Diane Bielak




Diane Bielak




Diane Bielak


Lori Miller

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Anita Grossman Solomon


Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Amy Tetlow Smith


Lori Miller (LM): Good afternoon. My name is Lori Miller. Today's date is April 5th, 2003. The time is 3:10. And we are here at the Sedgwick Cultural Center interviewing Diane Bielak for the Quilter's S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project. Welcome Diane. Thank you for allowing us to interview you today and if you could begin by telling us about your quilt "Gingkos?" Pretty much describe it for us. What it is made out of? The process you went through to reach this final project.

Diane Bielak (DB): A couple years ago I really got into painting my own fabric so this quilt is made, except for the organdy fabric, of everything I've painted--prepainted. So the background was painted and then it's a matter of layering one layer of fabric on top of the other. My goal was to develop a quilt that showed dimension. So that when you looked at it you felt like you were looking back through the gingko leaves, the forest. It was inspired by a gingko tree at Longwood Gardens that I saw that year and happened to sneak away a few leaves for my painting project. It wasn't really a pre-thought out, preplanned quilt, it just developed. I just kept adding layers until I felt like I had the dimension that I wanted. The urchin spines came from an old necklace that I'd gotten 20-some years ago in Hawaii. I was glad I kept it because when I pulled it out I thought even though it's from a different part of the world it really seemed to complement the simplicity of the quilt design.

LA: Does this quilt have any special meaning for you?

DB: It does because it's the first quilt that I made where I did everything from start to finish. From making all of the fabric to doing the machine quilting. I have a quilting business. I usually have people do the quilting for me. I do the design and the piecework. But this one, I did from start to finish.

LA: This quilt was chosen for this show--how do you use this quilt in addition to showing it?

DB: It's purely a wall hanging. It's not a functional quilt, so it would be used as a home décor piece.

LA: What are your plans for this quilt?

DB: My plans are to sell it. [laughs.] When you are in this business, you tend to create a lot of merchandise. I learn by doing, I make probably 40 pieces a year. And it's a good thing I'm in business. When I sell a piece then I can replace it. I only have so much room for storage.

LA: Tell us about your interest in quilting.

DB: I became interested in quilting about 25 years ago. I was a self-taught quilter. Very traditional. It was a hobby for 20 years. I lived in Annapolis, Maryland at the time and then moved up here to Pennsylvania. And then at that time I realized that I could actually turn my hobby of quilting into a business of making quilts to sell. I became connected with a really fine group of women from the Lancaster area who quilt for me. For about three years I made traditional quilts and sold them. Because the ladies did quilt for me, I was able to actually make it work as a business. Because, as you know, hand quilting is very time demanding. Then something happened. I learned how to paint fabric and that really changed my focus from very traditional quilts to art quilts. And I continue to develop along that line. Even though every once in a while I'll go back and make a traditional quilt just to remind myself of the foundation and the fundamentals. But I've truly found my area in the art quilt.

LA: how many hours a week do you quilt?

DB: At least 40. It's a full time job for me.

LA: What is your first quilt memory?

DB: My first quilt memory was the first quilt I made, of course. And because I'm self-taught, I developed a way of doing it that made it easier to quilt so I wouldn't have to quilt in a frame. I quilted through the top and batting and then added the backing. My memory is taking that first quilt to the quilt shop and having them just aghast that I was not following the traditional, right way to do it. And maybe that was the start of the art quilt. [laughs.] But I could hand quilt a full sized quilt in two weeks without working in a frame. And I could use a heavier backing and therefore I thought it was a great idea because it would last longer. And I still do that occasionally. [laughs.]

LA: Are there any quilters among your friends and family?

DB: I found out after I taught myself how to quilt that my grandmother had been a quilter in her earlier years. She was deceased at the time that I was getting into it and exploring it. My whole family is very strong in sewing skills. And, of course, I'm sure you all realize that is a good foundation for quilting. That you don't have to learn how to sew gives you a head start.

LA: How does quilting impact your family?

DB: My immediate family, which my children are grown so I'd say it impacts my husband. He's become my photographer, my computer assistant so all the computer work, being on the web and the submissions to quilt shows and that kind of thing, my slides, he takes those for me. He's certainly gotten used to the fact that I may not come out of my work studio for 12 to 14 hours. He's learned how to make his own sandwiches. He basically exists without me being right by his side. [laughs.] But I think it has also influenced one of my daughters, an architect, I think that the fact that I worked on this while she was growing up gave her a sense of design, probably impacted her career choice of architecture.

LA: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life?

DB: Quilting has always been my favorite thing to do. And I think that that was what I enjoyed most about it when I was working full time in administrative work, I always had time when I came home to sit down and do some quilting. I, to this day, claim it as my therapy and think I've saved a lot of money in therapy fees because of it. [laughs.]

LA: What do you find pleasing about quilting?

DB: Well, I like everything. I like the whole process of creating and having something at the end that you can keep, look at it and gain pleasure back from. It's just a permanent end to creativity and it's nice to have.

