Willmar woman quilts everyday, was featured in recent show

“Smitty” Luschen of Willmar loves to make creative and beautiful quilts. She learned how to sew in fourth grade and has been sewing ever since. She made her own clothes through high school and beyond and then started doing what she loves best, quilting.

Smitty Luschen, of Willmar, has made several quilts over the years, including this one. She gives them to family, friends and nonprofits. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

After her marriage to her husband, Loren, and as their friends started having babies, she made baby quilts for them. At that time, she said, you had a cardboard block you drew around, cut the fabric into blocks and sewed all those together.

“There weren’t cutting mats, rulers or anything at that point. As beautiful or ugly as they were, that’s what they were,” she said.

When her kids were little, she was a stay at home mom and she sewed clothes for people. “I have been a sewer all my life.”

She was born and raised in Willmar and moved around the state before returning to Willmar. She worked at Heritage Bank in Willmar almost 25 years.

Her friends were quilters and they knew she was a sewer.

“I always thought it would be fun to be a quilter and they said, ‘just join Country Quilters.’” When her kids got older, she got more interested and decided to become a member.

The Guild had a “block of the month” program for several years and she participated. With some of the blocks, the people that made them would show their blocks. She said there would be a drawing as to who would take the blocks home.

“I thought ‘Well, it’s pretty cool and if I won the blocks, I could make a quilt,’ not knowing how to quilt. But I made all those blocks never knowing a thing about how to do it properly.” She started by making table runners, but still didn’t know all the rules and everything about how to cut. 

“Time went on and I had some good friends that helped get me started with the process of really quilting, your quarter inch seams, how to cut your fabrics and how to iron your fabrics.” You aren’t ironing, she said, you’re pressing, lifting the iron so it doesn’t stretch the fabric.

“I didn’t know any of that. My original things that I made as a quilter were pretty ugly. But I prevailed. When I knew I was going to retire, I bought myself a better sewing machine, one that would do a few more things.”

She still has that sewing machine and has been retired for 11 years.

“That’s how I got started. I love quilting. I sew on a quilt every day, probably for two to three hours each day.”

She went on to say if she could get a half hour in the basement in their prior home, which is where her sewing room was, that was just great. “It just relaxes me, it’s very therapeutic, it’s just another world.”

She said they’ve been living in their current home for two years, moving two blocks to a one level house that could accommodate her sewing.

“I have a large stash of fabric. I needed some place where that could go also and we were able to accommodate it in this house and we love it. It’s awesome.”

Smitty has given quilts to her son and his family, and her daughter. 

“My daughter said she doesn’t want all the 29 quilts around the house, but she called one day about 2-1/2 years ago and said, ‘Mom I want you to make a wall hanging for me.’” She wanted the word ‘Peace’ on that wall hanging. “Growing up in the 70s I’m thinking the peace symbol, but she wanted the word, Peace, and wanted sand cranes on there as well. “I printed out a sand crane and enlarged it and incorporated it into the wall hanging.”

Smitty keeps busy quilting and doesn’t plan to stop. “My machine is running very well and I take care of my machine because of the amount of quilting and sewing I do. I get it cleaned and oiled twice a year.”

In addition to supplying her family with quilts, she gives to nonprofits for their fundraising efforts. She usually gives seven or eight quilts a year to nonprofits and has been doing that for about 13 years.

“This year when they asked me to be the featured quilter, I thought about it for a while and then said yes. In the meantime, I was thinking I would make this one, this one and this one so I’ve made 13 quilts since the beginning of the year.”

The featured quilting was at the civic center in September. 

The first quilt Smitty ever got was at the Lutefisk dinner at Vinje Church in Willmar. “I always buy a raffle ticket. We were sitting there eating our dinner, it was late and they had already drawn for the quilt and a woman came out and said ‘Smitty, you won the quilt.’”

Smitty at her sewing machine —
a favorite spot for her in her
retirement years. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

She used that quilt on their bed for several years, still has it, and it’s in good shape and a nice quilt. “That was the first one I ever had, and I inherited some antique ones from an aunt. I have one quilt that was in my grandmother’s home on my mother’s side. That is in tatters but it’s still together.” “It’s interesting,” she said, “because everything was hand pieced and there’s about four different patterns on the one side so they just added to it.”

She said some of the women do needle turn. “That is gorgeous but my eyes just can’t do it so I don’t. I have fun with blocks.” She plans to keep doing this.

Smitty said one of the other joys she and her husband, Loren, have is when they travel whether it’s in the U.S. or foreign countries.

“I always try to get into a quilt shop to see the fabrics and I buy something. Maybe next year I’m going to put together a quilt with all those fabric pieces in it,” she said.

She has one piece from Switzerland and it has swiss cheese on it. “I always ask what they have that signifies the country. Sometime they do and sometimes they don’t.” There are places in the states that you can even find things that are just for that area of the country. “You never know what you’ll find until you ask.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” she said, and her husband is very patient. “He enjoys the trip and sometimes he’ll come in and look around the store, then go sit in the car and read while I pick out what I want.”

Smitty said it’s fun to see the different fabric and patterns.

“Not everybody in the whole state has the same fabrics or patterns and when you travel to different parts of the country there’s more of that. You see different fabrics and patterns, and sometimes I have a pattern I’m waiting to try but don’t have the right fabrics or vice versa,” she said. 

Smitty’s mom didn’t quilt, nor her grandmother. “My grandmother used to crochet, which amazed me. I never did that either. My mother taught me to embroider dishtowels but I never saw my mother embroider. I suppose she did when she was younger and I’m sure her mother taught her. But I never saw her embroider. When my sister taught me to sew that probably wasn’t the best thing either.”

The Guild is “amazing,” Smitty said, noting it has around 100 members now and they’re called Country Quilters. “It’s a wide variety of people in it. When I joined I was one of the younger ones. Now I’m right in that middle area. We have a lot of young, young quilters in our guild. It’s really interesting to watch them because they do beautiful work.”

Smitty met a lady, Bertha, while in the Guild. “When we moved back to Willmar, she was in her 80s, probably well into her 90s. She had lost an eye as a young girl and had a glass eye and she was still quilting. She was using up her scraps, and I know she never used them all up.” Smitty said this lady would come to Country Quilters, and her daughter, who is a member, would help her display the quilts for what they call Sew and Tell. “Bertha would stand there with her cane and she was pretty bent over by this time and she’d say ‘well, I just made this one out of scraps and she’d open up this quilt and it would be gorgeous and made out of her scraps.”

Smitty said it’s amazing what people do in quilting, and the fabrics have changed so much even since she started quilting. “I love the bright colors, I love the 30s. I don’t do a lot with the 30s but I have some from my grandmother’s house and they’re very special.”

Smitty, whose first name is Gudrun, didn’t like her name growing up. Her sister was four years older and her name was Ruth. “Nobody could pronounce my name and when my mail came to me it was ironic but when I got into the teenage years, I got mail from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They thought I was Gordon, or Gunter.” She continued, saying she has had her name spelled almost any way you could imagine. “When I went to business school in the cities a good friend said ‘we are going to give you a new name. My maiden name was Smith so she came up with Smitty.”