Ruth Pennell doesn’t consider winning, or profiting, when she’s working on multiple award-winning quilts for the Ohio State Fair.
The fair’s 2019 “Best of Show” winner prefers to call quilting “just a hobby,” she said.
Pennell, 88, of Whitehall, usually sets aside six hours each day to work on quilts. Sometimes she devotes an entire workday to a project, spending up to 8 hours stitching away at a quilt.
“It just takes over my whole life,” Pennell said. To the point that five years ago, when she suffered a detached retina and had to lie on her stomach for five days straight, she immediately went back to her quilt work.
She worked on her three award-winning quilts over the course of a year, placing first, second, third and receiving the “Best of Show” award for the first-place quilt.
“I usually get bored working on one thing,” said Pennell, who often multitasks while quilting, watching TV while applying hand appliques and embroidered designs.
Pennell uses a combination of cotton fabric, wool and cotton applique. In the past, she preferred to hand quilt, but she’s since switched to machine quilting.
In 1994, Rita Herzberger, Pennell’s second-oldest daughter of nine children, introduced quilting into their lives when she asked her mom to take a quilting class at the Glass Thimble, 3434 N. High St.
Since then, Herzberger and her mother have entrenched themselves in the world of quilting. They belong to two quilting guilds, including Columbus Metropolitan Quilters and Quintessential Quilters.
“She’s always raggin’ me, saying ‘Oh, I get things finished,’” said Herzberger, 69, who has also won awards at the fair and still works a full-time job. “I cannot get as much done as she does. She can really crank ‘em out.”
When her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1996, Pennell decided to stay home and care for him. Though she had sewed her whole life, she spent much of this time honing her quilting skills, devoting more time to the hobby than ever before.
She first entered the state fair’s quilting competition between in the later half of the 1990s.
With about 25 years of quilting experience, Pennell has lost count of how many accolades she’s won at the fair. She remembers more recent wins, like her 2017 “Best of Show” award.
Her most memorable accolade was when one of her quilts hung on a wall in the Ohio governor’s mansion. Governor George Voinovich’s wife, Janet Allen, asked to display Penell’s award-winning state fair quilt as a piece of art.
“I do use a lot of patterns, but I really do think quilting is an art,” Pennell said.
At quilting guild meetings, there isn’t much quilting done, but they do help each other improve their art.
Guild members share techniques and fabric options, challenging quilters to use a predetermined theme or pattern and encouraging them to get out of their quilting comfort zone. But the work is always done outside of meetings.
Quilting became an integral part of not only Pennell’s life, but her family’s. Growing interest in the hobby allowed her daughter Anita, who also quilts, to open a Hilliard-based fabric shop called Sew to Speak.
Pennell has made quilts for each of her nine children, along with her 31 grandchildren. She emphasized her quilts aren’t to be confused with “baby blankets.”
“A lot of people just call them blankets,” Pennell said. “But a lot more work goes into them.”
Each quilt uses at least five different fabric patterns, and some use more than 10. One quilt Pennell entered at the state fair features 18 gnomes, all with unique outfits, skin tones, hair styles and hats.
Pennell has developed her own style over the years, but sometimes she tries to venture from old techniques. This year, she also submitted her first modern-style quilt to the state fair competition, though it didn’t receive any awards.
Quilting is all about trial and error, Pennell said. She admits she could improve, noting that even an award-winning quilt might hide an error within its intricate design. To further hone her skills, she still takes quilting classes.
“There’s always something new to learn, and I’m not perfect,” Pennell said.