Quilting has been a passion for Helen Remick since 1995. A life long fiber maker, Helen knits, crochets, needlepoints, embroiders and sews, but quilting is now her joy. Her mathematical background influences her designs and work.
Why textiles? Why quilting? How did you get started? What are your earliest memories involving your own creative expression?
Like many quilters, I began by making doll clothes. I also drew glamorous gowns for my sister’s paper dolls. 4-H gave me a firm foundation in sewing and a taste for competitive sewing. By high school, I was making all of my clothes. I won the Alameda County 4-H dress review in 1959 with a satin prom dress of my design.
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In college I took up knitting. I incorporated pop art and Escher-like designs into sweaters. As with sewing, speed was not my goal but rather the process and design. I had one sweater pattern published in Women’s Circle, a crafts magazine.
In the mid 1990s, a friend suggested that we take a quilting class on hand-piecing. I embraced quilting with the same intensity I had sewing and knitting. I took more classes, including one by Joen Wolfrom who gave me early encouragement and has included some of my quilts in her books.
Tell us a little about your journey as a quilt artist. How has your technique changed over time? What do you do differently? What is your signature?
My early quilting is of two kinds. As I learned the craft, I made lap quilts for every friend, every relative. I experimented with color and technique to varying degrees of success and with much enthusiasm. I also worked on some quilts with extra care. My first “serious” quilt started with Log Cabin design because a friend said you can never go wrong with Log Cabin. I wanted to make it totally by hand because I love hand work and because it would take longer. I bought a bunch of red, black and white prints. But soon I got bored with Log Cabin, and started improvising. I created more interest in the Log Cabin pattern by allowing it to “escape” its squareness. I used applique to fit the different design elements together.
I use traditional patterns as a starting point for design. In another early quilt, “Fantastic,” I began with Grandmother’s Fan. Using paper cutouts and graph paper, I explored possible placement of fans. When I allowed fans to go over and under one another, an old classic became dynamic. I created strata with careful value shifts, lots of angles, and voila, a quilt with lots of movement!
Several people wrote me asking for a pattern for this quilt, and I finally wrote one. As I tried to recreate the quilt, I saw I had made up techniques as I needed them. I created the twisting effect by having fans go over and under one another, and appliqué holds pieces together without requiring exact fit.
Other quilts have precise piecing. To create the center star of “Ma how come she gets all the attention,” I drew the entire center star to scale on paper. Because I could not draft the pattern perfectly, I labeled each little piece individually, cut each piece out of card stock, then traced onto individual pieces of fabric and hand pieced. Fabrics were carefully chosen for their value to enhance the optical illusion of the center star. I made this quilt for the National Quilt Museum contest, “New Quilts from Old Favorites” the year Seven Sisters was the pattern. As the deadline for submission neared I ran out of time — the surrounding set of diamonds is machine pieced, and the outer “sisters” are just large pieces of fabric. The center “sister” did get all of the attention!
I like fussy cutting to create special effects. For “Pinwheel Evolution,” I used two gradated fabrics, precisely cutting each piece to advance across the gradation. This quilt is technically part of my yoyo series described below. On the right side of the quilt, pinwheels are gaining a third dimension, until a yoyo pinwheel lifts off the surface.
Do you do series work? What inspires you to push the definition of “quilt” with unconventional materials?
In retrospect, it is obvious that I work in overlapping series. One is color. I began using red, black and white fabrics. When I explore new techniques, the first quilt is usually in this palette. I also have a green/purple series and an orange/blue one.
I hand quilted my earlier quilts, a process I prefer. However, the world of competitive quilting evolved, and machine quilting was required. I bought one of the early Pfaff grand quilters to see if I could do machine quilting. I hated it. It was noisy, cumbersome, and not at all like the contemplative act of hand quilting. I didn’t like making little curlicues.
Because my muscles already knew how to write, I have a series of quilts featuring spiral designs on which the machine quilting is an essay on the mathematics of spirals. The quilting is not meant to be read (it is in invisible thread). I also stitched on the quilts about the quilts themselves. Then I made one last attempt to like machine quilting on “Burgoyne and his spin doctor shade the facts until they no longer square with the truth.” It is quilted with many different threads in many different designs. I still hated machine quilting.
