Los Angeles Times

The perfectionist's perfect pastime

Perfection was a quality she knew she had in her since she was a child.

Even her chosen career demanded such flawlessness.

Prior to her retirement, Karen Powel, 65, of Huntington Beach, worked for Boeing. She was a software engineer for Boeing's Delta IV rockets.

Such a job requires meticulous attention to detail, making sure the coding is just right to allow the rocket to function properly.

On the second floor of her house is a small corner decorated with award plaques given to her by the company.

"That's the way I was all my life," she said. "I always have to do something fabulously."

Now out of the aeronautics scene, Powel is deep into a hobby that requires just as much attention to detail: quilting.

And just like her work at Boeing, her quilts are starting to earn her attention.

This year, Powel's latest quilt — which she named "Carousel Fantasy" — is a finalist in a national quilting competition called Road to California.

She is one of 250 quilters from around the country vying for awards in their categories, as well as the coveted Best of Show award.

These nominated quilts from around the world, along with the quilting enthusiasts who created them, will congregate at the Ontario Convention Center Thursday through Sunday. Not only will the winners be announced, but quilting vendors will be available and classes will be offered.

This isn't Powel's first time as a finalist. She has been entering the competition since 2011 and has always reached this stage.

"This is the third time I've submitted something and I finally decided that this time I want to win," she said.

"Carousel Fantasy," finally finished after a long gestation period, came to her some time ago when she visited South Coast Plaza and saw the carousel there.

Like being struck by a lightning bolt, the idea to make a carousel-themed quilt came to her in a flash and the process of what needed to be done to create it began.

Prior to her current entry, Powel had submitted quilts using patterns by other designers. But she knew she had to mix it up to be noticed.

"I finally decided that you have to submit an original quilt to really be competitive," she said. "Carousel Fantasy" filled the bill.

Not only had she taken the time to think of her own quilting pattern, but she also paid close attention to the details in her piece.

Powel used her $8,000 embroidery machine to make the eight horses found on the top layer. She also added 1,100 crystals and Mylar fabric to mimic the lights and mirrors one would find on a carousel.

Going even further, Powel used her background in math and her husband's expertise in electrical engineering to perfectly lay out each piece in relation to the others.

Even the rainbow-striped borders synchronize with one another.

It would take her four years, taking time off to work on her other projects, to assemble the nearly queen-sized quilt and make it ready to be entered.

In the meantime, her hunt for perfection continued to be fueled by other designers she's met locally and at Road to California conventions.

She met Huntington Beach local Mary O'Driscoll through her local quilting group, the Orange Grove Quilting Guild, and Oregon-based designer Sandra Leichner through a class she took at one of the Road to California conventions. They have taught and inspired her, she said.

"They go for perfection. They look for outstanding ways to do things," Powel said. "They have invented techniques to make things look absolutely perfect."

Quilting has progressed to more than just something "grandma made because she needed to stay warm," said Road to California founder Carolyn Reese.

"A good many of them are art pieces, similar to what you might see in some museums," she said. "They run anywhere from a landscape of the Pecan Mountains to a portrait of somebody to the very traditional ones we think of."

Some quilters go above and beyond what is necessary to make a competition quilt. Reese said that during the 18 years of the show, she remembered one quilt that was valued at $20,000.

Though Powel didn't spend as much money, she has spent a considerable amount on her current entry.

Getting her quilt professionally quilted cost her $700 and the fabric and crystals together cost $400.

Though Powel has been a finalist in the first two competitions she's entered, she didn't start out as perfect as she wanted to — in her head, at least.

Hanging in the back of her sewing room in her basement is her very first quilt. The center piece is supposed to be a heart made up of smaller squares.

It's considerably smaller that the others she's made, and Powel uses it to remind her how far she's come since she started.

At the end of the day, it's all about the pleasure of making appliqués, constructing competition quilts and even making a few for her family.

Powel has made roughly 75 quilts during her 13 years as a quilter and seeing the smiles on her family's face is one of the things that keep her going.

She understands that she is not getting any of her money back from making these quilts, but it's the hunt of finding different fabrics, threads and designs that make her happy.

"Are you going to get your money back [spending $8,000 on a embroidery machine]? No. But am I going to get $8,000-worth of pleasure? You bet," she said.


Twitter: @acocarpio

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