Valerie Hearder




Valerie Hearder




Valerie Hearder


Leah Call

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The Nat'l Quilting Assn


Houston, Texas


Elaine Johnson


Leah Call (LC): This is Leah Call at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas and today is November 4th, 2000. I'm interviewing Valerie Hearder as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories. Valerie, tell me about the quilt you brought in today?

Valerie Hearder (VH): This is a quilt I made in 1987 and I know that you might look at it and say technically it's not a quilt because actually doesn't have any batting in it and it is in fact not quilted. But to me it's a quilt and technically it does have more than two layers because I have built up layers with the appliqué. Also it has machine piecing in it, some hand appliqué and it is an original design. My work is all original designs so technically that describes the quilt. It uses a lot of solid colored fabrics, deep, saturated colors and that describes it physically.

LC: What special meaning does this quilt hold for you?

VH: I brought this quilt as it's more than 13 years old, but it's a very significant piece for me. I could speak about why it is such a significant piece. It definitely is a transition piece for me. It is very much tied in with the history of who I am and where I come from. I grew up in South Africa and I am fifth generation born South African. I left South Africa when I was twenty-three to go live in Canada. And I brought with me my African fabrics that I had been collecting since I was a teenager. When I moved to Canada I moved to live in the North of Canada in the Northwest Territories and also in Labrador. And there was no tradition of quilt making in South Africa, so I'm completely self-taught. I figured out techniques on how to make quilts. After being in Canada for a number of years, I realized that oh, there was this tradition of American quilt making that was very much broken into blocks and grids. And I thought, 'Oh, so that's how you make quilts.' So I need to learn about making American style quilts because I live in Canada now and this was part of my new identity as a Canadian. Because fabric has always expressed my identity and who I am I started to want to really learn how to make traditional American style quilts. And this piece is a transition piece because I had really been struggling to find my own style, my own voice in my quilts. And almost to a fault I always wanted to make original work--that was important to me. I didn't want to be derivative of other people's work. This is quite a long story, but around the same time I had been in Canada for about ten years but was feeling a tremendous grief, I guess I had never really acknowledged my grief over leaving my homeland, and I was really trying to be a Canadian. I thought that was the best way to buckle down and just get on with it--stiff upper lip and all of that and be a Canadian. And so, I worked very hard to try and make art quilts which would reflect my Canadian environment. And people would say, 'Oh, your quilts are so African.' And I would get very disturbed by that and ask, 'Well what is African? What does that mean? Are my colors African? Or are my motifs African?' and it was a bit disturbing to me. So, I battled along, and I must say I was going through quite a bit of struggle, it was reflected in my quilts trying to make quilts that came out of the context of my North American milieu, so I realized a little bit later as I looked back. I struggled with my identity about being a South African or as a Canadian. This piece is a transition because, my mother came to visit me from South Africa, and she brought me a traditional African tribal skirt and she came when my second child had just been born. And I had decided I wasn't going to make any more quilts for a while because I had a newborn baby but this tribal leather and beaded apron from the 'Ndebeble in South Africa seemed to have--well it did have a very powerful effect on me and over a series of months--I found I really didn't want to be apart from this skirt. I would sort of carry it around the house and it was really kind of stirring me up. And before I knew it I had been in a checkout line in a grocery store scrawling little pictures on the back of the checkbook and all these African images started bubbling up and a lot of ideas and I felt compelled, pulled into the studio and I started a study before I made this piece, which is called "Fertility". I did a study and suddenly that traditional tribal skirts opened a doorway for me. It opened a way for images to come out - these are my images, to express my experience about South Africa. And it's almost a way back and it really talks in fabric about my South African identity, which was an extremely important process. And so this piece, "Fertility" was the first in a series of four very powerful pieces based on the--these African skirts or aprons--skirt or apron interchangeably. So this piece is a very emotional piece for me. It represents--I feel where I found myself and the start of almost a new life; a new life of understanding my place in the world; a reconciliation with my South African roots with now being a Canadian citizen. And so that's why it's an important quilt, a transition piece.

LC: Quick question--I am curious, why did you leave South Africa?

VH: I left South Africa because I met my husband. [laughs.] I fell in love. I followed him to Canada.

LC: Tell me about your history with quilting?

VH: Like most South African girls growing up, the skill of the needle was considered a basic education. So when you're eight or nine in the school system, you were taught how to sew. And then I learned how to do embroidery when I was about twelve and I loved doing hand embroidery. It was very reinforced in my family, because it would be shown to people who would come and visit, 'Oh, look at the beautiful embroidery she's doing,' because I would take on very ambitious projects and I guess I'd never really thought about that before so I always associated my identity with the skill of the needle. I was never really particularly academic and never really did any post-grad education. I went on to the world when I was eighteen and I traveled Europe by myself. And then at twenty I ran my own business--and I've forgotten the question now.

