Francoise Hamlin




Francoise Hamlin




Francoise Hamlin


Catherine Whalen

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Frances Dowell


New Haven, CT


Catherine Whalen


Catherine Whalen (CW): I'm Catherine Whalen interviewing Francoise Hamlin for the Quilters' S.O.S. [- Save Our Stories.] We're in HGS 119 at Yale University for the Battin' & Chattin quilting group's annual show. Francoise, can you tell me about the quilt that you've brought here today?

Francoise Hamlin (FH): It's a monochromatic quilt, it's in blue. It has a centerpiece, which is circular and it's bordered by other strips of blue. It's meant to look a little bit like a porthole in a ship or something, so you're looking out into the ocean. And on the porthole circle blue, there are embroidered fish and beaded fish, and fronds of sea life.

CW: Does it have a name?

FH: The name is "Ocean Blue."

CW: Does it have any special meaning for you?

FH: It's part of a series of monochromatic quilts. It's the fourth in the series. I've so far made a red one, a yellow one, and a purple one, so this is the fourth one, and the next one will be a green one.

CW: You have several quilts on display here at the show today. Why did you choose this one to talk about?

FH: This one, because it's part of a series; and the other ones I'm showing, it's actually a series of women, appliquéd, very small quilts. But this one seems to be attracting more attention, because it's monochromatic and it has beading and embroidery.

CW: What are you plans for this quilt?

FH: Right now, I have no plans but to finish the series and have an apartment big enough to show them all side by side.

CW: So you plan to keep them?

FH: Yes.

CW: Can you tell me about your interest in quilting? When did you start?

FH: I started when I first came to Yale. My friend Heather Williams, who is also being interviewed for this project, introduced me to quilting, and it was a social event in the beginning, and I just learned the skill and really enjoyed expressing myself through fabric.

CW: How many hours a week do you quilt?

FH: It really depends on the project I'm doing in school, so if I'm procrastinating there's more quilting time than others. The past year I haven't quilted that much, but, usually when I'm sitting in front of the TV, watching prime time TV. I can quilt for a couple of hours a night, but not necessarily every night, so there are no set quilting times.

CW: Do you quilt mostly by yourself, or with other people?

FH: Mostly by myself. We [Battin' & Chattin quilting group.] meet once a week and quilt for a couple of hours; it's been very sporadic for me this past year because of my dissertation submission, but I do most of my quilting at home because of that.

CW: What is your first quilt memory?

FH: Quilts aren't actually an Eng--I mean, growing up in England I never really had quilts in this way; the kind that we bought that we called quilts were continental quilts. So, my first quilt memory is when I was in Mississippi, someone actually gave me a quilt as a graduation present in 1991, and I'm still using it actually.

CW: Do your friends or family members quilt also?

FH: My sister has started quilting, but she has yet to complete a project, she's got two projects on the go. We have very different styles, but I'm definitely the first one to start.

CW: So she started after you did?

FH: She started to be more interested in it, but she had a project going beforehand, very traditional, Laura Ashley prints, but since my interest she has been increasing her production.

CW: Have you ever used quilting to get through a difficult time?

FH: I think so, I think it's very therapeutic--you're able to concentrate on something minute and produce something, and it's a good time for me to think about other things, and it's almost a form of meditation.

CW: What about quilting do you enjoy?

FH: Finishing it. [laughs.] Thinking about it and then finishing it. Yeah, I get impatient when I start one and I want to see it finished, so finishing it is really good, that last piece of binding is really fun, or putting on the sleeve. They're the boring jobs, but it's also, like the moment of completion. So, I'm kind of strange--I think the group laughs at me because of it. [laughs.]

CW: [laughs.] What do you mean, the group laughs at you because of that?

FH: Because I think, I don't really have a favorite phase, and it's all work, [laughs] and yeah, I guess I'm more pragmatic in that. I like choosing the fabric, and then I just want to see it completed afterwards, so if you asked what was my favorite part I couldn't tell you. But I like the process, but I don't necessarily know why, and I don't necessarily know which part.

