Helene Blanchet




Helene Blanchet




Helene Blanchet


Karen Musgrave

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Oyster Pond, Nova Scotia, Canada


Kim Greene


Karen Musgrave (KM): This is Karen Musgrave, and I am doing a Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories interview with Hélène Blanchet. She is in Nova Scotia, Canada and I'm in Naperville, Illinois so we are conducting this interview over the telephone. Today's date is January 14, 2009. It is now 9:20 in the morning. Thank you so much for taking time to do this interview with me.

Hélène Blanchet (HB): You are welcome.

KM: Please tell me about your quilt.

HB: It's a little square that I made. I used a piece of wool that I had dyed about twelve years ago with goldenrod, so it has that natural color and then I embroidered a moose on it that comes from petroglyphs from one of the parks that we have here. It is an ancient petroglyph that is pre-contact that the M'ikmaq people would have done. It is a petroglyph of the moose and then I also put a little symbol on that which is the M'ikmaq symbol as it appeared on this rock face before contact as well. I thought that might be significant since we were talking about our ancestors, and I thought why not go way back. That is what I selected.

The reason I chose to do a piece this way was because I guess to me it is important the connection, we have with the First Nations people of the place where we live. All of us come from all over the place and when we talk about textiles, we often talk about more contemporary things and it always seems to be related to white culture or exotic cultures that are away from us, and I think we forget about what happened before we came here and all those people. That is one of the reasons.

The other reason I guess is because we are moving away from where I live now. I live in Oyster Pond in Nova Scotia, and this is where we raised our family, and we had a really wonderful time here. We decided to leave this area and we are moving to more of a remote area in Cape Breton and it is actually a very remote area and I'm a little intimidated about living there for many reasons and one of them is because I see it as a place where we will be moving into the living room of a wilderness area, and we will be the guests of this pristine landscape. So, I'm kind of hoping that it is moose country where we happen to be moving, so I'm kind of hoping that the animals and the plants and everything else there will not totally reject us so we can live a little bit more in harmony. The moose has a personal symbol for me in that place in the sense that it represents Cape Breton where we will be moving.

I guess the Ancestry Quilt Project [a quilt group that meets at the American Indian Center in Chicago, Illinois.] really appealed to me when I first read about it because, even though I'm not of native descent, I do think that when we talk about quilting we always forget about the First Nations People, the first needlewomen that were here and so I always have an interest in trying to seek out that kind of work - the traditional stuff and also the more contemporary stuff from people that were originally here. And I find a real lack of resources in that respect, so I wanted to just contribute a little bit. Initially I thought this was an American project and I thought well even though I'm Canadian I'm going to try to take part simply because I think that the native people, traditionally their boundaries were not the same geographic boundaries as we have here and so I don't see how that, the fact that we are in different countries really matters when we are talking about ancestors and especially native ancestries whereas the boundaries are totally different. That was one of the reasons I thought well I should be able to take part in this because the people from here would also be part of the North American native group.

KM: Tell me, what is the title of the quilt?

HB: It is "Tiya mi ?kima ?ki" which means M'ikmaq moose in M'ikmaq and that is the petroglyph that I used.

KM: You said that you read about the Ancestor Quilt Project that meets at the American Indian Center in Chicago?

HB: Yes, I do a lot of natural dyeing and I found it on a natural dyeing workshop, or not a blog but one of those things [laughs.] on the computer.

KM: A Yahoo group.

HB: Something like that. It was advertised in there so I just clicked on it, so my initial connection was from the natural dye community.

KM: You sent the piece off, so you do not have your little quilt?

HB: No, I have already sent it.

KM: What are they going to do with it?

HB: They are going to put it together. They are putting together several quilts. They made a request for different blocks from different people from all over I guess the Americas and they are going to piece them together. They have different themes, one is a people theme, an animal theme, and a plant theme and so each, they will have at least three quilts and they piece them together and then they will bind them with a natural fabric on the back and then just create these beautiful quilts that they hope to showcase to different quilt shows and different venues throughout I guess North America. I guess sort of highlight a connection that we all have to the native people that initially came here.