LC: What is your history with quilting?

VH: Okay. [laughs.] Well, I had loved fabrics. From the age of about sixteen I used to go down to the African marketplaces in South Africa and buy fabric--little bits and pieces of fabric, just because I loved to own them. I didn't know what I was going to do with them. I ran my own business for three years, my own little restaurant. Around about the same time my mother gave me a book on traditional English paper piecing. And I taught myself this method of English paper piecing and it still crops up in my work. In this piece these blue triangles and these triangular shapes are pieced over papers and appliquéd into place. So this method still pops up in my work today. But, I taught myself, I only ever saw one quilt growing up in South Africa when I was about eight. So I started making quilts when I was about twenty and I'm forty-eight now so that means twenty-eight years of quilt making.

LC: Does any of your other needlework show up in your quilting--like your embroidery?

VH: It's beginning to now, funnily enough and that's just in the last couple of years or so. I love embroidery and I think that's another very beautiful, poetic level to quilt making that I really like.

LC: Who taught you--you were taught in school right?

VH: Yes.

LC: Any family members?

VH: My mother used to do embroidery and she taught me a few things about embroidery. My sister used to like to sew garments, but I've never really liked sewing clothes. I don't like any other kind of sewing really except embroidery and quilt making. I don't do buttons. I don't do curtains. I don't do hems.

LC: Describe your quilt related activities.

VH: In general, now?

LC: Yes.

VH: I consider myself a quilt professional in that I make money from my quilt making career. I do a lot of teaching. I teach internationally. I teach in Canada, United States and I've taught in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, South African a couple of times and a number of times in England so teaching is a very important part of my career. I've been teaching since 1984. I write magazine articles, not extensively, but I've published four magazine articles with a couple more in the wings. I've published a book with C & T Publishing in 1995 on my miniature landscapes which I am very well known for--my miniature appliquéd landscapes in small frames. And so, those are my main quilt activities.

LC: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

VH: On a personal level, for me it's an intensely personal pastime. There are times when I don't quilt all the time but my identity is so tied up with being a quilt maker that it's irrelevant if I'm making a quilt or not. Even if a month or six months go by and I haven't made anything that's irrelevant, this is who I am and it is how I describe myself--as a quiltmaker. That gives me a tremendous about of emotional satisfaction.

LC: Is there any aspect of quilting that you do not find enjoyable?

VH: Of the quilt making process itself?

LC: Yes.

VH: No, no I like it all. I'm partial to handwork as opposed to machine work, just because machine work is physically tiring. But I like all aspects. I love sewing on the binding, I love all of that part. I love hand quilting but with my big pieces I ship them out to group of Nova Scotian hand quilters to quilt for me--just because of the time aspect.

LC: What do you think makes a great quilt?

VH: To me, when I look at a quilt I want to see the quilt maker's soul. I don't really care whether her points meet or technical perfection--that really is third to me. First I want to see her voice, her feelings, her energy in the choice of colors and her design come through. And I am not talking specifically about art quilts - I'm talking about all quilts, traditional quilts or art quilts. And there are art quilts that I find very unimaginative and there are traditional quilts that make my heart flutter because they are so exciting.

LC: What would make a quilt appropriate for a museum collection?

VH: I think significance of the maker-- what is her overall contribution in terms of quilting--how has her work and her life as a quilt maker influenced other quilt makers. I think that is an important criteria but ultimately the work has to stand--it can't be that a fabulous person has done a tremendous amount for the quilt world but the quilts aren't that great. The bottom line is the quilt has to speak--it has to have a language--it has to have an impact - it has to have affected people. I've walked around the "100 Best Quilts of the World" [The One Hundred Best American Quilts of the Twentieth Century, special exhibit at the 1999 International Quilt Festival.] exhibition. At the exhibition last year and I got tears in my eyes when I stood in front a quilt that had influenced me. The Molly Upton quilts were an early influence on me and it was very emotional to see her work.

LC: What about the early quilts?

VH: About Molly Upton's early quilts that really affected me? You know we were at the same age when we started, I realized later because she has a very good web site now and of course it's posthumous work now because she died. I think her soul spoke through with such exuberance you know, you looked at these quilts they were non-traditional back in the early '70's and that was so exciting to me. It was so exciting, for me because I make some traditional quilts and I am very attracted to traditional quilts. But I would have to say my calling is as an art quilt maker who strives to make my own mark. I have to do that, it is what I must do. Does that answer the question?

