Helen Marshall


AFPBP-15 Marshall.jpg


Helen Marshall




Helen Marshall


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Nancy O'Bryant Puentes


Kapiti, New Zealand


Karen Musgrave


Karen Musgrave (KM): I am conducting a Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories interview with Helen Marshall for the Alzheimer's Forgetting Piece by Piece Q.S.O.S. Since Helen lives in New Zealand and I live in the United States, we are conducting this interview by e-mail. Helen thanks so much for taking time to do this interview with me. Please tell me about your quilt "Once a Shining Star."

Helen Marshall (HM): I asked permission from Alzheimer's New Zealand Inc. to use their symbol, the Forget Me Not flower, as my theme for the quilt. The giant Forget Me Not is a native of the Chatham Islands (east of New Zealand) and my father was born there. I then looked through my quilt books for a block that seemed appropriate and so I used the Memory Block as the basis of my design and added a wreath of Forget Me Not fabric to the block. I manipulated this on my EQ5 [Electric Quilt software.]. I shaded the green in the quilt from light in the centre to drab dark green on the outside and the yellow from deep to pale on the outside to show the depressive angle of the disease. I quilted an overall design of interlocking hearts and filled in the spaces with a meandering pattern. The final touch was some Forget Me Not beads scattered over the quilt.

KM: How did you find out about the Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece exhibit?

HM: I was at a Quilt Festival with Ami when she was proposing the idea and as my mother had Alzheimer's I offered to make her a quilt for the exhibition.

As I was in the U.S. at the Mancuso shows several times in 2006 and 2007 promoting my book so I was around the exhibition many times and did white glove duty as well as hang and drop the exhibition a few times.

KM: Tell me your impressions of the exhibit. Do you have any particular favorites?

HM: I thought the overall exhibition was very moving, and emotional. As I had several looks at it I found myself gravitating towards some more than others on the returning visits. Ami's quilt, because of all the information was special, as was Georgia's [Bonesteel.] quilt. Sue Nichols' and Diane Gaudinski's were superb because of their workmanship and messages. As a dispenser of tissues and hugs as a white glove person I could see the great impact it had on the viewers whether or not they had a connection with the illness in the family or not. Everyone seemed to be moved by the exhibition. Several times people left after half way and then came back later to resume viewing.

KM: What are your plans for this quilt?

HM: No plans at all. I would be more than happy if Ami sells it for the fund.

KM: Is this quilt typical of your style?

HM: I guess it is my usual style, I often take a block and fiddle with it. I think I am a traditional quilter with a twist! However that was one of the hardest quilts I have ever made as I don't do "message" quilts at all. I do like doing challenges though as I always discover ideas along the way.

KM: Since doing "message" quilts is something you don't do, tell me how making this quilt was for you?

HM: I found myself thinking a lot about my mother and how sad it was for her to have this happen. She was the first accountancy graduate at Canterbury University in New Zealand, someone with a very quick mind and a capacity to do many things hence the title "Once a Shining Star.' She was a brilliant bridge player and a "mover and shaker" on many community projects. As a child my brother and I were encouraged to always to be involved in our interests, there was no sitting around being bored in this household! Hopefully that is something I have instilled too in my children.

Back to the quilt - I found myself trying to imagine how it would be if one by one my functions became impaired and how I could interpret the darkness and lack of brightness if that would happen. I suppose because colour is such a big part of my life I tend to see things that way. Because of the deadline of the quilt I had to keep working at it and I very much doubt I would have finished it if I shelved it for a time. I am very pleased that I did this but I found it very draining. The quilt I made after this was a very colourful one, does that say something?

KM: Yes, it does. I tend to make very colorful quilts in the winter when it's so grey. Tell me about your interest in quiltmaking. When did you begin?

HM: Colourful quilts are all the year around here as we always seem to have colour around us, all the native trees are evergreen. And after the fall, not a lot of colour here for that as we are too warm, it isn't too long before the daffodils and magnolias are showing colour.

