Karen Smisek has been teaching quilting classes for more than 20 years. She holds classes every two weeks. Quilting, Smisek believes, is a growing art that anyone can do.
Smisek owns and operates “The Retreat” on Main Street in Denison. “The Retreat” is a quilting shop, bed-and-breakfast, restaurant, and antique and gift shop.
“My grandmother, when I was growing up in Nebraska, was my introduction to quilting,” she said. “My grandparents lived on a farm. They had an outhouse, and they did not really have any electricity. We did everything ourselves. We did our own canning.”
Smisek learned to quilt on a treadle and her grandmother taught her how to hand quilt.
“We would use grandpa’s old shirts or our old clothes that we did not want anymore,” she said. “We would cut them up. We would make quilts. We never went to a quilt shop.”
Smisek grew up, had her own children and made a living in Plano. Later, she decided to move to East Texas where she worked staining glass, but she knew she wanted to do something else.
“Quilting was in my heart,” she said.
So Smisek opened her first quilting shop.
“I really love hearing people say, ‘I really can’t do it,’” she said. “I can teach anyone how to quilt. I would get them started on an easy method like the grid. There is no pinning.”
Smisek said she would even get husbands and children involved with quilting.
“At that shop, people would come in with husbands and children,” she said. “The mother could not shop and do her classes and quilting with the children there so we made a sitting area for the children and husbands. I would give them a square piece of grid — about 18 inches by 18 inches — or two-inch squares. They would build Lego pictures. I would iron it before they left. Then they would have something to take home with them. They could sew them when they got home if they wanted to.”
Smisek said that she loves showing people that there is a quilting method for everyone.
“In the ’90s people would come in and say, ‘I am not a quilter. My friend is a quilter. She has been quilting forever,’” Smisek said. “Those people have been quilting forever. I want to teach people that there are different methods. There are newer methods. It is about techniques and simpler methods. It blesses my heart in so many ways to see people make something when they never thought they would.
Smisek opened the Denison shop two years ago.
“We want people to understand that we have a lot of fabric,” Smisek said. “We sell a lot of fabric. We use the gridiron method. They lay the squares down on the grid. We iron it on with hot moist heat. Then we go back and sew in between the squares. It is awesome because we are sewing it row by row instead of one piece by one piece. Anyone can do it.”
The women at “The Retreat,” Smisek said, can teach anyone how to sew and anyone how to make a quilt in a day.
“Recently I had a lady come in that had a quilt that was a crazy patch quilt,” Smisek said. A crazy patch quilt is a quilt that has many pieces including dollies, buttons, embroidery, and multiple types of fabrics.
“It took her almost all of her adult life to make this,” Smisek said. “It had names. It had years. It had velvet and ties and shirts. It had everything in this quilt. It is called crazy square because you just put the pieces on squares of the quilt. She had made this for a long time.”
The quilt could not be put together using a sewing machine.
“She brought it in and said, ‘I need someone to finish this quilt for me.’” Smisek said.
She had already been turned down at three shops.
“It was thick,” Smisek said. “It had several seams. So I said bring it to the table. It was gorgeous. She had black velvet to put on the back which is harder to sew on because it slides. I told her that I could do it for her.”
Smisek knew it would take about three or four months to complete the quilt.
“I had to tie it,” she said. “There were about 184 ties on it.”
Smisek worked for the next two weekends and finished the quilt.
“She was an older lady and I did not know how long I should hold onto the quilt,” she said. “I got it done and called her in. She was thrilled with it. She went around showing the quilt at a lot of different places. I ended up putting casing on the back of it to finish it off.”
Smisek said the quilt had names, wine names, hand embroidered pieces from the ’20s and ’30s.
“It touched my heart because if we did not finish it for her, she would have put it in a drawer,” Smisek said. “Tops have jagged edges and a lot going on. She had said if she died without completing the quilt, it would have been sold at a garage sale or something. But, I felt like I had helped her make a story of her life with the pieces of the quilt.”
One of the reasons Smisek believes that quilt making is art is because it uses beauty to tell a story, and the story can be about anything that has happened in someone’s life.
“My daughter has a friend who had a daughter that was born in 2002 and passed in 2005,” she said. “She showed up with 15 big bins of baby clothes from the child. She wanted a queen size baby quilt. She just wants it done whenever it can be done.”
This quilt will be made of bibs, onesies, stretch pants, and little girl’s church clothes.
“I put backs and webbing on all of them,” Smisek said. “I am going to do a lattice work with it. It will be in honor of Emma.”
Smisek will embroider a square in honor of the baby who died.
“It is probably the hardest one I have ever had to do in my life of quilting,” she said. “I put my heart into this one. I do not want it to be a huge baby quilt. I want it to be something that the woman sleeps under with comfort knowing where her baby is. This will probably be my most treasured quilt.”
“The Retreat” is more than a quilt gallery, it is a tourist attraction.
“I think this shop is a very unique destination for anyone that is traveling,” Smisek said. “We have people that show up from North Dallas and everywhere else.”
Recently, Smisek had a family come in for an hour and fall in love with the shop. The family ended up spending the night.
“The 11-year old son is a prodigy,” she said. “The mother was from Cuba and the father was from Tanzania. The son plays concert piano and knows three languages. They did a class for him. They came, ate downtown.”
Smisek says that she always invites the people that visit the shop to journey through downtown to find the other hidden gems.
“They get a good experience,” she said. “They say that this is out of the ordinary. They say that this place feels like home.”