Rachel Clark




Rachel Clark




Rachel Clark


Amy Hudson Henderson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Schiffer Publishing


Watsonville, California


Amy Hudson Henderson


[Rachel Clark was originally interviewed during the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories at International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas in October 1999 but the tape was blank. Amy Hudson Henderson traveled to California to conduct the interview a second time.]

Amy Hudson Henderson (AHH): My Name is Amy Henderson. Today's date is December 30, 1999, and I am conducting an interview with Rachel Clark for the Quilt Oral History Project in Watsonville, California. Tell me about the piece you brought today.

Rachel Clark (RC): I do clothing primarily, and I use quilt making techniques.

[the first 30 seconds of the tape did not record, including the first question and answer.]

AHH: And tell me about the textiles, do you dye the fabrics yourself?

RC: Good heavens, no, I don't. I help support other dyers in just purchasing fabrics. I have no desire to die fabrics or any of that kind of stuff. I've tried it and it's just not my thing.

AHH: And what about the colors, you have some bright purples and yellows? Do the colors have any symbolic meaning, or do you choose them for any particular reasons?

RC: No, I--sometimes when I am working I will choose design I'll work in a particular color group or I'll work in particular colors for a specific reason but this piece, it was just I wanted to do something that really kind of had very clearly defined quiltmaking techniques and I just decided I wanted to do something with plaids and purple somehow just ended up being the base color so it has no special significance.

AHH: Do you find that the designs in your quilts or the color you use reflect your background or your community in any way?

RC: Well, I would say it would reflect my background in a sense that I don't have any other background to work with and so I just, you know, I choose the stuff that I like. I just love color and when I say I love color it's not about that I just love bright colors. I just love color. I've had a really fun time in the last year, two years, working with beige and just exploring and playing around with the properties in the colors of beige, the different beiges, so I just like colors and so I tend to work with a lot of colors.

AHH: Do you have any particular favorites in color, or do you go through shifts?

RC: Actually, blue is my all-time favorite color, and I am having a love affair with chartreuse and yellow would be my second favorite color but right now I'm just loving the fact that all of these chartreuse and these weird greens are out there. And so, I've been collecting and working with a lot of those, but I would have to say that blue is my favorite color and yellow would be my favorite accent color.

AHH: Who is the audience for your quilted clothing?

RC: Well, I primarily work for myself. Whether I had an audience or not, I would still do what I do so that would be my first reaction. And then my second reaction would be that people that like to play dress-up. The people that like to have their clothes do more than cover their nakedness. Clothes that tell stories that makes some kind of statement so I would say that would be the audience that enjoy my work. The things that I do, I use dressing as a creative outlet.

AHH: Because a quilted clothing, a vest or a jacket, leaves the house and walks down the street, do you think you are trying to communicate a message or an idea through your clothes?

RC: Yeah, I--some of my garments I do them just for the fun of doing them. Then some things I do I make political statements; I make social statements. Now I don't do in your face kind of things, but I will put political or social comment in my garments because it's where I use my voice. It's where I not only am I trying to be creative but also, if there's an issue that I want to explore a lot of time I will explore it in a garment, a vest or a jacket or sometimes, sometimes a full ensemble.

AHH: What are some of those issues you've explored?

RC: Race. Being black in America, political comment, one particular thing would be the scar--I think that until we deal with the scar of racism in America, we will have that whole thing of race will continue to hang around our neck. Personal things like social or personal issues, like "Dancing Alone" was a piece that I did in relationship to living in a community that's primarily an all-white community. And sometimes I feel like I'm dancing alone whether it's through my work or because I work in my studio at home. "Strange Fruit" [is.] more of a social comment on again race in America. It had to do in relationship to the Billy Holiday song "Strange Fruit," and so it's just that kind of thing. It just depends. I'm actually working on a [laughter.] "Tripping with Linda," my Linda Tripp vest. That's going to be a comment on what I thought about Ms. Linda saying she's just like the rest of us--I don't' think so. But anyway, it's just something that catches my fancy.

AHH: And what's--do you use colors or design or composition to communicate these ideas?

RC: Some of all of that; sometimes color. Well, if I'm doing a garment, I'll play around with the whole theme. Around watermelons again, looking at issues, i.e. - who gets to decide what is racist, in relationship to someone else and so I love playing around with the watermelon theme so a lot of the time I use color there. Sometimes for the political thing, as like in the scar, I used an American icon. I used the bald eagle, or an eagle. I don't know whether it was bald or not but anyway, to put on the back of a vest with a shield. Red, white, and blue were the colors and then I cut the shield with a seam ripper and whipped over the scar. [rip.] Working with that imagery, I kind of play around with it until I am satisfied, and I start collecting stuff until--I kind of think that I got it all together and then at that point I'll start pulling it together so it can be composition, color. Sometimes it's fabric with different things in it; sometimes I have to do stamping; or screen printing--whatever it is to do. I don't do dying to get there but usually sometimes limited stamping or screen printing or something like that if I wanted specific imagery.

