Working entirely by hand, Heidi Parkes can complete a limited number of quilts in a year, so she makes each one of them count. There is much planning behind her improvisational style, and the slowness of hand stitching provides an opportunity to think things through, making intentional design decisions.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I’m lucky to have grown up in a very creative home. My parents were both very creative in their personal lives, and my maternal grandmother got an art degree when I was tiny. I vaguely remember posing for her to draw me and being a bit tired of holding still! My mom had an ‘art table’ set up in our kitchen, which was always ready with paper, markers, crayons, etc. I have wonderful memories of sitting there making things.
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What inspires your devotion to hand stitching?
I’d say that listening to my body is a top reason why I’ve gravitated to handwork. I used to machine piece and hand quilt, and the quilting was always my favorite part. Doing the dance from cutting table, to ironing board, to design wall, and back to the sewing machine would often make my low back ache, and the noise of the sewing machine meant that I could only listen to music instead of podcasts/tv while working.
The result is that now I sit comfortably on the couch sewing by hand. I usually dive into a YouTube rabbit hole or marathon television. Looking at the screen causes me to lift my head frequently, which is much healthier on my neck. I also love the portability of hand stitching, and I keep a go bag so I can take my work with me when I visit friends or have quiet time while traveling – the airplane is one of my favorite places to sew!
Do your quilts have stories to tell?
Oh gosh yes! Some of them are about my romantic life. Others are inspired by concepts from books and movies. And I made others with materials that have rich histories, like my mom’s family tablecloth. More recently, there’s also a diary quality to my quilts, like a quilt I began while traveling to India, and another that I pieced from April through July during Covid-19. Some of my quilts also track my progress, like a small work that I made while teaching myself to quilt ambidextrously (not recommended, I hurt a finger for a few months…), and a super-new quilt where I’m tracking my health.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I think your last two questions speak to that actually. My focus on visible hand piecing and handwork, and my interest in storytelling and making meaning in my art are two of the things that I believe stand out most in my work.
Beyond that, I think I have a real sense of making do. I love to work within the limitations of my life. That leads to innovative ways of adding texture, color, and story to the work. My layered quilts, for example “But, What was it Like?”. In that quilt I placed a silk scrim over a dress lining, thread and fabric scraps, then quilted through to hold everything in place. The ‘piecing’ took very little time since it just involved laying things on my batting, but the imagery in the quilt was much more dynamic than a wholecloth quilt.
When absorbed in hand stitching, what are we most likely to neglect that we should remind ourselves to do?
Emails! Ha, when I’m busy sewing the last thing I want to do is check in with my computer, but communicating is important, too.
Another important detail is craftsmanship: turning appliqué corners under properly, checking that things lay flat, having a large enough seam allowance so that seams don’t split later, and putting in the extra effort to make thoughtful curves in embroidery and piecing.
I break a lot of traditional rules, like leaving my knots exposed, not squaring up my quilts, not using bias tape for my bindings, etc, but I do all of those with intention and consistency. When absorbed in hand stitching, make sure that you remember your aesthetics, and take the time to use good craftsmanship.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I’m actually a little bit of both. People know me as an improviser, I think, because I make improvisational quilts. I allow my work to shift as I work on it. I like to show up curious so that I can discover something as I work.
BUT, on the other side of that is planning. Hand piecing and quilting is slow, so I can only make a limited number of quilts in a year. The quilts that get made are a very select bunch of ideas that I’ve usually mulled over for a long time in advance.
I’ll consider the feeling that I want the work to convey, and then carefully select the appropriate techniques, materials, and timeframe for the work. Many times I’ll have an opportunity to exhibit that aligns with an idea I’ve had for a while, and that will be the green light to move forward with it. While I work, I like to form a ‘compass’ in my head about the quilt. So there will be a feeling or image that I return to. That will consistently help me know what to choose; then I can quickly improvise and allow things to happen as I sew.
Have you ever made a quilt from a pattern?
In junior high I got a Hand and Heart quilt kit from Hearthsong magazine, but I never finished it. In fact, I only recently remembered that quilt! So, apart from that first failed attempt, the only pattern I’ve ever followed is the Scavenger Hunt quilt pattern that I wrote for QuiltCon Magazine in 2020. The instructions and tutorials for that quilt can now be found on my YouTube channel. I call it an instructional quilt pattern; there are a bunch of specific steps to follow, but the results can vary widely. One example is a step that asks you to trace 5 things that you touch every day and appliqué them in the top right corner of the quilt. You can see the variety of the quilts on Instagram under #ScavengerHuntQuilt
When starting a new project, what is the first thing you think about?
Time. If it’s worth my time to make. How much time I have to make it. How much time it will take to make it right.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I spend a lot of time teaching creativity. I taught high school art for 9 years, so I know that I learned creativity, and I’ve seen others learn it too. It helps, though, if the student is interested and curious about learning creativity.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
It looks like my whole home. But also, my ‘living room’ is the main place where I work, with 3 main workstations in it.
How do you prepare yourself for a session of creative work?
I quilt because I don’t want to have to prep for creativity. I love how clean quilting is, and how effortless it is to start and stop.
If you could have just 5 items in your studio, what would they be and why?
- My Clover protect and grip thimble, because it’s perfect, and necessary.
- A needle puller/gripper, to protect my fingers.
- A pack of milliners needles. I love that the eye and the shaft of the needle have the same diameter. It’s so much easier on my fingers and wrists.
- DMC pearl cotton size 8, because it’s mercerized, highly visible, and strong.
- A bit of fabric, the more unusual and quirky the better!
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I don’t really. It’s ironic, because I always had my students work with a sketchbook when I was a teacher. But an important part of filtering ideas for me is seeing which ones I remember and hold in my thoughts.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I just finished watching The Americans while making a Quarantine Quilt for the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Art, and mending and re-quilting a quilt. Before that, I watched final season of The Affair, the new season of Westworld, the new season of Insecure, three seasons of Married at First Sight, The Sopranos, the new season of Ozark, and so many YouTube videos of broccoli sprouts, enneagrams, hormones, and feminine & masculine energy. I generally listen to podcasts while walking and cleaning. Audio books were for driving, so it’s been tricky with no library access or car time lately.
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
Yes! This is one of my favorite places to sew. A 3.5″ scissors, a small snip scissors, and a nail clipper – just in case! My Clover protect and grip thimble, and a couple needle pullers. Dritz milliners needles, about 5 spools of DMC pearl cotton, business cards, a bag to hold my thread scraps, a pen, appliqué pins, safety pins, straight pins, and a whole bunch of other random stuff that I rarely use, but lug around anyways….
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I love teaching lectures and leading workshops. It’s been so much fun to do on Zoom lately too! Those are my favorite emails to reply to, and I can be reached at [email protected], or through an Instagram DM.
Tell us about your website and social media. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
At heidiparkes.com, you can find my Zoom workshops on the purchase tab. You’ll also see a gallery of images of my quilts, and a page on mending (with photos of my mends) and information about requesting a mend. There’s an About page with links to podcasts, articles, and some extra details about me. For more current projects, my Instagram @heidi.parkes is a great resource for seeing my process, asking questions in the comments. Sometimes my stories include my creative endeavors in the kitchen, too. I also have a YouTube channel with a series of tutorials, and a few sewing ASMR videos.
Check out Heidi’s video on making a hand stitched facemask.
Interview posted July 2020
Browse through more hand quilting inspiration and projects on Create Whimsy.