needlework group that introduced her to quilting and set her on a career path that she still enjoys to this day.
The first hurdle was making that first quilt. On her first sampler with the Club, she combined polyester and cotton blends of fabric - as many beginners do. Browning learned from her mistakes, and eventually completed her first quilt. By then, she had the bug and created her second piece for an art class at the community college in Burlington. This quilt was of weathervanes and they were silk screened onto the fabric and then hand quilted. She’s still proud of it to this day!
Over time, Browning’s quilt making skills started to gain her some recognition. After entering them into contests and even winning a few, she made the decision to pursue this passion further. In 1986, she became a Certified Quilt Judge with the National Quilting Association. Thus began her work with quilting associations where she has had the opportunity to teach in 46 states as well as Australia, Canada, Egypt, Japan, China, Indonesia, Switzerland and Turkey. Quilting is truly a global hobby, and it’s shaped Browning’s career in many ways.
Learning from her experiences, Browning sees the value in the basics and makes them the focus of her classes. “Once you learn the basics, then you can make any style of quilt and be pleased that it can be used and will hold together,” says Browning.
Sewing is often a multi-generational hobby, and Browning has taken it upon herself to pass on her knowledge to the next generation. Her goal is always to create a quilting experience that others will enjoy and see a variety of styles. “Today’s quiltmakers are so creative and continue to try new things,” says Browning.
In her current position as Executive Show Director for the American Quilter’s Society, she oversees the production of six different AQS QuiltWeek shows. Here she gets a behind the scenes look at all of these projects and gets to meet quilters from all over the world. These shows help spread the love and craft of quilting to enthusiasts in Daytona Beach, Florida; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Charleston, South Carolina; and of course at the AQS headquarters in Paducah, Kentucky.
Her tenure at AQS has also opened some other opportunities for Bonnie, as she has published 12 quilting books and one on Zentangle Art. She is always learning new techniques while meeting with prizewinning quiltmakers at the AQS QuiltWeek Shows, and loves to share them with others. Her knowledge is truly global with a Youtube channel sharing quiltmaking techniques.
Although these shows are a lot of fun for those attending, there is a lot of work involved to make them possible. This is where Browning and her team really shine. They essentially must work to plan a big party for 15-30,000 quilters. Her team has increased the prizes awarded to accomplished quilters over the years, added up to over $5 million. This year they will give away $462,000 in prize money, giving them the opportunity to recognize many talented craftspeople.
When asked what aspect of her job she’s most proud of, Bonnie will always bring up her outreach efforts. At the Nashville, Tennessee show in 2000, Browning realized that most of the attendees were first-timers. This got her thinking that more crafters would get to experience AQS shows if they were more localized. From this realization, the QuiltWeek was formed. Now every year more sewing fans can have a piece of the camaraderie and learning experience that comes with an AQS event.
Bonnie Browning’s quilting work continues to improve and inspire. Some of her works are displayed in exhibits across the country and two were purchased for the Artists of Iowa Collection. ‘Smitten with Flowers’ and ‘A Little Bit of Candlewicking’ are featured in the Collection of the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. Her handy Famore dressmaker shears or duck-bill scissors have helped her with some of her favorite creations. Even with all of her success, she still makes time for personal communication. If you were to give her office a call, you would hear none other than Bonnie on the other line.
Between planning the next AQS QuiltWeek, Browning still finds time for her own creations. Next on her agenda will be creating a bag with pockets from some quilted pieces that have been shared with her. “Sitting at my sewing machine is relaxing for me - and I love to see a finished project.”
Bonnie K. Browning’s whole career has been shaped by a skill her mother shared with her that grew into a lifelong passion. As the Executive Show Director at the American Quilt Society, she’s been able to spread this love to others around the country. She’s helped shape the quilting community, and even plant the seed in the next generation.