AHH: Tell me about your earliest quilt memory.

RC: My earliest quilt memory is actually my grandmother quilting. My grandmother had a quilt frame set up in the living room at Big Mama's house and she would quilt--smoke her pipe--and we would play under the quilt frame and that's probably my earliest quilt memory.

AHH: Did she teach you how to quilt?

RC: No, but I think I learned quilt making by osmosis [laughter.] because I don't remember, and I've since gone on take some classes and stuff but it's like I've always known how to quilt. I can remember, literally remember making my first doll dress. I cannot remember making my first quilt. It's kind of like I've always made quilts. I've always quilted. All the women in my family did some kind of sewing and so you learned how to sew at a very early age if you were interested.

AHH: Do you remember what inspired you to make your first quilt?

RC: No, because I don't remember my first quilt so I know I had made quilts, but I can remember when I consciously started to think about making quilts was when my siblings started having children. So, it would have been in my early very early twenties that I would have done that, but I know I had made quilts before that so--but I don't know what they may have been. They must have just been making a quilt whereas the quilt that I made for Cle, actually was the first person that I made a quilt for. Cle is my middle brother's oldest son and that was for a specific purpose, but the others were probably just little doll quilts or little quilts that I use on my table. Mama handed us some fabric and we just sewed it up together. We were always playing that way and doing that type of stuff, but I can't honestly say I remember my first quilt.

AHH: When did you switch or start making quilted clothing as opposed to bed quilts?

RC: Well, I--probably in the--in the late '80s I--that's not quite true because I made that one coat in '79 or '80. I think what happened is that I've always made clothing and I've always made quilts and always little bits would probably sneak over into the clothing because I can remember being in high school and putting collars of different fabric on a garment or doing something like that and then--or doing the under collar a different color of fabric in my clothing and it's just I think I probably made a conscious decision somewhere in the '80s because I still was teaching quiltmaking. I had taught beginning quiltmaking and I was doing clothing, so it's just eventually evolved--and I still do quiltmaking. I still will make a small quilt. I make table quilts now because I just don't have a whole lot of time plus how many bed quilts can one have? And bed quilts take a lot longer because I like hand quilting. I don't do a lot of it any more except in clothing but it just sort of evolved, that kind of thing, and now I pretty much--I would say in the mid to late '80s that I really went to just focusing on clothing.

AHH: When did you start teaching quilt making?

RC: I started teaching quilt making in '77. I remember that because I took a quiltmaking class in '76 because I had come back from Germany, and I wanted to meet some friends and people who did quiltmaking. And I took a beginning quiltmaking class down at the adult ed. school and the next year they needed someone to teach it. And so, I started to teach it so that would have been '77 or '78 that I started teaching quiltmaking. And I taught beginning quiltmaking for about the next--'77 till about '86, oh '87 or '88, somewhere along in that time. And then I decided that I would give up teaching adult ed. to pursue the clothing so that's when I really decided to to pursue the clothing in terms of teaching. I was starting to go out a little bit and teach and lecture about clothing as art, doing quilted clothing and stuff like that so I decided that if I was going to do that, I had to get rid of the crutch of adult ed. because it was a wonderful little safety net so that was '89 and that I decided to really do it. And then my husband said to me, 'Oh, why don't you see what you can do with it because I am thinking about early retirement,' and then in October '90 he died. And so that really kind of force a decision because I had made contacts and had some venues set up to teach in '91. And so that's what I did for the following year, and I started--I gave myself--I said, 'Oh, I am going to do this for three years and at the end of three years it's- I'm going either to be successful at it or I'm going to have to go and get a real job.' And I never knew what that real job was going to be because I was going to have to go back to school and get a degree in something and when I started, I went out and in three years I said, 'Okay, I am going to reassess, and I was doing fine.' And I am still doing it, and this is '99 so and in the year 2000 I am going to do another reassessment. I've decided that I'm going to spend the next year working and then I'm going to have to make a decision in the year 2001 as to what I am going to do now. I'll be 50--I'll be coming up 55--and I think that's a good time to make some kind of decision about if I want to still lug 70 pounds of clothes up and down the country or what I want to do. I don't know. I might sell up and sail to Australia, who knows.