The choice was clear: if I wished to continue entering shows, buy an expensive machine and learn to machine quilt or do something else. I chose to do something else. The definition of a quilt in some shows: three layers sewn together, cathedral windows, crazy quilts, or yoyos. I decided to explore yoyos. I started with yoyo quilts inspired by the names of yoyo tricks: Trip around the World, Texas Star, Walk the Dog. Then I fused fabrics in the middle of yoyos and didn’t close them, I did all kinds of things with yoyos — – I made them out of sheer fabrics, I made them square and triangular. It was a period of great creativity.
X-rays of my hands inspired my next series. I was diagnosed with erosive osteoarthritis. I manipulated the x-rays of my hands and other body parts on the computer and created still life compositions. Then I printed the images on my computer, and in sections I sewed them together to create a “whole cloth.” Because of my hand use limitations, the “batting” in the pieces is flannel or a synthetic, and I quilted without a frame. I found that synthetic thread (my favorite is a mylar) and a longer needle was most comfortable and had the least drag.
I have yet another overlapping series using unconventional materials, all related to memory, changing technology and reuse. If we do not keep up with the latest technology, we can lose images important to us. For example, CDs were an important method of storing information, but are becoming obsolete. I made a quilt in my yoyo series which featured real CDs on the front side and a printed collage on the back made from photos stored on the CDs. My two latest quilts use color film negatives which I then combined with overhead projector sheets printed with manipulated family photos and slides, all old technology put to new use.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
For the last year I have been working with Professor Daniela Rosner at the University of Washington on a project related to the upcoming 50th year anniversary of the Apollo space missions. The computers for these missions included intricate handwork by women, dismissively called LOLs (or little old ladies) by the male engineers. The women of all ages and colors are absent from most narratives of the missions. We are constructing a “quilt” which includes conductive thread connected to a small computer unit. It will display computer elements from the time, introduce examples of old technology and bring attention to the important contributions of these women.
And then? I have no doubt that another interesting project will arise. So stay tuned!
You were working on the Core Memory Quilt when we first visited. Tell us about the process of completing that project. Why did you use materials not usually found in quilts? What were some of the challenges, and how did you tackle them?
The Core Memory Quilts reference quilts and quilting techniques but perhaps might more properly be called Core Memory Quilt-like Objects. The usual three-layer construction would not have been strong enough to support the attached objects, protective enough of the wiring or able to withstand the wear and tear of a teaching prop. Each was heavily re-enforced with fusibles.
There turned out to be three quilts. The first was stitched with a special conductive thread that turned out to be a bit delicate when machine sewn. The wiring was not visible for use as a teaching tool. On the second quilt I couched yarn in the pattern of the wiring diagram, then hid the conductive thread in the yarn. On the third I printed the quilt design and the circuitry path, for a whole-cloth top. I sewed a special copper wire to the surface on top of the printed circuitry pattern. I was happiest with this quilt, because I am not a fan of fusing and had used that technique reluctantly and imperfectly.
For the participants in the seminars for which the quilts were constructed, the excitement came from not from the quilt itself but from attaching their work. When they pressed a switch on their patch, the quilt played an audio clip about the Apollo space program.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I use one small bedroom as work space — essential tools include a trusty older Pfaff, the ironing board always up, a design wall, a computer and 11” wide printer and lots of “stuff.” The large table in the basement (2 folding tables together and covered) with drafting (triangles, yard sticks) and construction (lasers at 90 degrees) equipment help get quilts square. Also, I have an area near the TV with an excellent lamp, where I do my handwork in the evening. I am not tidy, but this works for me. I use whatever tools will help me solve a problem.
What are you working on now? How does it excite you?
The rheumatoid arthritis in my hands as progressed to the point that I am no longer quilting. I am in search of the next phase of my creative life.
Interview posted July 2018, updated June 2021
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