CW: When you are starting out a quilt, do you see it already finished?

FH: Not really. I'm more attracted to the fabrics, and then it comes afterwards, the patterns come afterwards. With the monochromatic ones I just collected the fabrics and then kind of just laid them out and see, and the patterns would come with it, come afterwards. And sometimes I would sketch it out, very roughly, just to get the dimensions in, but most of the time, they just kind of--it's kind of organic in it's design, it happens as it gets sewed. I'm less methodical about it.

CW: Do you think the impatience that you're talking about has to do with wanting to see what the process is going to, in a way, make you make?

FH: Perhaps. It's also just my character. I'm an impatient person. [laughs.] Yeah, delayed gratification. I don't know, maybe it was with having a dissertation that takes so long to do. I just--everything else I wanted to happen instantly, and so I just get humorously frustrated with it. But, I wouldn't give it up for the world. But I do hate having unfinished projects around.

CW: What do you think makes a great quilt?

FH: Being a quilter, it's the process, and it's in terms of how the quilter enjoys the process. I enjoy quilts when I can meet the quilter and figure out, and they can talk me through the process, and what they were thinking about it. Because I have very different styles from other people, but I appreciate other people's quilts, even though I could never see myself make a quilt like that, because it's not fabric I could see myself working with closely. I can appreciate other people's dedication and joy, and see the beauty in the quilt because of that.

CW: What do you think makes a quilt aesthetically powerful?

FH: For me, color. I love bright colors. And sometimes detail. So it's either color or detail or both. So, the monochromatic quilts are one color, monochromatic colors, but very strong colors, I've never liked pastels to work with. Yet I always wear black, I wear very neutral clothes, but with the quilts, they have to be very bright, and that's my space to get really bright, and to work with colors I wouldn't wear or decorate with necessarily, apart from on the quilt.

CW: The monochromatic series that you mentioned, do those specific colors have different associations for you?

FH: Not really, I mean, the purple one came first 'cause that's my favorite color and the yellow one because I have a yellow study, and I wanted to have something to go in there. But no the color itself. It's more the tone, the tones of the colors, and the strength of the colors, and the brightness of the colors. So I do take up a lot of time looking for the fabrics that are just right for that quilt, even though they're monochromatic, I don't choose just, like, any blue. I have to like the fabrics in and of themselves. And they have to appeal to me, 'cause you're working very closely with them, and if you don't like it, you don't finish the project.

CW: In the quilt that you brought today, that we're looking at, the blue quilt, were there fabrics that you selected that you didn't end up using?

FH: No. I'm not that much of an artist that I discard, that I feel that critical about it. I find that if I bought the fabric, it's going in, some way or another, even if it's just the backing. So I generally use all the fabric that I buy for a particular project.

CW: So the selection, the actual picking out of the fabric--that phase of the design takes place at that stage, rather than when you're actually putting the quilt together?

FH: Yes.

CW: When you're actually putting the quilt together, what kinds of things are you interested in doing, with the fabrics that you've already chosen?

FH: It depends. With this one, because it was blue I was thinking ocean, so it had to work in that way, and I wanted to do some--I don't know, I wanted to do something circular, I wanted to have fish on it. And then, I wanted to find a way of being able to use all the fabrics, so doing small squares around them, around the circle in strips worked. But like I said, it's organic. I didn't have a big plan. I didn't even have a particular size I wanted it, it just kind of stopped, and that was it, that was the size it was going to be. And that's how I generally do it. I mean, the green one I've thought about more. The green one's the next one, because I don't like working with green. But I want to try, so picking out the fabrics took a while, and I've actually planned that one out more, I actually have a design for that because I know that one's not going to organically work for me. Because it's not a color that I would usually work with.

CW: Why you want to make a green quilt if you don't like working with green?

FH: I'm doing the green quilt because that's the next logical color, I have red, yellow and blue, green comes next. I'm hoping it'll grow on me!

CW: What about the turn to the ocean motif in this one--did that happen right away? What were the other things you were considering?