AHH: Do any of your close family members or friends quilt?

RC: Yeah, yeah, my--actually as I said my family, a lot of members--particularly in the older generation--my mom did some sewing, my grandmother did quilting. She's since deceased but my aunt also, who I admire tremendously and probably would say as a family member probably impacted more on my love of sewing than any one family member. I just loved her enthusiasm about sewing and what she would do with it and she has--she has wonderful sewing talents and skills. None of my siblings sew. I have a cousin who still sews some but very limited though she's in education so her time is spent, a lot of time in fact in academia and but a lot of my friends sew. I have a couple of friends that we get together and sew on a regular basis, that kind of thing. So--and I belong to a small quilt group and sometimes we get together and work. So, I have a large circle of friends that we all quilt or sew or do some kind of stitchery.

AHH: Have there ever been any particular artists or other quilt makers that have influenced your work?

RC: I would say there are--would not necessarily say they've influenced my work as much as there are people that I admire. I admire what they do and I think because I admire what they do it encourages me to continue to do what I do. I try not to allow my work to be influenced by other, particularly clothing people, because I--I can get a real attitude about people taking your work so apart. I mean I have been sewing for over 40 years and to have some little twit walk up and say, 'Oh, that is so-an-so's technique, she--'and you're looking at them and going what are you talking about this is 40 years of sewing experience that has gotten me to this point so I really try to stay away from another quiltmaker or clothing person influencing my work but there's a lot of quilt people that I admire what they do. And a lot of what they do is tend to be quite different from what I do. Ruth McDowell--I just--I mean I just love what she does with her quilts and how she does that incredible piecing, and I don't do that kind of thing. I--so I tend to be drawn to people that do their own--their work is very defined by who they are. That you walk up and if you see a Ruth McDowell quilt, it is a Ruth McDowell's quilt. You see a Nancy Crow quilt, it's a Nancy Crow quilt. If you see--that kind of thing. So those are the people that I really admire, that kind of thing. And then the other people that I admire. I have to say that I admire those women who are still doing the traditional quilts. I just love the fact that there are women who get great pleasure in sitting down and doing a blue and white nine patch because those are still some of my favorite quilts. Those other people are people that I admire because they are artists, and they are productive at what they are doing. And they make a living at what they are doing but still the women that I have some of the greatest admiration for is those women that are still making those nine patches and star quilts and scrap quilts. Those are still--those are my favorites probably.

AHH: Do you see yourself as a quiltmaker or a fashion designer or an artist or a craftsperson?

RC: I see myself as a folk artist and it took me a while to get there; to work out that that that's what works for me. And the reason I decided that I was a folk artist because I don't consider myself a designer because usually--while I did design some patterns--designers sound really huge. I mean it's grandiose. I mean Christian Dior, Perry Ellis--I mean--and that's so--that's way more than I am. An artist. I don't see myself as an artist in the one sense that it's a single skill or talent that I have in terms of a painter or a sculptor or dancer. I mean I'm not known for that singular talent, that kind of thing, and so I see myself as a folk artist in that I have taken two crafts- dressmaking and quiltmaking and combined them and have come up with what I do. Not saying that I discovered it, but it's taken two separate crafts and combining them and coming up with something that makes a different statement than either one of them would make on its own so that's why I consider myself more of a folk artist.

AHH: Where do you quilt in your home?

RC: All over. [laughter.] Actually, I have a studio, but I tend to if I am going to do any kind of hand work, I tend to come into this room and sit in the window and do it. That's my favorite place to do particularly the hand work. Any of the--any hand sewing or anything I usually come out of the studio to do. I hadn't thought about it a whole lot but that's basically how I do it. All the machine stuff is done in that room.

AHH: How do you build sewing into your daily life?

RC: I pretty much do something around sewing, pretty much every day whether it's picking up fabric or going into the studio and looking around, seeing, moving some project that I may have a stack of fabric that I'm looking at or I may be collecting something and I may go and look in the piles, particularly if I am going out to say, 'Oh, gosh, I need to stop by someplace and look at black and white beads,' or that kind of thing. So, I--it's pretty much a part of my life in terms of what I do, and I assume that even if I wasn't doing it to the degree, I would still be sewing. I just love it. I've always done it and so it's very much a part of who I am.

AHH: Now as you're going to take next year and evaluate your future career, where do you see your quilt making evolving or developing in the next few years?

