Local quilt star thinking about hanging it up

Bernice Enyeart holds her favorite quilt, named “BCE” for her initials, at her home in rural Huntington. Enyeart, who has won numerous awards for her innovative quilts, has made 79 quilts and wall hangings and still has 60 of them.
Bernice Enyeart holds her favorite quilt, named “BCE” for her initials, at her home in rural Huntington. Enyeart, who has won numerous awards for her innovative quilts, has made 79 quilts and wall hangings and still has 60 of them. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Oct. 19, 2015.

Sitting in her eclectically appointed living room, dotted throughout with cat tchotchkes, Bernice Enyeart is perfectly at home with all her “friends.”

The lady who could arguably be dubbed Huntington County’s quilter-in -residence has made 79 quilts and wall hangings since she began the hobby in her early 40s — 60 of them she still owns.

“They’re like old friends,” Enyeart says.

Those who are lucky enough to own one of Enyeart’s creations will soon find its value going up, with arthritis in her hands nagging at her exceptional abilities to fashion quilts that have their own unique personalities.

Enyeart has amassed so many awards for her quilts that she quit entering them in contests after one judge told her she had won enough. This was the last year that she exhibited her quilts at the Forks of the Wabash Pioneer Festival — a yearly tradition she started at the festival’s inception 40 years ago — and she has contemplated hanging up her quilting hoops forever.

“I was at Eiffel Plasterer’s show the year before,” she recalls. “That was neat, because nobody had asked me to show quilts before. I hadn’t made them very long … I had clothesline from tree to tree and clothespins to hold the quilts up. It was so neat. It was a first-time thing.”

Enyeart began quilting at age 42 — she’s 84 now — and says her first quilt wasn’t very good.

“I got this notion, it would be nice if I had a quilt on my beds. I didn’t know anything about it — nobody had taught me — but I had sewn all my life, and I thought, ‘I can do this,’” she says. “So I made one, which was a very, very simple one … I got started and I didn’t stop.”

She soon began working with more complex designs, even coming up with her own designs to fuel what she calls her “obsession.”

In 1976 she was teaching beginning quilting in Fort Wayne when friends urged her to try her luck at entering her quilts in a show. Her first time out, she entered four quilts in a show, which had more than 600 entries from around the country. It was also her first time attending a show.

“There was one of them that didn’t have a prize. And I went a little farther, and there was another one that didn’t have a prize,” she recalls. “It was at the back of the last row … my quilt had a third prize. I stepped back with my camera and I was excited.

“But I looked down the row and there was my fourth quilt. It had a blue ribbon, about 18 inches long. First prize! I got a little closer and there was another one right beside it. It was about three feet long, and it was best of show.”

From then Enyeart entered every show she could, winning so much that she used some of her prize money to purchase a heart-shaped diamond ring, which she wears to this day. She amassed 20 first prizes and 10 best of show or viewer’s choice awards.

Occasionally, she would find herself short on funds, so she would sell or trade her quilts for things, such as rugs, wallpaper and paint. But most of them are still at “home.”

She draws her inspiration for her creations from her family, friends, and the challenges to top her creativity from the last quilt she has made.

Each one has a name, such as “Welcome to Star City,” “Phantasy,” “Coming Home,” “Opulence,” “Over the Rainbow” and “Catastrophic” — which is an ode to felines, for which she has a special affinity.

The designs on her impressionist quilts come from her love of artists such as Monet, who inspired her to create a “Water Lilies” homage using 5,000 fabric hexagons.

It’s not a surprise to learn that some of her quilts have taken as long as 2,000 hours to complete.

“Bernice’s work just blows me away,” says her friend and fellow quilter, Melinda Williams Capozza. “She’s extraordinarily talented, she does everything by hand … Her use of color, her hand quilting and how she brings out the spirit of whatever it is she’s trying to convey.”

Later on, Enyeart began teaching three-day weekend quilting seminars, traveling out of state to cities such as Washington, DC, Chicago, Houston, Minneapolis and Detroit, teaching 20 women in a class, three classes per day.

“It was pretty tiring,” she adds. “I was making good money at it, yes, but I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? My husband keeps me in food and fabric,’ which is really all I needed, you know … I proved what I can do. That’s enough.”

Along the way, however, Enyeart discovered that quilts have stories, represent life’s journeys, and are deeply personal to those who make them.

She recalls the time her best friend, David Schenkel, passed away. She had made him a quilt embellished with thousands of tiny beads.

“I went to the viewing, and they put the wall hanging over the casket instead of flowers,” she recalls, choking back tears. “That was kind of hard to take. It was a little rough.”

Often those who have seen her quilts in shows or attended one of her classes would tell her about how quilting has impacted their life. Those are cherished memories, the rewards of her “obsession.”

“You listen to all the stories — it’s wonderful,” she says. “A lady came up to me and says, ‘I know you don’t remember me, but I took your classes here in Huntington.’ She said, ‘I just entered this show in Paducah, KY’ — which is a very large show. She said, ‘I got first prize. I just wanted to thank you.’

“She said, ‘You know what? I’m still quilting. I taught my daughter, and she’s quilting, and she’s teaching her little girl to quilt.’ Doesn’t that make you feel good?”

Enyeart stopped quilting about two years ago. She is thinking about making machine quilts, which would be easier to do than hand quilting, but she says it’s just not the same as the hand-made ones.

“I can make stitches, but they’re not good,” she says. “It’s got to be good or I don’t want to do it … (machine quilting) is kind of like going back instead of forward. But I probably will do something, at least. I need something to look forward to.”

She plans to continue attending the Pioneer Festival, which she loves, but as a spectator, since she can no longer manage the mechanics of setting up a display.

“Where else can you go in and eat, a place for the children to play, all the activities and crafts, so forth, for $3?” she adds. “I’m going to go there and enjoy every minute of it.”

Enyeart says she would like to be remembered not just for her talent, but also for her kindness to others.

“Of course for my quilts, naturally,” she says. “But I’ve tried real hard all my life to be kind to people. I’ve tried really hard not to hurt anybody. Especially when you’re on ‘public view,’ shall we say … show the interest.

“If somebody shows you their quilt, and it’s really not that great, there’s always something (good) you can say … You don’t lie, but you don’t put down. People that are creative with color — or anything — should be built up, always.”