I have sewn forever both by hand and machine. My first love was embroidery and started to go to classes in the 60's, as I was teaching and also wanted qualifications I went to England to do my City and Guilds Embroidery exams in the 70's . A two year once a week class that I did in three months every day with Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn at Windsor. At this stage patchwork was one of the modules (it has since been made a separate subject) Now my teaching is almost half and half embroidery and patchwork. I seem to like adding to the surface with the patchwork either with decorative thread, lots of quilting or three dimensional additions.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

HM: At the moment all the hours as I have an exhibition coming up next month. I treat it as a job and try and get to the studio by 8.30 every morning through till 5.30 if I haven't anything else on. You will appreciate that it's not all actual quilting as there is a lot of paper/computer work, organizing teaching gigs, etc. I don't have a wonderful secretary and when I suggested to Rodney, my husband who has recently retired, that he could do all the secretarial stuff you couldn't see him for smoke! However he is a great help with practical things like packing patterns, and cutting rods for quilts. I also teach locally, internationally and on the internet through Quilt University. I am also the New Zealand Coordinator for World Quilt run by David and Peter Mancuso, and this entails advertising the show and collecting the entry images, sending them off to the U.S. for selection, and then collecting the selected quilts and shipping them off to the U.S. and then back to their owners after the quilts return. The quilts are shown in four different locations in the U.S.A.

KM: What do you teach? Tell me about teaching through Quilt University.

HM: For Quilt University I teach three classes - Fireworks, an 18" square quilt made up of squares of dark fabric with either a self pattern and stars or similar and then bright squares are added and these will be the centre of the fireworks. Masses of machine straight stitching is then added to make the fireworks. Take a look at my website for the students' work. They have done wonderful pieces. The second class is called "Waterlilies" and features a colour washed background with three dimensional leaves and paper pieced free standing water lilies. And the third class is Wheel of Mystery and the students have three choices of a quilt to make; each with the same number of blocks but with a totally different looking result. One uses all one fabric for the "wheels', fussy cut to make a kaleidoscope effect and a black background, 2, uses 25 different "wild" type fabrics for the wheels and a batik background and for the third a range of fabrics, tone on tone or batiks to make a transparent effect.

The students go to the website www.quiltuniversity.com have a look at the class schedule and decide which class they want to attend and then pay by credit card and the class opens on the scheduled Saturday and runs for 6 - 7 weeks. There is a Discussion Forum and they can ask questions. Each class is divided into either three or four and they open a week apart, and then there is three weeks after this for catch up. The lessons are written like a book chapter and are illustrated with jpegs and lots of diagrams. The students can send in photos for help and when they have finished they can post their pictures in the Gallery. Lots of the students have won prizes with their quilts at various quilt shows.

For my other teaching I teach a wide range of classes from pieced quilts, adding the third dimension to your quilts, machine appliqué, machine embroidery, hand embroidery, and purses. My two books also provide ideas for classes, too.

KM: Do you belong to any art or quilt groups?

HM: I belong to the National Association of New Zealand Quilters, Coastal Quilters, Kapiti Arts and Crafts and the Kapiti Embroiderers Guild. I am also a member of AQS [American Quilter's Society.] and NQA [National Quilt Association.] in the U.S.A.

KM: Since it appears that you spend time in the U.S., tell me how quiltmaking differs from quiltmaking in New Zealand. In what ways do your quilts reflect your country or community?