FH: Yeah, this is pretty much what I was thinking of. It turns out a little bit different than I thought, because the beading kind of added something to it, and I didn't know I was going to do that much beading. But, again, it was therapeutic, and I started beading and I couldn't stop, and I didn't try and stop myself, so. So it was a fun process for me, and I like it, it's different, it's a different kind of quilt, but I do like how it turned out. And it's fun, I think it's just a fun quilt; so even if you don't like blue, there's something else to look at, there are other things to look at and find in the quilt.

CW: There's a lot of fabrics with wave-like patterns, things that could be interpreted as leaf forms. Where those things that you were already thinking about when you were choosing the fabrics?

FH: Definitely, definitely. I'm very particular when I choose the fabric. Like if it's blue, it's blue; it has to be only blue in the fabric, different shades of blue, fine, but only blue. And, so generally, those kind of fabrics are ocean-like, because that's just how there are printed, and that's just the selection that I found at the store. And then I cut them in such a way so that if they did have any kind of lines or waves, they were going in the same direction. To kind of mimic waves, and sort of movement.

CW: Could you talk a little bit more about the beading, what you think the beading's doing in the quilt, why you wanted to add the beading, even though you hadn't planned on it originally?

FH: I just like beads. I just got into a bead thing, and the beads are, sort of mark waves, sort of markings of waves. And I added just extra pieces into the beading so there's like a straight line of beads and then like a different shape in the middle of it, and then it continues. Just to add some spice, and to have something else to look at, because it is a pretty dark quilt; the blues are kind of dark, kind of royal blue is the base color. And it was just something to catch the eye, and again it was fun. And I had no intention of giving it away, so it wasn't like I was thinking about if someone else would like it. It was more about me, what I felt like doing, and the beads I had, and would this look good. Yeah, and I think that makes a difference, when you're making a quilt for someone else you are more in tune to what they like, what you think they like. And you make those kinds of choices, which are usually more conservative choices than when you're doing something for the sake of it.

CW: Both the beading and the embroidery add a lightness, a kind of sparkle and reflection that given the darkness of the quilt really does add something that otherwise wouldn't have been there. You talked a little bit about making quilts for other people; have you made quilts as gifts?

FH: Most of my quilts are gifts. Most of them have been gifts in the past. I think this monochromatic series is the first series that I've actually kept. Only because I don't have space to hang them, and also, it's a nice gift. It's a very personal gift, for someone with not much money, I can do something really special, and very personal. And people appreciate it. They appreciate the time and effort. Yeah, I've given a lot of quilts away. And so it's really hard for me to keep a count of how many I've done, because I really can't remember, because I've given most of them away, I don't have most of them anymore.

CW: What did the people who've received your quilts think about them?

FH: Well, to my face they really like them. [laughs.] My mother has got a lot of them. Yeah, I think people are surprised, especially my mother, she didn't think I could do it. But, yeah, I think people like them. I think people are just, like, touched by the personal gift, which is part of it, giving something special.

CW: What kind of impact has quilting had on not only you, but your friends and family?

FH: My family appreciates it, but Mum lets the dogs roll around on the quilts so she doesn't cherish it like an heirloom. I don't care, I made them for her to use and I love the dogs! On my friends are quilters, or appreciate the work I do, so its kind of talking point in the apartment, you walk into my apartment and there's a quilt there. I think people are kind of surprised, because maybe I don't look like a quilter. I don't know, I'm kind of a gruff person, so I guess people don't expect it. That I would actually sit down and do needlework of any kind. But yeah, so I think it does become a talking point, the kind of fabrics I use, and the difference in the quilts, you can see a progression over time, and, kind of, moments of being into one type of fabric or another, there are definitely trends. I've been doing it long enough, about seven years now, so that you can actually see change over time.

CW: Sounds like from what you're saying that it allows you to express a part of yourself that otherwise people wouldn't see?

FH. Yeah. Definitely my creative outlet, definitely. The only creative outlet I have.

CW: Is there something that you did before quilting that you would call a creative outlet?

FH: No. [laughs.]

CW: Have you ever taught quilting?