RC: Well I--I'm onto--I have been working at doing a lot of and I tend to think ensemble when I am working and I think I want to continue to pursue that but I think one of the things I really want to do in the next couple of years--I have two projects that I want to work on--one being I want to do a series of coats. They are called "Quilts with a Body," or something like that, that are going to be very traditional work so that when you look at the coat you will say, 'Oh, gosh, that is a--' whatever quilt that it would be representing. And then the other thing that I want to do and I'm starting--I'm working on that and that is I want to do "Out of the Crayon Box," and that's another series of coats. And the coats will all be fabric from the same color group, so I've done green, the chartreuse one, and the red. I've just pulled fabric. I've done a beige one and I've pulled fabrics to do an orange one and so I--it's going to be eight or ten in that group and so along with all these other things that are packed up on the list of the things I want to do but those are two specific projects that I want to work on. And one has eight and then one has thirteen so I'll be busy for awhile.

AHH: Do you have--do you get any kind of bond with either women in the past or contemporary women who are quiltmakers through your quiltmaking?

RC: Do I have a bond or do I sense a bond with them? I--I think no more than--that I think it's wonderful to be part of a continuum that--that a sense of connection. That there were women in the past and there will be women in the future that will be doing this and that the thing that I think is so amazing about it is the fact that we think we are so contemporary and you can look at some of those old quilts and the fabric or the colors that they put together is so today and so you kind of think, 'well, gosh, they must have been on the cutting edge with what they--some of them--some of those things that some of those women worked with.' And then I think the other thing that--and I don't know if it's so much as a bond with that because we're sewing but I--the admiration that I feel, that some of the most amazing quilts that those women made and they made them with brown paper and a pencil or newspaper. They didn't have rotary cutters. They didn't have templates that we. The kind of stuff that has been laser cut. They didn't have all of this stuff that we have and they made quilts that just blows some of our stuff right out of the water. And I think that's the thing that, that I admire. That is so, so amazing and so a lot of those quiltmakers it's just a sense of awe that they were able to pull that off and then you sit there and you think that if this is all they had to work with and they created something this amazing if they had lived in a different society; a different time, what would those women have been? I mean, working with tools that simple, that they created something that incredible. Yeah, so that's the kind of stuff that I sit and look at some of these quilts and I just kind of wonder. And--and I am much--I have to tell you, I am much more in awe of early nineteenth-century, eighteenth-century quiltmakers than I am in late twentieth-century quiltmakers because we--I mean we go and plug stuff into the computer and put in--punch a few numbers. Well if you know how to do it and stuff comes out and you get a perfect template just sitting there and you lay it on the paper and you sew it and you come out with this perfect thing and everyone go, 'Oh, what a wonderful," and then you got some woman that's you've looked at and she did it without all of this stuff. And it's not that I don't admire them today these quiltmakers, it's just that I am more in awe of someone, early twentieth century, late nineteenth, eighteenth century, nineteenth century, what they were doing--so--

AHH: What do you like most about quilting?

RC: Oh, probably the planning of it. And then after I plan it I wish somebody else would come in and sew it up and then I could quilt it. That would be just--[laughter.] I love it. I just love the planning of it. I love that whole thing of pulling the fabric and getting it organized and all of that kind of stuff and--then--and now clothing is, clothing is very different. I like all of the steps in clothing, the piecing and all of that. And then when I get to where I am actually sewing it up, I wished I had some little person that I could hand it off and say, 'Okay. You sew it up and then I will come back and I will embellish it.' And that kind of stuff and so--but I do all of it now and so--and I enjoy it very much.

AHH: And if I were to ask you what you like least about it would be the sewing of it?

RC: Once I've got the fabric all made, it would be sewing up the side seams, sewing up the shoulder and putting the setting in the sleeve, that part of it, but once I get there then I want to embellish it and do all that then I could give it back to them and they could put the lining in it. [laughter.]

AHH: What do you think makes a great quilt design?

RC: Oh, well I--for me anyway, I tend to respond to things from the gut or from the heart. So for me it's what stops me dead in my tracks and say, 'Wow.' And that's the only way I can describe it. I know little about the stuff about balance and all of this other kind of stuff. It's just kind of like yeah, those are words you are trying to wrap around to get to wow and that, that to me that's what's just invites you to stop and take a look at it.

AHH: Are there any colors or designs you can think of that have that power over you?

RC: Any colors or designs?

