Barbara Howell talks about how she started quilting and the journey it has taken her on.
How did you start quilting? I have always sewn, ever since I was a youngster. When my sister was out playing, I was indoors sewing in one way or another. But, my road to Damascus was a Festival of Flowers and Embroidery in a village church in Tibberton, Shropshire, whilst on holiday over 25 years ago. The embroidery at the festival was contemporary goldwork and I was amazed at how beautiful it looked. I wasnt aware that such a style of embroidery existed and I was determined find out how to do it. Eventually, I found a class and then the Embroiderers Guild, followed by City and Guilds and the Quilters Guild altogether a new life.
Size of stash and where do you keep it? I am a fabricoholic and my workroom has lots of shelves and a large store next to it. I could not begin to estimate the size of my stash, as it is not like any other I have seen, but it is large! It includes fabrics of many different types I love to include variety of texture as well as colour and I dye fabric so there are bags of fabric to dye. I sort the fabric that ordinary patchworkers might use into plains and patterns, and then arrange the plains according to the spectrum and divide the patterns into those that have strong patterns from those that look plain from a distance. Then there is a sack of silk, one of linen and one of sheers, and also a pile of fabrics that are large enough to use for the backs of quilts.
Do you prefer hand or machine? Almost all of my work is by machine, and was so even before machine quilting was 'accepted'. I love my sewing machines and use a Bernina 1630 and a Bernina Industrial.
What is your favourite technique?I have a long running love affair with log cabin and its variations. Rainbow Trellis, using 3in offset log cabin blocks on point, has attracted a lot of attention, whilst Roses from Auxerre uses a method of free folded log cabin that I devised years ago.
Proudest quilting moment? Presenting my small quilt, Divichi, commissioned by Region 13 for the 1990s collection at the Bournemouth AGM of the Quilters Guild?
Do you have a day job or other commitments? How do you reconcile the two? In the 90s, when I was producing my rug quilts like Hashad, I was working full time, managing a large residential home for people with learning difficulties who could not be placed into the community. I still work part time, but I have always promised myself this second career as a textile artist, and I am devoting more time to it now.
What are you working on just now? I am currently working on three projects. Firstly, there is a wall hanging that is almost finished, part of a group effort from Bodnant Patchers in Prestatyn, for the church with which the group is associated. Secondly, I am producing a challenge quilt for the Llanidloes quilt show this summer, using Laura Ashley fabrics. Last but not least are two pieces waiting to be quilted using Celtic imagery. I am writing a book on the subject which will hopefully be completed by the end of the summer
What about dyeing etc? Some 20 years ago, whilst working for City and Guilds (Embroidery), and before I was quilting, my friend and I started a small venture offering small packs of thread and fabrics called Something Special. Dyed threads was one of our first lines and it was me who did the dyeing, and although my friend has now dropped out, I still dye the threads and have added fabrics. My space dyed velvets are popular, especially since I made Gebbeh, and more recently, I have bleached velvet, especially for Baluch. This is a rug quilt that I had wanted to make for years, but had not been able to come up with a way of interpreting the large flowers until I thought of bleaching.
Do you teach and if so what is your favourite subject? I do talks and workshops all over the UK all year round and I am due to teach in France at La Maison du Patchwork 2004. I prefer these 'one-off' days to teaching at local colleges. There are a wide range of subjects covered during my workshops, and I try to take the opportunity to speak to visitors on a one basis after the talk is complete. I regard myself as a missionary for this work, and as such love to encourage converts to the faith.
Is there anyone else in your family that quilts? My son's degree is in textiles and his degree show was based on new ways of working with wadding, supported by some very exciting patchwork. For a while he was editor of the 'Young Quilter' and so when we meet I always have a number of pressing questions about my current work. I really value his informed and honest appraisal.
What about the other members of your family? My husband and I live in a 150 year old cottage in a village near to Denbigh in North Wales. Now that he is retired he is a great help driving me on long journeys, helping with the bags and sometimes holding up the quilts at shows. He is proud of his newfound knowledge of quilt-making techniques, and as he is into working with driftwood, we have recently combined our work with 'Jetsam'.
What is unique about your work? I use quilts and other quilted items as a vehicle for my embroidery no glass or frames to worry about! Texture is probably my greatest interest but I like to pack a piece of work with a variety of techniques drawn from the fields of embroidery, fabric manipulation and quiltmaking. I love fabrics and delight in using a mixture of fibres and weaves together. For sources of design I often use rugs from the Middle East and Celtic motifs but I have also found inspiration in the work of 20th century artists such as Klimt, Zecchin and Mondrian. Now, I am trying to use photographs that Ive taken and my own drawings, as in Roofscape. This was shown at Quiltfest in Llangollen, earlier this year, and is a repeat block derived from a holiday photograph and Giovanni's Fig Tree.
For a long time, I was afraid of colour, and while I do still find great pleasure in monochrome, most of my work has moved on and now incorporates the use of strong colours. I want my work to be striking from a distance but also fascinating on closer inspection!.
See Barbara's website, Barbara Howell for more details of her work.
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