FH: I have, kind of. Well, I tried to teach it, my local church had a little quilt group, with the older ladies there. That was fun. Short-lived, because of attendance; everyone has very busy schedules, but it was fun. But I'm definitely not—I think teaching took a lot of the pleasure out of doing for me. And it became another job; I teach for a living, so, it's like, it was just another class to go to. So I don't like doing it as much as being able to just quilt with friends, and teach, we teach each other, someone will ask a question and you go over there and help them out, and then you keep going. And you could ask for advice as well, from the same person. So I like that environment more than me being sort of head quilter and teaching other people.

CW: Have you been influenced by other quilters?

FH: Totally. Yeah, this quilt group's been amazing. I think I would have never even thought about, I mean, I never would have quilted if it wasn't for other people. And, I did a crazy quilt last year, and it was because of you, and Heather, Heather's quilt, that I figured that this would be a fun thing to do, and to try it out. So, yeah, I've tried different techniques because of other people's stuff. And that's the great thing about the quilt show, you can see that replication, and change, too, because my crazy quilt's very different from yours, very different from Heather's. Yeah, there is this--at the end of the day all of the quilts fit in, into the room, every year, and it always amazes us that it does, but its because we all are coming from the same group, I think, and so there are these trends in either color or texture that we see. Like this year, there seems to be a lot of batiks, which is just a favorite of this group, I think. Yeah, so, and the colors are a lot darker this year, as last year they were all primary colors, mainly, they seem to me, in comparison to this year.

CW: Do you have any thoughts about the darker colors, the darker palette?

FH: No. I think it's just the trend. People just went in that direction. Particularly harsh winter? [laughs.] I don't know, it's hard to gauge, I just think that maybe that was the fashion in fabrics this year, and that was what was on sale, it's hard to gauge. Because some of these quilts were started a couple of years ago, but they're still dark. And some of them are newer, but they're still are a lot more on the dark side of the primary colors.

CW: A couple of the pieces that you have in the show are more figurative, rather than the monochromatic work that we see in the ocean quilt. Can you talk a little bit about the figurative work that you've done?

FH: Sure. They're appliqués of women, they're very small quilts, I think they're about, I don't know, fifteen by thirty, twenty. Just women, appliquéd, and then I embroidered hair and beaded jewelry for them. Very instant, it was all about instant gratification, I just finished my dissertation and I just wanted to produce quilts quickly. And small quilts, so I have five, a series of five. It was just very rewarding to be able to do that, and to work with fabric, and just appliqué work. And it was a challenge to do it, 'cause I don't have the most nimble of fingers, and it was a lot of very small work there. But it was fun, I really enjoyed doing it.

CW: So you were pushing your own technique a little bit, in doing this work?

FH: Yeah, pushing the technique, and also concentrating fully on something else, only--which is why I did it. It pushed, it challenged me; and it also got me away from the dissertation. And I felt productive, so, I was taking a break but yet not completely winding down to a complete stop.

CW: What about things like different techniques, appliqué, beading, you've mentioned hand quilting versus machine quilting; do you have thoughts about those techniques?

FH: I don't know why, I've just been into it this year--this last couple of years I've been into texture. And, also, embroidery and beading hides a lot of mistakes, [laughs.] I've got to be honest, and, but it also makes things beautiful and different, so. And the quilts I've made recently have all been wall quilts, so I've been able to do that; I haven't made a bed quilt in a while, and I think that would. I can't quilt. I can't bead that, that would be a lot simpler. But I do prefer making wall quilts, so I could do this extra little things, and play with silks and stuff in a the way I wouldn't do with a quilt I would actually use.

CW: Do you think your quilts are becoming more pictorial, or more like paintings or works of art?