AHH: Yeah, I mean can you think of someone else's quilt that you've had that experience or one of your own where you--

RC: Oh, I--in terms of some of Ruth McDowell's stuff stops me dead in my tracks. It's a gal up in Northern California. Actually she's more of the Grass Valley area, Velda Newman. Velda Newman's stuff does that to me. It's just sort of--it's like overwhelming. It's huge, huge work to begin with but it's just--to do that and then a lot of old quilts. I was just in--a couple of months ago, I was down in Atlanta and went to probably one of the best quilt shows that I have been to in years. And it was a quilt show where they started with quilts from the eighteenth century and moved around the room to quilts of today and there was quite a few quilts in there that you just stood there and just--I mean, it was just a couple of quilts in that show that you just, you just stopped and just sort of stared and it was just amazing. And so there are--it's--some of the Japanese quilts are, although that's not quite fair to say but some of their stuff is so technically wonderful that it's soulless that it doesn't have heart but some of those quilts are still pretty darn spectacular. So there are--there are quiltmakers out there that yeah, that still-- and usually there's one in every show. I mean there is some little old gals that's sitting out there and making her little quilts and stuffing her little grapes and doing whatever she does. She's in some local quilt store and you walk in and you've just got to go, 'Holy Jesus.' [laughter.] I mean it's just impressive. I mean--and so I--I think those are the kinds of things that probably--that I--and I still see it. I mean I--I-- and as for my own work, there are things that I do that anytime that I--anytime I'm working on something and it pretty much makes me laugh I know it's good. I mean it's--whether it makes--I tend to--when something is good no matter what it is, I--whether I'm watching a movie and I can be really bad at movies--a movie or watching a dance performance or something like that. The better it gets the more I laugh and so it's just that if I'm working on something and it makes me laugh then nobody else has to tell me it's good.

AHH: Do you think quilts should be preserved for the future?

RC: Yes and no. I--I'm not a preservationist. I--I really am not. I--I think that quilts should be made to be used and I--this whole business of preserving things, I certainly think that museums should have access to them and be able to display them but they change and so--but no, I think that there are some quilts that deserve to be saved and so we will have a sense of our own history and our own quilt history but I think that people have gotten to the point where they think every quilt that they make is some--we're going to be drowning in quilts by the time - [inaudible] at the rate people are saving quilts and wrapping them up acid free paper and shoving them under the beds and stuff. I mean good God, give them to some kid. Let them use it and sleep under it. I just think they--I mean, what's the point? It's--you save each nine patch, you got a nine patch. You save a Baltimore Album, you've got a Baltimore Album but how many Baltimore Albums do you need to save that are being reproduced or made in the 1980s, the 1990s? The real question is what's the logic of all that stuff? So no, I don't think we should be all this preservation that's going on, it's absurd.

AHH: Do you have any tips for future quiltmakers?

RC: Do what you want to do. I mean, I really think that people should follow their own bliss but I just think you have to decide what it is that you want your quilts to say. And I think the other thing is know your craft. I--I think that's--that would probably be is do what you want to do but know your craft, know technique. One of the things that absolutely makes me nuts is to go in and I'm teaching a class and I tell someone to draw a--of-- parallel lines three inches apart and then divided into equal squares. And they look at you like you have just asked them to do some kind of scientific equation. That you're using some language that none of us have ever heard of and to me, it's not knowing your craft. If you can't draft, I mean I don't expect people to be able to draft Mariner's Compass. That's some incredibly difficult but you really should be able to draft simple blocks to fit into the space that you want to work and you really should be able to measure and calculate borders and that kind of thing without using all of these formulas and I'm not saying--I mean I'm opposed to using formulas but I--that's absolutely fine but when you tell someone to do draft a Shoofly and they say, 'Well what size triangles should I cut,' and you say well, 'Draft the block and measure it and then you'll know.' So I think probably learn your craft. I mean take a couple of beginning basic quiltmaking classes. Know something about the people who went before you. I find it most annoying that, that you have gals who say they are quiltmakers and they know nothing about early quiltmakers or that they think quiltmaking started with Nancy Crow or they think quilt making started with Mary Ellen Hopkins because you know that's who they've seen and-- and they don't go back and read about some of the older quiltmakers or look at some of the old quilt books, look at some of the old techniques. And so that would be--so for somebody that didn't have any advice that's an awful lot of it but I think know your craft, you know, and then do what you want to do.

AHH: Is there anything else you'd like future quiltmakers to know that I haven't asked you today?

RC: No.

AHH: Okay, then I would like to thank Rachel Clark for letting me interview her today. This is part of the 1999 Oral Quilt History Project. Our interview was concluded at 12:41 p.m. on December 30, 1999. Thank you very much.

RC: Oh, you're quite welcome.



“Rachel Clark,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 15, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1243.