Woman’s near-death experience leads to success in quilting world

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Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Terri Kohlbeck shows off her quilting closet filled with fabrics and surrounded by awards Tuesday afternoon at her home in Kalispell. Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 in Kalispell, Montana.

Terri Kohlbeck of Kalispell credits quilting with returning her to physical and mental health after a medical crisis.

“That was the thing that saved me,” she said.

The featured quilter at the Flathead Quilters Guild show on Friday and Saturday, Kohlbeck recalls the life-altering moment in 2003 came just minutes after she took her dose of Celebrex, prescribed to ease the pain and inflammation from a broken back.

“I went into anaphylactic [allergic] shock,” she said.

Within minutes, Kohlbeck hit the floor unconscious. Her husband, who usually leaves early, was home that morning and heard the thud.

Emergency workers rushed her to the hospital where they revived her several times.

“It was slow-release Celebrex so it kept kicking back in,” she said. “I think I had a lot of brain trauma because for a year and a half, I was depressed. I couldn’t focus.”

By chance, she picked up a magazine where she saw a quilt and was immediately inspired to make it. Kohlbeck calls that moment a blessing because she discovered she had a natural talent and great love for the craft.

“That quilt won third place in the quilt show,” she said. “I made 22 quilts the next year.”

Now, nine years later, Kohlbeck has relied on the craft to pull her through many more ups and downs. Along with peace of mind, quilting has brought her local, national and international recognition and a wall covered with ribbons.

She attributes her success to her meticulous nature and affinity for complicated designs. If her pieces don’t match perfectly, she rips them apart and sews them again until they do.

Her perfectionism and artistic eye also helped her succeed as a beautician and later as the owner of her own shop, Hair Tech Designs.

Even with her awards, Kohlbeck said she was shocked when she was chosen as the featured quilter for the annual show.

“There are so many fabulous quilters in this valley,” she said.  

The popular show runs from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday in the Expo and grandstand buildings at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

“I love the shows,” Kohlbeck said. “I love seeing everybody and their quilts. That’s where I get a lot of my inspiration.”

As featured quilter, she has her own booth this year where she plans to hang some of her favorite quilted works from bedspreads to wall hangings.

Kohlbeck still finds it amazing that she became passionate about a sewing-related craft.

She remembers her mother and grandmother making quilts out of old clothes out of necessity rather than fun. As youngsters, Kohlbeck and her sister played with the old-fashioned treadle sewing machine, but that was where her interest stopped.

Growing up wearing homemade clothes, sewing seemed more like a chore when she was attending high school in Eureka.

“I didn’t like home ec,” she said with a laugh. “I was more interested in the beauty industry.”

Beauty school brought Kohlbeck to Kalispell in 1967. In 1968, she got married; her husband, Bill,  started a landscaping irrigation business here.

Along with son Travis, the couple have a daughter Karla who brought Kohlbeck back to her sewing machine.

“When my daughter was born, she weighed 3 pounds,” she recalled. “I started making my daughter doll clothes to wear.”

She made some of her own clothes and got into making cloth Southern Belle dolls but eventually put the machine away when she got busy running her expanding her beauty shop. Years later in 2003, her Celebrex disaster brought her back to her machine.

She joined the Flathead Quilters Guild in 2004.

“I took a couple of classes, but mostly I learned from trial and error.”

In 2009, her sister invited her to attend the Minnesota International Quilt Show. Her sister said she could enter the show, so Kohlbeck sent three quilts.

“I didn’t know you had to be juried into the show,” she said.

Not only did the show accept her three entries, but Kohlbeck also received the President’s Award for one and honorable mentions for the other two. In subsequent years, she was juried into many large national shows.

On the homefront, Kohlbeck’s sunny sewing room displays awards from those plus a row of Best of Show ribbons from the Northwest Montana Fair and many more.  Since her first spark of interest nine years ago, her passion for quilt-making has only grown.

It helped her weather a series of health problems for the last three years along with the devastation of seeing her mother, Dorothy Wick, go nearly blind from diabetes and then succumb to cancer this year.

“One of my favorite quilts is the cancer quilt I made my mother called ‘Ribbons of Hope,’” Kohlbeck said. “She got to see it before she died on July 13. It will be in the quilt show.”

At 63, she has begun to think about retirement although she still loves to cut hair. She and her husband have a large sewing room addition planned for the back of their house. Kohlbeck looks forward to quilting full-time, attending lots of shows and continuing her relationship with the guild.

“The talent that’s there gives you inspiration that keeps you going,” she said. “It’s a wonderful group of people. They came into my life when I really needed them.”

The guild meets the first Thursday of the month at 7 p.m. at Epworth United Methodist Church, 329 Second Ave. E. in Kalispell.



Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Terri Kohlbeck shows off an elk quilt she is making for her son Tuesday afternoon at her home in Kalispell. Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012 in Kalispell, Montana.

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