Redmond-native Jean Wells remembers the first skirt she ever made. She saved up her babysitting money for the fabric: an adorable boat print. The problem was, she sewed the skirt with the boats going sideways.
“I didn’t know how to do a zipper or anything,” she says, laughing. “So I came up with this waistband and pinned it together.” She changed in and out of the skirt at school so her mother – who disapproved of her daughter making any clothes before she took a formal sewing class – wouldn’t see.
From a young age, all Jean wanted to do was sew.
As a home economics major at Oregon State in the ‘60s, sewing classes were her favorite. While her dream was to become a fashion designer, Jean enjoyed the diversity of her courses within the College of Home Economics, now the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. Students at Oregon State who choose to focus on fashion today now study in the School of Design and Human Environment, part of the College of Business.
After graduating in 1965, Wells pursued a master’s degree in education at Portland State University, and lived and taught in the metro area for eight years before returning home to Central Oregon.
During her time teaching middle school home economics, she fell in love with quilting.
“I need a project for the ninth grade boys to work on,” she says. “I saw a picture in a book of a pillow made from different squares, and that’s what first got me interested in putting different fabrics together.”
In 1975, Jean became a pioneer of her industry by opening the first quilt shop in Sisters called the Stitchin’ Post. She believes the shop might be one of the first exclusive quilting shops in the country.
Quilting has become Jean’s passion, but she’s also a businesswoman, who says her secret to her store’s success is constant reinvention and staying on top of trends in the industry.
The DIY-movement has her excited, and Jean is working hard to provide online solutions to a new generation of quilters.
Jean has written and published 27 how-to quilting books and traveled all over the world teaching classes on quilting techniques.
Several of her quilts are on displays in galleries worldwide. But her favorite place to show off her work is at the annual Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show, which she started with a friend as a “show and tell” project for the community. The show has now grown to an average annual attendance of 12,500. Its estimated economic impact in the Sisters area is $1.7 million per year.
The show and Wells’ classes draw aspiring quilters to Sisters from all over the country. The 71-year-old doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, and she says she will always quilt, reinventing herself time and time again in the beautiful fabrics she sews together.
“You know some people in our industry will pick one sort of quilt, and that’s what they do their whole life,” she says. “But I would just be bored. There are always new things to do if you’re interested.”