FH: It seems to be, my stuff is becoming more artistic, less simple. And just a lot more on it. But it's not a conscious decision. I just think, going back to the monochromatic, when you are working with one color you do have to do extra things to make the quilt interesting, or else you just have a block of blue squares, so. And also you just use the color, and the association of the color, to create something, so the red quilt was called "Ruby Red," and it looked, it was very jewel-tone reds, and it was the crazy quilt, so it had lots of velvet and silk, so it was very jewel, jewelly. And the green one I think it's going to be leaves, motif of leaves on it, because of the nature. And that's the only way I can configure the leaf, configure green, and be able to work with it, to think about leaves, and nature. So that's how that one's going to be, and that's definitely, like I said before, going to be more designed, because it's going to stretch me, in terms of being able to work with it.

CW: What about the other two in the series, the yellow and the purple?

FH: The yellow one was sunlight, so it was like circles, appliquéd, onto strips of yellow, horizontal strips of yellow. And gradiated, so, from dark to light, so there's a sense of light, and sunlight, and it's very happy, it's a very happy quilt. The purple one was more about the piecing. I did like a diamond shape, in one fabric, and kind of worked around that. So it was more about piecing, and shapes. And that's another very dark quilt, the purples I chose were very dark, for that one, too.

CW: Why do you think quilting is important to your life?

FH: It's important because I think it shows another part of my personality that people wouldn't see otherwise; it showed me that I had this capability. I made friends with people who don't work in the same academic fields as me; and I think it would have been harder to maintain those friendships, given just the nature of academia, and the work we do. So, it's been a very social, bonding experience, I've made great friends. And learned a lot about me, and sort of, kind of, patience, I guess, learned a lot about patience, even though I'm impatient with it. It is a process, and again it's just been very therapeutic, being able to work with fabric, and I don't have any other vices, so buying fabric is one of them, and that's fine. [laughs.]

CW: Do you the quilts that you make reflect your community or region?

FH: No.

CW: How are quilts important in American life?

FH: I don't know, I mean, there seems to be more of quilting tradition here, in this country, than in England, but I don't know, I mean I can't tell if that's right or wrong. But just, again, for my friend Heather, I see how it's important in her life, and I think for almost the same reasons, the therapeutic, the art. She definitely sees it as art, more than, perhaps, I do, and that comes from experience. She's sold her work for a lot of money, so, that kind of validation sets her work at a different level. But I can't really comment on the importance of quilting in America.

CW: What about the importance of quilting to women?

FH: I mean, just given our group, and how there are, it's a group of women, and we have one gentleman, but women mainly, and the work we do. I can see, how, when you think of the traditional quilting bee, it's a sense of women coming together and quilting, so, producing an item that's usable yet being together as a community to talk to each other, counsel each other, whatever. But for me, personally yeah, there's that too, I think that we do have that kind of sense in our group. And it ebbs and flows, it ebbs and flows.

CW: What about quilting's importance to women of color?

FH: Again, I don't know, but I saw the show at the Whitney Museum [The Quilts of Gees Bend.], and it was amazing, and I was able to see how women of color used quilts, and saw it as art, but also very utilitarian, using what they had.

[interview paused then resumed.]

CW: Francoise, how do you think quilts can be used?

FH: I think for quilters, it's a form of therapy; I do think they can be used functionally as coverings, or as art.

CW: How do you think they can be preserved for the future?

FH: I think it's a skill that needs to be passed down. I mean, it's definitely something that I would teach my kid. But as for the actual fabrics because a lot of us work with cotton, that will last a little bit longer, but many of us work with silks and other, more perishable fabrics, and perhaps we do need to be doing more to preserve that, even in terms of storage, to figure out a way of preserving them more.

CW: What's happened to the quilts that you've made or given away?

FH: The one's I made that haven't been able to be hung are in a Rubbermaid tub in my room. The one's I've given away, most of them have been hung.

CW: Is there anything else about quilts that you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed?

FH: You don't need any skill to do it. I didn't think I could do it, but you don't need any skill, you just need to be, kind of, not a perfectionist in the beginning, and just learn slowly, but, you don't need any skill, I think for me, I didn't think I could sew, but it's not about being able to sew or not, it's about being able to see color, and being able to be adventurous with fabric.

CW: Thanks very much, Francoise. We are concluding the interview, May 5, 2004.



“Francoise Hamlin,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,