LC: I think so. In what ways do quilts reflect your community or your region?

VH: That's an interesting question. "Fertility" which was the start of my African skirt series definitely reflected South Africa in particular. In the last couple of years, I've always just said, 'My quilts come out of me intuitively. They are quilts that have to be made.' If the quilts are talking about Africa, as this series was consciously looking at my South African heritage and trying to say something but they are very personal about my own reconciliation with South Africa. Four years ago I moved from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland which is an island and I live on the most easterly extremity of the North American continent--you can't get any more east than where I live. And it is a very stark, rugged, foggy, gray, cold, rainy environment, but extremely beautiful--I am in love with it. I am shocked with how much I am in love with it, because it is the antithesis of South Africa, which I love so dearly. For the first time I am very consciously making quilts right now that are very much about this place--Newfoundland. I am capturing colors and consciously looking at my environment, using photographs of the environment chopped up into my quilts. This is a new direction for me to be so consciously focused on that. The community and the history of Newfoundland is very interesting because there is a history of displacement in Newfoundland; isolated, rugged communities where they were just forcibly resettled into bigger communities because they couldn't supply schooling, hospital, etc. These ancient communities were just wrenched out of these isolated coastal areas and now fifty years later people are still going back to pick berries in these isolated communities and still the pain is felt. Well, I relate, I was wrenched out of my South Africa and had to re-place. And what struck me is that displacement is a universal issue. I think women have dealt with displacement and being uprooted, whether it's pioneer women who were uprooted from England and trekked in wagons across the prairies in Canada or America or whether it's those Newfoundland fishing people pulled out of those villages or the same thing that happened in northern Labrador with the Inuit Indians who were pulled out of those communities with devastating effect. And that is reflected in my current work that I'm making today.

LC: In what ways do you think quilts have a special meaning for women's history?

VH: Oh, I could speak for hours on that. I'm so interested in it because needlework is a quintessentially female art form. Women stitching pieces of fabric together is so anciently, intimately part of the female psyche, I feel it's almost genetic encoding within us. It is one of the most ancient things women have done since the hunter/gather societies where the women gathered and the men hunted, women stitched. They keep pushing back the ancient millennia when the first woven fabric and the first needle works come from and I think that it is such a part of this phenomenal quilt renaissance and tidal wave that is going on. I think it is a reaction to the post war breaking down of the nuclear family and people saying, 'Out with the old lets buy things.'--the whole industrial and consumer society. I think that women have found how to gather in groups again and stitch again and it is filling a very primal, psychic thing for women. I mean I'm from South Africa. I live in Canada so who do I bond with? I bond with quilters from all over the world. I think we've found a way to reknit communities that have been pulled apart and I think that fabric is the glue, the commonality.

LC: How do you think quilts can be used?

VH: I don't understand the question.

LC: As far as bedcovering or not?

VH: I see no limits. I think it's too late for that Pandora's Box has been opened.

LC: How do you think quilts can be preserved for the future?

VH: I would like to see more in museums. I would like to see more serious collections like the James Collection and I know there are others. I think they definitely need to be in museums more. And I think this oral history recording is a very exciting project and the quilt registries that have sprung up in the last few years have been wonderful.

LC: What's happened to quilts that you have made--have they been given--

VH: I do give away a lot of my work. I probably give away more than I sell. Selling is not my main motivation for making my work. I admit that I'm in a pretty privileged situation in that I am not the main breadwinner so I am able to say, 'Oh, I can keep that, or I can sell it.' I can choose whether I want to go and teach or not--that sort of thing. I like to give my work to people I'm connected with. For example, this quilt I gave to my daughter, she was too young to appreciate it but this piece "Fertility" I want to remain in my family. And the piece that is currently in the teachers show--"Flora's Friend" is very much about a family story, and I would like that to stay in the family.

LC: So how does your family fit into your quilting profession?

VH: I never wanted to sacrifice the family for my quilting in terms of traveling all the time to teach. My family is very important to me, and I am able to make them a priority. But my family is growing now, my daughter has left home, and I have a teenage son still at home. My family values my work very much. They see my work as terribly important and they're very proud of me. So, I can always have the best room in the house for my studio and that's just fine with them. Did that answer that question?

LC: Yes, sure. Is there anything that I have not asked you that you would like to share?

VH: No.

LC: Although there is no quilting on this piece or your African series do your current quilts contain quilting?