HM: I think New Zealanders use their environment as a good source of colour and we seem to be braver about the depth of colour possibly because we have a lot of it around us, (due to our clear air) particularly the green of the countryside and the blue of the ocean, rivers and lakes. The green we use is quite a different green from the green used by the U.S. quilters and turquoise seems to be an unknown colour in the U.S. in my experience. One of the interesting things I find when looking at U.S. quilts is that even though we all have access to the same fabrics we do use different fabric combinations. Not many quilts here seem to use only the one "house lot of fabric" by that I mean all the same designer in the quilt. We do have New Zealand themed fabrics available and these are very useful in making the quilts "from New Zealand". A friend has just curated a show of New Zealand Forest Quilts for a show in Germany so that will be interesting to hear how they are received. My quilt for that show features two New Zealand fabrics, one a bush scene with birds and the other a Maori pattern in black and white. (Maori are the native New Zealanders who arrived in the 13th Century before the white people came in 19th Century.) There is possibly only about 15% of New Zealand quilters who do original work and a lot of influenced by the current magazines, kit sets and books that are available to them mostly sourced from U.S. So there is a big following for the traditional type of quilts and these are mainly made for family and friends. When I send off the World Quilt quilts there is 40% innovative and 60% traditional. The latter will be mainly block type patterns with interesting and different colour schemes.

When I was writing the "Wheel of Mystery" book I was very conscious of the colour schemes that I used, however my editor was not concerned about the bright colours. People in the U.S. tell me they love the colours too.

KM: I agree. I personally love bright colors. Tell me a little more about quiltmaking in New Zealand.

HM: The National Association has over 500 members and runs workshops, shop directory and organises a national Challenge every year. There are also over 100 Quilt Guilds in New Zealand ranging from six members to ones with 300 + members. Besides these formal groups there are also a lot of informal groups that meet to stitch and chat. Often these groups make charity quilts as donations to various groups. Also there is kiwiquilters, a Yahoo online group with over 450 members. The New Zealand Quilter Magazine which is produced four times a year and is full of New Zealand featured quilts, patterns and information. Anne Scott who owns and runs the magazine also has a textile gallery and textile bookshop in Wellington. There are National Symposiums run every two years with a different group of Guilds organising it in a different part of the country. There are usually 800 - 1000 registered and several thousand people enjoying the many exhibitions that are run at the same time. 2009 it will be in Wellington and 2007 it was in Palmerston North and there are New Zealand tutors as well as overseas tutors at these Symposiums offering a wide range of classes and lectures. There are a lot of patchwork shops here in New Zealand and with the high cost of transport we are paying twice the amount for US sourced fabric. We are quite inventive in New Zealand its called the "No 8 wire mentality"(anything can be fixed with it) so we don't religiously follow a pattern or colour scheme and add our own take on it. We don't get in a fuss because we can't get the particular fabric or colour that is shown in a pattern and will happily substitute. There isn't a quilting heritage in New Zealand as there isn't a cotton industry however there is a woolen industry, there has to be with 60 million sheep here, but I can't recall wool being used for quiltmaking. There is some recycling of woolens blankets into quilts. In the gold mining days, 1880's there were miners "quilts" called waggas which were old blankets patches with old clothing to make warm bedding. There are also strong Embroiderers Guilds in New Zealand as this would be a follow on from our mostly English heritage. They two have biennial conferences and a wide spread of individual guilds. Many New Zealand quilts are exhibited overseas every year in invited exhibitions throughout the world.

KM: What do you think of American quiltmaking? Whose works are you drawn to and why? They certainly don't have to be or include Americans.

HM: American quilting. When I have seen the top quilts in the big shows I am gob smacked at the amount of work in Sharon Schaumber's quilts and the machine quilting of Sue Nickles and Diane Gaudinski, the precise piecing of Judy Mathieson and Caryl Bryer Fallert's colour use. I enjoy the different use of colour combinations that I wouldn't have consider using and how well they work for the quilt. I am amazed at the skill of the longarm quilters whose work leaves me in awe. I also enjoy the wearable sections of the shows as well. The professionalism of Ricky Tims presentations and the TV programmes that I have seen are very good. The Japanese quilts are always very interesting and I have been really fortunate to have seen a lot of quilts from various countries at the different quilt shows. To me it seems here always seems to be a link in colour with each country.

