Gifted and Gracious
“You know when you bite into a cookie, and you get, like, two chocolate chips? Well, I use double the amount of chocolate chips. And butter. I only use real butter.”
No, this wasn’t the reason we went to Judy and Steve Bennett’s home in Grinnell, Iowa, but we weren’t the type of folks to turn down freshly baked, extra-chocolate-chippy cookies. It’s hard to recall exactly how the conversation turned to cookies, but before we knew it, a batch was in the oven and would be waiting for us when we returned from the quilting design studio, which was right upstairs. By the end of our visit, we got to know the quilter Judy Martin (the name by which she’s known in the quilting world), sure. But we also got to know Judy Bennett, the mother, wife, baker, and board-game designer. Yes, board-game designer.
“I work on lots of things at one time,” Judy Martin explained. “Right now I’m working on a book on Lone Stars”. Understandably, she doesn’t want her new designs revealed until the book is released, but she was happy to share some thoughts on her design process. “For this one here, I was having trouble finding nine fabrics of one color, so I went with ombré fabric and I cut it out in diamonds, but it looked just the same as before I cut it out.” Coming to the realization that one has wasted a lot of time working on a laborious creation might drive some quilters mad, but Martin’s take on it was much more levelheaded. “I ended up remaking it with fabrics from my stash, and that looked much better,” she said.
Martin admits to being a perfectionist, and her logical, mathematical reasoning shows through her work. But she’s perhaps best-known for her nuanced, imaginative quilt designs — a dichotomy not lost on her. “My family is one of creatives and scientists,” she said. “My sister is literally a rocket scientist. She and her husband both work for NASA.” While Martin may not study moon rocks like her sister, she is an expert in her field. She has written over 20 instructional quilting books, with another in the works, and has published more than a thousand quilt blocks. Her quilts hang in museums throughout the country and her single-artist show opened in summer 2017 at the Iowa Quilt Museum. Over the years, she has become a household name in the quilting world. Her peak of notoriety occurred during her time with Quilters Newsletter, where she was the editor and designer from 1979 to 1987. “I was a little worried that I wouldn’t get the job because I typed about 30 words per minute with 30 mistakes,” she joked. “But when they came out with correcting tape, I wasn’t as nervous and did much better.”
Achieving goals together
This is the thing with Judy Martin. Not only is she exceptionally bright, she’s hilarious. For that matter, so is husband Steve Bennett. They are the best kind of funny: the quick-witted, deadpan, Mark Twain type of funny. Bennett, an English major, helped Martin create her website, and you can’t read the “Getting to Know Judy Martin” page without laughing out loud. For example: “If there were a village named after me, it would be a place that’s off the beaten path; a place more beautiful than most; a place where all the laws and rules are founded on common sense; a place where anyone can achieve their goals if only they take the time to get their seam allowances right.”
Sitting at the dining room table with our hot-from-the-oven, ooey-gooey, uber-messy cookies and tall glasses of milk, we delved into the topic of achieving goals, something that Martin and Bennett, be it through seam allowances or innate trust in themselves and each other, know a thing or two about.
“I was working in my family’s furniture store, and we had sold the store to someone else,” Bennett recalled. “I stayed on for a year to help with the transition, and suddenly [I was] working for someone else. The year was 1987, and it was the longest year of my life.”
After Bennett left the store, Martin came to the realization that she too was at a crossroads in her career. The constant deadlines of the job grew stressful. “She was putting out fire after fire,” Bennett recalled. Martin decided to leave her job too. “We had a little money saved up from the sale of the store, but what sustained us was this unshakable belief in ourselves and the notion that ‘If you build it, they will come’” — the quote made famous by Shoeless Joe in the film Field of Dreams.
Martin wrote her first book of quilt block patterns, aptly titled Judy Martin’s Quilt Block Patterns, and she and Bennett worked to publish and sell it. Since that first book, Martin has worked to write a new book about every two years.
“I had my career, and then I had my kids,” Martin explained. “We weren’t going to have kids,” added Bennett. “We had seen how that had tied other people down. We didn’t want that to happen. But then one day we thought, what do these people know that we don’t? What do they have that we don’t?” With a change of heart and open minds, the two made the decision to have children, and over the next two years, they found themselves parents to a toddler, Will, and a new baby, Kate.
As their family grew, Martin and Bennett’s emphasis on their business gave way to their commitment to raising their children, a decision compounded by the fact that Kate was born with Down Syndrome and required extra care and attention, at times with the most basic of needs. “Very early on, Kate couldn’t figure out how to suckle,” Martin recalled. “We had to find a special nipple, and Steve and I would take turns feeding her every two hours, but it took her an hour and a half to finish a bottle. Steve was so helpful during those times.” For the next twenty-plus years, the two worked as a team — Martin did the writing, Bennett, the business management — while working together to raise their children.
When Bennett was hospitalized last year for a month after suffering a major stroke, the business that they had built together was temporarily derailed. “My writing got put on hold,” Martin said. “I had to do his job because it wouldn’t wait.” As Bennett rehabilitated, Martin concentrated on getting orders shipped, the accounting squared, and keeping the momentum swinging forward, but it was the longest stretch she’d gone between books. “Even when the kids were little, I was putting out a new book every other year. ”
“At every turn where we’ve had to make a choice between business or family, we choose family,” Bennett said. “If that means we don’t go to Market one year because we’d be missing something that we should be doing for the family, we don’t go to Market.” But as Bennett explained it, it’s not so much a sacrifice as it is second nature. “We have always tried to put our family first, and at times it has cost us, but it’s not been a decision we’ve ever regretted.”
For two people who didn’t initially plan on having children, they sure are proud of theirs. “Even when Kate was little, she was way ahead in reading,” Martin explained. “She can memorize anything, and she had a huge vocabulary.” Now grown, Kate works at the Grinnell College dining hall and is the manager for the school volleyball team. “She goes to practice every day and helps gather the balls for the players,” said Bennett. She lives just down the street from her parents, and like many twenty-somethings, she visits nearly every day with laundry in tow. Their son Will is a musician, and his band, Will Bennett and the Tells, just released their first album and are beginning to make a name for themselves in the alt-country music scene. Bennett gets emotional when he talks about the relationship between Will and his sister. “He’s the perfect brother for a girl with Down Syndrome,” he said. “He’s constantly looking out for her in a way you hope your kids will do, but you don’t know if they will, until they do.”
It was an emotional ending to the conversation that had stretched over three hours, and as our team drove away, we feared that the topic had ventured too far from our original focus on Judy Martin the quilter and instead revolved more around the Bennett family. In the end, we decided that they were one and the same and that the very things that made Judy Martin an extraordinary wife and mother were the same things that made her an amazing quilt designer, with an ability to piece together life’s puzzle to create something beautiful.