"Why I Love This Quilt: Cool As A Cactus with Karen Bolan"

patchwork quilt featuring spinning central block featuring bright jewel tones

This month Karen Bolan joined me for “Why I Love This Quilt: Cool As A Cactus” edition which will be a little different as it was drawn from a conversation that Karen and I had about her quilt. This isn’t exactly and interview but more of a summary/remembrance of our conversation.

a white presenting woman with brown hair and a blue patterned shirt stands in front of a triangle quilt background

I was familiar with Karen Bolan’s quilts before I knew her name, and you might be too as her quilts have appeared at Quiltcon, in Make Modern magazine, and in several other shows and publications.

I remember being fascinated with one of her quilts at Quiltcon in 2019 that used what I would describe as tacked down prairie points to create the illusion of flying geese because I had never seen anything like it!!! I have a series of pictures with a white glove volunteer sticking their fingers in to show the true dimensionality of the work (which I have included below from my very inelegant, personal phone photographs). Karen’s background is as a civil engineer, and that shows very clearly in her work and in her quilts.

patchwork quilt full of triangles that are gray, teal, white, and black in a series of overlapping triangles

the hands of a white person are wearing white cloth gloves to stick index fingers into a white folded over fabric triangle in a patchwork quilt that shows the 3-D aspect of it

(YES! That triangle sticks out of the quilt!!!)

“Cool As A Cactus” as I think of it is the beautifully jewel toned square version that glows from the front of the cover of the pattern (and the top of this blog post), so I was surprised to learn that the first version was the dreamy blue twin sized version below. 

blue and white quilt that shows spinning series of curved motifs

It was selected to appear in a 2019 issue of the great modern quilt magazine Curated Quilts, and they wanted a bed sized version rather than a square version like the one on the cover of the pattern. This version expands on the curves and the swirly star-like almost half-circles, and to me, it almost seems like a different quilt! 

This was the first time Karen had ever written a pattern, and while she was working out how to write this quilt pattern and write it for multiple sizes (she professes that was a bit of a stumbling block) it became her preferred “selfie spot for zoom” and I can see why!! I suspect many quilters have really great zoom backgrounds as a result of all our wonderful makes, and if you haven’t been using your makes as zoom backgrounds GET ON IT!

“Cool As A Cactus” has some of Karen’s favorite elements of quilts like the transparency illusion, hidden block edges, and the way the design moves your eyes around the quilt. In the jewel toned brights version on the cover, the transparency illusion is not exactly accurate as the purple and the yellow would not create that kind of pink if they were transparent layers of something like glass or plastic that you were looking through blending into a new color where they overlapped. Actually that is true of the navy and the pink when it comes to that purple color BUT Karen loves to take what she calls ‘creative liberty’ with colors and design elements when making quilts. The end goal for her is a balanced design with elements of surprise and delight not scientific precision in the blending of colors, and I believe that she nails it here! I think that is great advice from her when it comes to making and making from quilt patterns in general. The end result should please the maker (and hopefully the ‘audience’), and sometimes the best way to that result involves going your own way.


Karen has taught this pattern as a class for guilds and quilt shops, and although it isn’t for a brand new quilter, it is easier to make than it appears! The curves are large and gentle, and the assembly walks you through simple steps to put the smaller blocks and then the quilt together. It is within the skill set of most quilters EVEN if they have never sewn curves before, so don’t be intimidated (OR better yet, have your local guild bring Karen to teach you either in real life or virtually).

You can also find this pattern as a coloring page on the website PreQuilt which is a quilt design web based application that lets you design your own quilt layouts as well as color in existing quilt patterns–it has free and paid versions (but coloring in existing quilt patterns is always free), so it is very fun to check out before you decide to upgrade. I couldn’t resist coloring my own version with Michael Miller solids featuring citrus, asparagus, beacon, magenta, sprout, and black.

Check out more at Karen's blog post about "Cool As A Cactus" or follow her on social media.

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