KM: Tell me more about your thoughts on color and countries.

HM: first noticed the different use of colour when I was studying in the UK in the 80's, the colour range was very muted and soft and very like the landscape, then a little later all the Madeira threads and the Indian silks in the sumptuous rich colours appeared in the shops and the English embroiderers were using them as if they were the newest trend. To me this was the colour scheme we were so used to in New Zealand. In Scotland the colours were even more muted think tartan and you see what I mean. Of course the "hunting" tartans needed to be blending with the landscape and the dress tartans were much brighter and included red. A trip to Australia made me realize that the earthy colours of the landscape reflected in their choice of fabrics too, and then in their quilt making.

Across America I can see difference in the way people use colours too, much more vibrant on the Californian coast to much more restrained on the east coast with a lot of gentle colours in the middle. Maybe I am rationalising here and I do think the divisions have blurred a lot lately because of books and the internet.

Looking at the quilts of Scandinavia I see very pleasing almost no colour quilts and then hot vibrant quilts. This may be because of the very different seasons.

KM: Thank you for sharing this as I find it quite interesting. Do you think of yourself more as an artist or a quiltmaker or do you even make a distinction?

HM: MMMMMMMMMMMMMM curly one that one! I call myself a professional quiltmaker/teacher. I leave the artist to the very innovative quilters. I think it's the old craft versus art argument. I try to embrace all the new technology that's available - PowerPoint presentations, video camera and video clips in the classroom, CD's for the students.

KM: How do you feel quiltmaking is perceived in New Zealand?

HM: In New Zealand, a lot of the time it is perceived as ladies filling in time which I dispute as there are a few of us who work hard at what we do and another layer who are consistently turning out very pleasing quilts. When the refugees from Kosovo arrived there was a big drive to make sure everyone of them had a quilt on their bed. There are always quilters making neo natal quilts and quilts for McDonalds and Starship Children's Hospital. Maybe we don't shout out from the rooftops as we are often giving more than receiving. There is a group in Wellington, who for many years, have run a group at the women's prison with very pleasing results. Acquaintances are often surprised when they hear what I have been doing or traveling, they seem to think it's really surprising "where sewing can get one"!

KM: Why is making quilts important to you?

HM: I think it's the challenge to make something beautiful out of fabric I like. I do a lot of fussy cutting so maybe its making kaleidoscopes. I also think it's an addiction I do get withdrawn if I am not making something! Colour plays a big part and I am also a keen gardener and colour is also important here too. I enjoy the company of quilters and I love teaching and seeing wonderful pieces my students make.

KM: Since you mention teaching I just have to ask, why is teaching important to you?

HM: I think it's because I love demonstrating and seeing the "aha" that people get when you show them a tip or technique. And I am a people person too and really like the contact especially with the new quilters and embroiderers that are just starting out. I have been fortunate to have had some wonderful teachers myself and I hope I can pass on to my students the same enthusiasm that they gave me.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

HM: I would suggest that they went to as many classes as possible especially a beginners sampler quilt class, might sound boring, but its the fastest way to learn a lot of techniques that will stand in good stead for ever. It does sadden me that there are so many classes that are rotary cut i.e. take a strip 2 1/2" and then sub cut and make 1/2 square triangles. I taught a class recently that the students had never used templates before. To me that's basic knowledge. There seems to be a preponderance of classes that are project related and not process related. One of my most frequently requested classes is Adding the 3D to Quilts. I see books that finish a project by "quilt as desired and then bind" if no one has ever shown you how to do this what do you do.

KM: Describe your studio.

HM: I love my studio, it's the first time I have ever had a purpose made studio. We moved house two years ago and the deciding factor was a double garage on the ground floor (first floor in U.S.). We had the builder take out the doors and replace them with ranch sliders. At the back of the now studio is a small room that I have for my office and on the other side of the stairs another room Rodney has his office. I have a large central table butted up to a horn cabinet that has my Bernina in it and on the other side on a computer type table my Juki so I can use the Horn cabinet table top for both. My Pfaff is alongside on another table. The overlocker is also on the horn cabinet. Under the table are plan cabinets for storage and plastic boxes for patterns, lace, ribbons etc. Yes there is also room for the freezer too on the opposite the door wall.