LA: Are there any aspects to quilting, the process that you don't enjoy?

DB: Well, there are different techniques that I don't particularly enjoy. Appliqué probably. But, no, I like it all. I even like the marketing part of it provided an opportunity for me. When we moved to Pennsylvania it became my foot in the door to the Amish and Mennonite culture out here. And I was immediately invited into their homes and became part of their culture because we shared a love for quilting. And it didn't matter that I wasn't part of their religious sect.

LA: What do you think makes a great quilt?

DB: Well, I think a great quilt is one that shows growth. So you're always stretching and not doing the same technique, the same pattern over and over again. I think it has to have striking color. Color is a big thing to me. And it has to have movement. Your eye has to want to move around and grab the whole thing rather than just focus on one part of it.

LA: What do you think makes a quilt artistically powerful?

DB: Well, I think it has to be something that you remember, that the viewer remembers. It doesn't have to necessarily parallel your reality but I think you have to remember what you saw. It's not necessarily that you be able to analyze why you liked it or why you remember it, just the fact that you remember it.

LA: What makes a great quilter?

DB: That's an interesting question because there are well known quilters and not all the great quilters are the well known quilters. I guess in the people that I've got to know, I would consider the great quilters people that are always growing. And not just finding a marketable technique and then stopping. I don't like to see the same thing redone in different colors or the same design over and over and over again even though it won first place the first time it was shown. I'd rather see something that may not win first place but at least it's a step forward.

LA: How do you think the great quilters learn the art of quiltmaking?

DB: You learn it by doing it. It's probably as simple as that. It's not an academic art.

LA: How do you feel about machine quilting versus hand quilting?

DB: That's an interesting question for me because I think I told you that I started out as a very traditional quilter. Boy, there was nothing for me like hand quilting. And I'll tell you, I've got some quilts that are hand quilted by my ladies that I still think are the best. And here I am machine quilting so that, um, I never thought I would like machine quilting. But I've really come to see where it fits in with some designs and you sometimes need something that strong to counter the piecework and the fabrics and the colors that you work with so I'm a convert.

LA: This particular quilt, you noted that its inspiration is from a tree at Longwood Gardens. Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?

DB: In nature. I live in a wooded area so if I print fabric in the summertime I use all the different leaves and nature's colors. And I'm always delighted to find a new leaf. We were in Spain and I took my dyes and did them on vacation. Snuck down to the pool and got the palm leaves to print it.

LA: Do you think that your quilts reflect your region or community in any way?

DB: They definitely reflect my setting, where I live which is in a wooded area. At first, you think they are really in high contrast because I live near Lancaster. The community out there is very traditional in their quilting focus. But that's just a first impression, and then I've been surprised that my ladies, both Amish and Mennonite, have really come to love to quilt on my things because they represent nature and nature really is important in this area. Not so much hand quilting, I've come to believe, but nature, I don't think there's a big contrast--it really fits in.

LA: Why is quilting important in your life?

DB: It's my therapy. [laughs.] It's my means of being creative.

LA: What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

DB: Well, It gives primarily women a creative outlet where they can be recognized for their contribution. And we've snuck it in that way because it began as a very functional, needed part of the household--before people knew it, it was out of hand. It became art work and there was no turning back. I think it has given women a way to be recognized as artists.

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

DB: Well, of course you don't wash them too often. [laughs.] But I don't think that's your question. I think shows like this really preserve the art form and as long as people have a venue and a place to show, I think they'll be preserved. They are becoming very commonplace in homes. I sell quilts all the time now as artwork. Who would have thought that that would have been the preferred piece of art for a home but it is becoming so.

LA: What has happened to the quilts that you have given to friends and family?

DB: I can't think of any that have really been destroyed, or lost, or anything. I think they've really become valued. I'm kind of picky about who I give them to. I'm selective in who I make for.

LA: Do you have any advice for future quilters who might read this interview?

DB: My advice would be to develop the technical skills, so it's not a struggle. And then don't let people tell you that you shouldn't put organdy fabric on cotton, and zigzag it on. [laughs.] Do what you want. Now, of course I've shown in a lot of shows as most people have and you have to be careful how seriously you take criticism. For example, feedback on a quilt was 'not enough batting in the binding.' They missed the whole quilt. So I think you have to take it with a grain of salt. Just because a judge gives you feedback doesn't mean that they know more than you know. You have to know when to let it just go and when to know that there's some wisdom in that feedback, and use it.

LA: Okay. Is there anything that we haven't asked you that you think we should have or anything else that you'd like to add?

DB: Well, I'd like to see younger people get into this field. You know, my generation, the Boomers, are really the basis for this economy bubble here that's really become something, but I think we need to develop the skills with younger people through schools and in quilt classes and that kind of thing and devote time to them.

LA: Well, I'd like to thank you, Diane, for allowing us to interview you today. Our interview concluded at 3:28. And, again, thank you very much.

DB: Okay. Thank you very much.


“Diane Bielak,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1401.