Bonnie Leman's Legacy to the quilt world is enormous. For her twenty-seven years at the helm of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, she was at the forefront of the late twentieth century's quilt revival. What started with a five-dollar ad in a Midwestern newspaper mushroomed into a mail-order business, two quilting magazines, a publishing company, and worldwide quilting competitions and shows.
Bonnie Hale was born in Purdin, Missouri, where she excelled in both academics and sports. She was the valedictorian of her class, as well as a basketball player and table tennis champion. Throughout her life she was a formidable table tennis player until she fell and broke her wrist while playing the game.
She entered Park College, near Kansas City, Missouri, at the age of sixteen and graduated three years later with a degree in home economics and a minor in English. After moving to Colorado in 1953, she obtained her teaching credential from the University of Denver, where she met her husband, George, a fellow graduate student.
Bonnie's quilting story began in 1968, when she and George realized that they needed additional income for their family of six children. They decided to start a mail-order business that Bonnie could run from the kitchen table, allowing her to stay home with the children. Experienced in sewing and needle crafts and inspired by her mother's collection of old Kansas City Star quilt patterns.
Soon George and Bonnie Leman were running a fledgling mail-order quilting template business, which they named Heirloom Plastics. Their entire advertising budget of five dollars was spent on a classified ad in Capper's Weekly, a newspaper popular in small towns in middle America, where Bonnie hoped quilt making was still being practiced.
Included in one of the template orders she received was a suggestion from a customer that Bonnie start a newsletter about quilts. she said, "By this time, I had fallen in love with quilts, their history and designs, and I was captivated by the idea of a publication called Quilter's Newsletter. I thought it might be the perfect way for me to use my teaching background in home economics and English." Because she knew from her research that there was very little material about quilts currently in print, she was enthusiastic about the idea of a newsletter that included quilt making information, history, and patterns, as well as advertising space for their plastic templates.
Even though she was then expecting their seventh child, she told George, "I have to start this newsletter! It offers so many exciting possibilities, and it would be such fun to do." He encouraged her, and within several weeks she had put together a sixteen-page issue on her portable typewriter. That first issue appeared on September 21, 1969, the same day their baby boy, Matthew, was born.
The response to this first issue was so great that Bonnie optimistically subtitled the second issue "The Magazine for Quilt Lovers." She made it her goal to improve every issue and decided to publish monthly. Quilter's Newsletter soon became a leading force in the late twentieth century's quilt revival. The magazine gradually evolved from what Bonnie described as "a novice publisher's homemade newsletter" of sixteen black-and-white pages to a handsome full color magazine with eighty or more pages.
As editor in chief, Bonnie was responsible for all aspects of the publication. At first, she wrote all the copy and designed many of the patterns. The magazine's first employee was Bonnie's daughter Mary, who drew some of the illustrations as an after-school job. In the early 1970s, Bonnie expand the scope of the magazine's content as well as the staff, and in July 1974 with issue number 57, she changed its name from Quilter's Newsletter to Quilter's Newsletter Magazine (QNM). Over time the number of Leman Publications' employees increased from one to more than sixty, and the number of subscribers to QNM grew from 5,000 to more than 220,000 in more than 110 countries around the world.
As the interest in quilting grew, there were still very few quilt shops. In 1972, Bonnie and her husband opened a quilt shop called Quilts and Other Comforts and gave the same name to their mail order business. Five years later, the Lemans sold the retail shop, but retained the mail-order business.
The Lemans were particularly busy during the U.S. bicentennial, which sparked a revival of the art of quilting, with quilt shops, quilt guilds, and exhibitions proliferating all across the country. George had given up his teaching career and was now devoting all his time to the quilting business. He developed a traveling quilt show in a custom-made vehicle he called "the Quiltmobile." During 1975 and 1976, George traveled to quilt shows and events around the nation, with the children taking turns to accompany him.
In the early 1980s, Leman Publications joined the computer age and began to grow in new directions. George learned about more sophisticated mailing equipment, and Bonnie learned desktop publishing. The company also expanded by starting a book publishing company, Moon Over the Mountain, by adding a wholesale division, and by entering the international market. Many years later, Bonnie would reminisce, "The kitchen-table publishing I enjoyed so much in the early 1970s became just a happy memory."