One wall, is totally shelved with wire baskets with fabric, organised by either colour or type i.e. kids, spots, stripes, and the other wall has two pin up boards that are movable and shelving for books, magazines and some box files. They can't be fixed to the wall as Rodney's collection of paperbacks are in bookcases there! He convinced me they were good insulation! I had the electrician install four double daylight fluorescents and also 4 double electric outlets in the ceiling. One of the best tricks yet. My studio works for me it's not smart or wall to wall elegant and it feels like work when I am here. Previous houses suffered from migration as I didn't have a permanent studio and this way the top floor stays relatively fabric free, except when I am doing handwork at night.

The office has a bookshelf with a large cupboard for batting above it and the other wall has threads arranged in buckets i.e. Pearl cotton, tapestry wool etc. And more file boxes. There is also a floor to ceiling cupboard with archive boxes with non patchworking fabric. Then there is the computer, printer, scanner here too.

KM: Your studio sounds wonderful. You've mentioned your husband several times which leads me to ask, how does quiltmaking impact your family?

HM: The family, Catherine and Neil now in their forties have grown up with Mum always doing something in the "sewing" line and have not been too fazed by it. Catherine has made a few quilts though she has a very demanding job, doesn't have a lot of time to quilt. Neil is a veterinarian and I am told sews a very fine seam! They are interested in what I do and my daughter-in-law always wants to see 'what's new.' Rodney also had a very demanding job and possibly because he wasn't around all that much I had time to embroider and quilt. When I went to the UK [United Kingdom.] to do my City and Guilds exams for three months, I went with their blessing. The family joke if the phone goes and the person asks if Helen is around 'Yes' he (Rodney) says, 'She is visiting the country at the moment.' I think they are proud of me but don't lavish praise!

In New Zealand we have the Tall Poppy Syndrome - chop down anyone who gets taller than the rest, a peculiar national trait shared also by the Australians. As I have been "chopped" several times, the family does rush to my side. So it's better to just go about what you do quietly and achieve what you want to do. Not that I ever did shout from the roof tops several people got really miffed when I have been given awards.

KM: I'd like to bring us full circle and return to "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." There is a CD where the artist's voices can be heard. Please share with me your experience doing the reading of your artist statement for the CD.

HM: That was really funny in an odd sort of way. First of all, my accent made it hard for Ami to understand so I needed to do it again. Then I said, 'You do it for me,' and she said, 'No.' She liked to hear the real me but speak 'slowly.' After I had done it three times it was a bit hard. So it took three toll calls for that little effort.

KM: Please share with me your participation in "Priority Quilts" [this is another part of the Alzheimer's Art Quilt Initiative where quilts are donated, auction off and the money donated to Alzheimer's research.]

HM: Ami asked if we could send a hand outline and a message along with a piece of work that was typical of ourselves. I sent a piece of ribbon work of a fuchsia heart. This was to be made into a quilt. However Ami decided that these could be Priority Quilts so Kathy Kennedy Dennis made them up. "From Helen's Heart" raised $76. And "What happens if" using the hand outline was made up also by Kathy and raised $40.

KM: It took me three tried too. I'd like to thank you for taking your time to do this interview with me and I do hope that we get to actually meet face-to-face someday soon. Before we close, is there anything else you would like to share or add?

HM: Thank you Karen. This has been a privilege. You have opened doors I didn't think I had! And made me think about things I did. Again many thanks for this long interview, I get the prize for time and distance! Yes I hope we do meet sometime.

KM: Helen, again thank you. Our interview concluded on February 16, 2008.


“Helen Marshall,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed June 21, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1364.