VH: Yes. That's a really good question. My early work I felt had to be smooth. They had to be flat. They just needed to be this way. I couldn't put batting in them. I'm not even sure if I can fully explain why, they just didn't. Particularly the African skirt series did not have batting in them. However, I have made pieces with batting and quilting in them prior to this. But a lot of my hangings had minimal quilting mainly because--to confess I was intimidated by the actual quilting stitch, and I didn't like to just throw quilting on it for the sake of quilting. I think it is an extremely important part of the design and it must be well integrated. And I would sometimes be quite intimidated by that and think, 'Well better leave it off than to use poor quilting that is going to detract.' That was part of it, but I also felt that they definitely needed to be flat. My new pieces, I'm in love with a very low loft organic quilt batting and either hand quilting or machine quilting--I like the look. I would really prefer everything to be hand quilted because I think nothing can beat the hand stitch. I truly feel very strongly about the importance of that hand stitch, that rhythm of the hand stitch. And I am not a brilliant hand quilter because I just don't do enough of it to be a brilliant hand quilter. But my quilting stitch is good enough. My new pieces are quilted, thank you for asking. I am a quilter, really. [laughter.]

LC: Are most of your pieces artwork?

VH: Yes.

LC: And what is the largest piece you have made?

VH: The largest art piece I've made?

LC: Yes.

VH: I would say about five feet square.

LC: Why do you think your mother thought to bring the tribal African skirt?

VH: Oh, I'd love to know. I should ask her--that's a wonderful question and I'm going to see her next month and I think I'll ask her.

LC: Are you going to South Africa to see her?

VH: Yes, I'm going back to South Africa next month for a visit?

LC: How do you use this piece?

VH: This would be a hanging. These free hanging strings are symbolic of the apron strings that tie around the woman's waist. I don't actually hang a lot of my work at home. I find the light and the dust and the hanging physically very hard on them and it worries me a lot. I'm very worried about the fading, the deterioration and I would like to see a lot more research done on preservation. I know there is a spray that protects quilts from UV, and I am putting it on my new quilts. I know chemicals can be risky, but I reckon that the quilt could be dead in thirty years, if you know what I mean, due to environmental deterioration. So, what's going to get it? The environment or the chemicals in the spray to protect it? It's a fifty-fifty split--It's scary.

LC: What do you do with them at home? [both speaking at same time.]

LC: Are they stored?

VH: They are stored.

VH: They're stored. People are quite shocked by that isn't that funny. And I do wonder why I do that. Actually, last week the editor of Patchwork Quilt Tsushin from Japan came to Newfoundland to interview me I had my quilts up all over the house and it looked wonderful. It looked so wonderful, and I thought, 'Wow, I should do this.' But I do worry about the harshness and whole environmental impact on the quilts.

LC: So, when you give this to your daughter, do you want her to store it also?

VH: I hope that she will preserve it and I don't know how she would do that. What I would probably do is have a black cloth put on stretcher bars and stitch this onto a stretched frame so that it could be supported and if there were some wonderful chemicals that would prevent it from fading, I would try to treat it with that. Those rich colors and the navy and the indigo are unstable and black is so unstable, unless there is a little polyester in it. The little shiny dots that go around the sun shape are iron-on sequins because this flap lies loose and lifts up and shows this little "hidden seed" in this womb shape; the "hidden seed" is a small blue triangle appliquéd under the flap. I didn't realize it was a womb shape when I was making it, but I did afterwards. I think because I had just given birth to a new child, it is kind of a procreative quilt for me and such a significant piece for me.

LC: Your daughter is your first-born?

VH: Yes, my daughter is my first-born.

LC: And do you have anything for your son that you want for him?

VH: Yes, I made him a baby quilt for him, but he didn't get it until he was ten and then it was a queen sized quilt. I began to feel guilty that I had not made a baby quilt and he started hinting and he said, 'You know, Mom, do you think you could sew a few patches on my little duvet so I can think it's a quilt?' He said that to me when he was about eight. And I felt like a terrible mother. But I made him a wonderful queen-sized quilt and then I got him to draw with a pigment pen these wonderful little boy drawings of little Viking warriors, and skateboarders and funny little doodles in amongst the blocks that you can't really see and then he signed and dated his quilt. It was kind of cute.

LC: What does he do with that quilt?

VH: He sleeps under it. Or it's on the floor in his room. He treasures his quilts, and he treasures my work. He's very respectful of my work.

LC: So, is there anything with the heritage that this is--this tribal skirt is a female symbol, is there anything with a male that--

VH: In terms of my work?

LC: Right--well that you--

VH: Or in terms of the tribal?