In response to requests of QNM readers for more quilt patterns, she started a second magazine in 1982 entitled Quiltmaker. Because quiltmakers were asking for more colors to work with, Bonnie produced a line of solid colored fabrics named Columbine Cottons, and later tried her hand at printed fabric design.
In 1986, QNM sponsored the first worldwide quilt competition and exhibit, Quilts: Visions of the World, in conjunction with the debut of Quilt Expo Europa in Salzburg, Austria. This biennial competition has been a force for uniting quilters around the world.
Bonnie's editorials, "The Needle's Eye," frequently aired significant and controversial issues in the quilt world. Questions about the status of quilts as art, the conservation of old quilts, and the importation of reproduction quilts by the Smithsonian generated intense interest. Her columns have had a profound influence on quiltmakers worldwide.
Leman Publications became a subsidiary of Rodale Press in 1991, and in December 1994, Mary Leman Austin, who had been working in the family business since she was a teenager became executive director. Bonnie remained as editor in chief until September 1996, when she retired after twenty-seven years of leadership and innovation. Amazingly, Bonnie had also found time to author or coauthor seven books about quilting, and to edit or publish another seventeen books.
Bonnie received numerous awards, including induction into The Quilters Hall of Fame in 1982. She also was honored with the first Silver Star Award in 1994, presented by Quilts, Inc., the parent company of the International Quilt Festival and Quilt Market.
Bonnie herself credited many people for her success. When interviewed, she stated: "I have been inspired by many people along the way, among them the talented people who have worked with me to give quilt lovers the best that we could, and certainly by the quiltmakers of long ago who left us such a beautiful legacy. But I have to say my main inspiration has always been the 'ordinary everyday' home quilters who simply make quilts for beds, or to give to someone, or just to have because they are beautiful and they love them. It has been the quilters out there who are making quilts because it is a part of what they do to make a home. Perhaps they make a quilt for a person to love or remember them by or to express their creativity. Quiltmaking is a part of their lives that they tell their stories through."
Bonnie Leman enriched all of our lives by sharing these stories in the pages of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine. She was an inspiration for quilters worldwide by showcasing both heirloom and contemporary quilts and by challenging her readers to create their own personal artistic expressions.
After she retired, Bonnie Leman enjoyed putting together a family cookbook, cherished by her children. She did some painting, traveled with her family, was a devoted attendee at the annual Cherry Creek Arts Festival, and indulged her love of reading by reading hundreds of books.
She died on September 4, 2010 at the age of eight-three. Her son, Andrew, said in her eulogy: "She was an inspiration and a role model not only to her family, not only to the people who knew her personally, but through her books and magazines to countless hundreds of thousands of women and men throughout the world.....She built a company that celebrated the humblest and most innocent of art forms, brought people together, unleashed their creativity, and expanded their horizons. She facilitated the growth of an entire industry that has brought joy and fulfillment to a generation and more, forever improving lives and livelihoods. She held herself and everyone who worked with her, to the highest standards, and spared no effort to make everything she did as good as it could possibly be."
The pages of Bonnie Leman's magazine provided the stage on which many of the stars of the quilt world were introduced during the quilt revival of the late twentieth century. Many of the other honorees of the Quilters Hall of Fame appeared on the pages of Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, and many were encouraged by Bonnie Leman to accomplish great things.
By Debra Bissantz
Photo courtesy of Mary Leman Austin.
"Geography prevents us from having a real old-fashioned quilting bee, but we can all get together through this magazine, chat, and exchange our ideas and news in a modern quilting bee."
"The Needle's Eye," first issue of Quilter's newsletter (1969), p.2
Bishop, Robert, Karey P. Bresenhan, and Bonnie Leman. Hands All Around: Quilts from Many Nations. E.P. Dutton, 1987.
Leman, Bonnie, How to Make a Quilt: 25 Easy Lessons for Beginners. Denver, CO: Leman Publications, 1971. Revised by Bonnie Leman and Louise Townsend. Denver, CO: Moon Over the Mountain, 1986
----. Modern Quilting: Quilt Patterns for Contemporary Quiltmakers. Book 1. Denver, CO: Leman Publications, 1977.
----. (founder and editor in chief). Quilter's Newsletter and Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, from September 1969 through September 1996. Author, "The Needle's Eye" column and numerous articles and patterns.
----. Quilts: Discovering a New World. Exhibit catalog. Denver, CO: Leman Publications, 1992.