LC: I'm not sure what my train of thought on that was--

VH: In terms of what I could make for my son, perhaps? That's an interesting question. I can't think of anything. Although, it's quite interesting with these tribal skirt quilts - they have a lot of sorts of loose flaps and elements and I've had a couple of people say that they are quite 'sexual' and I've said, 'Oh, really how interesting,' but that doesn't really surprise me because in tribal skirts that is a big part of their identity--Is she married? Is she a virgin? Has she had a child? Is she marriageable? All of that is very much tied into the woman's fertility cycle and sexuality--it's tribal identification. You go into any museum and look at tribal art; it is very much about sexual rite of passage. Now that wasn't my intention with my African skirt series, it was very much my own process of making peace with South Africa and putting to rest any ghosts and that sort of thing. I do want to say something about cultural appropriation which is very important. This tribal skirt has been my inspiration, at a time when I had given birth, I don't think any of this was a coincidence because I don't think anything in life is a coincidence and it was not surprising that my mother gave me this. It is so beautiful really and it is such a wonderful, poetic, confluence of events. Because I have lived in the north and I've worked with Aboriginal women, I feel very strongly that we must not appropriate Aboriginal cultural images. I think that they are very precious, we don't understand them and I don't think we have the right to take images and symbols out of other cultures that are--We have no idea whether that's a sacred symbol or what the meaning is and we willy nilly stick them on wall hanging, put them on a bed--well, first I think it's risky, secondly I think it's unethical. And I feel very strongly that when I was inspired by that 'Ndebele skirt that was the point where I was inspired, it was a springboard, a trigger for me to make my own imagery. These aren't 'Ndebele images these are Valerie Hearder's images. I borrowed some of the suggestions of the unusual shape and I'm known for those unusual shapes in my quilts, and it was drawn from that inspiration but it's my imagery, not appropriated imagery and anyone could see that if they looked.

LC: How many classes do you teach a year?

VH: I would say approximately four to five. I don't teach that much, as quilting teachers go, because I feel that first of all I don't want to plaster myself from one end of the country to the other. Physically I don't want to do it, artistically I don't want to do it, it would burn me out and I think I would get very tired of doing that. And quite honestly next year I have secretly kept my whole calendar free, so I don't have one single teaching engagement for the first time in fifteen years and I've just felt that my intuition says 'keep the next year free'--I just want to work.

LC: This quilt that you've brought is part of a series, how many are there in the series and where are the others?

VH: This was the first in the series, not counting the study that preceded this that was a little fabric doodle, shall we say. There were four very clear parts to this African skirt series. I sometimes called it the " 'Ndebele Skirt Series," and then my work started moving on so I thought I couldn't really call them my "African Skirt Series," even though they had a similar feel, but they now tended to be regular shaped quilts. Often, they are a rectangular shape, it's funny but I'm very attracted to about a twenty-eight by forty-eight size, I don't even pre-measure and they'll just come out almost the same size every time just intuitively that's the scale that I work in. So, this series ended in 1990, started in 1987 to 1990. And then I made other quilts that I don't even think were consciously part of a series. But at the moment now--since 1998, I'm working on abstracted landscape wall quilts about Newfoundland and that's what I am immersed in. I do work very slowly; I am not a person who whomps out a massive number of quilts. I absorb my information slowly. I cogitate it slowly. I work slowly--it's my rhythm and I try not to beat myself up about it. So it's learning to respect my rhythm, that's part of maturing as an artist, I think.

LC: And maybe that's why you protected all of next year--

VH: I feel so, because my creative rhythm is so slow, and I find traveling and teaching very disruptive, it really calls me out of that rhythm, and I feel I had to create a buffer zone. I just need a year off.

LC: Are you scheduled the next year?

VH: Yes. I took off--2001 is an open year for me and I just don't know. I feel that something is just coming down the pipeline, it's really interesting.

LC: So, how long have you felt this?

VH: This whole year really, I started just turning down even interesting invitations. I said to my husband, 'I don't know but I just have to do this.'

LC: Well, forty-five classes a year, just seems--

VH: I'm sorry four to five classes, not forty-five classes.

LC: I thought you were saying that that wasn't much--

VH: No, no, I couldn't. I would burn right out. I can't do that.

LC: I can't think of anything else. Is there something that you would like to share?

VH: No, I think I've pretty much said it all. [laughs.]

LC: Well, it's been fascinating. Thank you.

VH: Thank you.

LC: This concludes our interview Valerie Hearder, November fourth, at the Houston International Quilt Festival as part of the Quilters' Save Our Stories Project. My name is Leah Call and it is 4:42 PM.


“Valerie Hearder,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 19, 2024,