KM: Tell me about your interest in quilt making.

HB: I've always been interested in textiles, and I guess I started making quilts when I first had children nineteen years ago. I just kind of played with it on and off and then about three years ago I made each of my kids nice woolen quilts because we have a cold house. And I was happy with them, so I sent them off to the Canadian national show and one of them was accepted into the show and I even got a little prize so that sort of encouraged me to keep going. The past three years I've been more seriously involving myself in quilt making and really trying to make a go of it and exploring and just trying to improve my skills.

I'm particularly interested in textiles from all over the world. I always have been. I was fortunate enough to do quite a bit of traveling and so when I do my quilts, I try to mix different, different people's work together, the ethnic styles. One of my interests, I find that it is really amazing how people all over the work, from totally different places or different places in time will have similarities in their work. For example, I made a quilt that was based on M'ikmaq beadwork here in Nova Scotia and button blankets from the Northwest Coast. These are both ancient traditions and these people would never have had contact way back when and yet when you put them together you can see that they fuse together well. So that kind of thing, the ethnic groups, just the whole intrigue of their textiles. I kind of play with that. Right now, I'm just trying to get improve my skills and hopefully maybe someday make a bit of money at it. [laughs.] I'm just starting right now.

KM: How many hours a week do you quilt?

HB: Probably twenty to thirty hours a week. That is because it is all of the time that I have as I'm busy with other things. So as life gets a little slower, with fewer responsibilities then I can put myself more and more into my work. We will be moving to a remote area and living off grid and so I expect that in the next few years I won't be doing much quilting at all because I will be busy setting up house, but once we are set up then I can do it full time. I'm particularly interested in working with natural fibers and natural dyes and all my work is handmade and so just really the old-fashioned way but not necessarily making old fashioned quilts. Again, that has to do with how people have traditionally worked by hand all over the world, so they are not necessarily North American quilts I think, but I guess say art quilts that are sort of a fusion of different groups.

KM: You do everything by hand?

HB: Yes.

KM: Tell me about your creative process. Do you sketch things out?

HB: No, I'm trying to learn how to draw because I think it would really help if I could sketch things out but I'm not very good at that so usually I just comb through books, art books is a big one and also when I'm dyeing my own cloth, I will get inspiration from that. When I see it all together an idea will come. I usually, I fill notebooks with things I've written down, but I don't sketch as of yet. Mostly I look at art books and things that I've traveled and all the pieces I've collected in my travels to learn techniques. I don't have any formal training in textiles or anything like that so I try to take workshops when I can but there are not many available to me where I live, so mostly I go to books in the library.

KM: Why is quilt making important to you?

HB: I just enjoy it at this point. I've always worked with textiles. I'm just drawn to it. I, I initially started making them because I liked the idea of people using heavy blankets on their beds rather than having the heat turned up at night and just having nice comfortable blankets to snuggle under so for me there is an environmental side to the importance of a quilt, and they are also very personal. No matter who made it or how it is made, they are all very personal, so I think people enjoy them more. I, yah and I just like cloth really.

KM: Tell me more about your travels and the textiles that you've--

HB: We have three children, and we home-schooled our kids. My husband is an IT [information technology.] consultant and about fifteen years ago he was asked to start traveling with his job and he accepted on the condition that we, his family, could travel with him. They accepted so we started going all over the place and mostly in the United States. We live in a very small rural area in Nova Scotia so we would be going to large cities where we had access to wonderful museums and art galleries and libraries and all those fun things, so we would get immersed in the city life and having access to better, actually to lots of things we don't have access to here.

That worked well for a while and then eventually we decided that we wanted to travel where we wanted to go and not where the company wanted to send us. He took a leave of absence and we decided to go across the Americas. We drove across Canada, United States, and then we left our car at the border and started taking buses and kept going south until we hit Tierra del Fuego and then we worked our way back up again. We were gone for about a year and then came home for a little while and then we decided we liked it so much, so we left, and we just traveled all over India for three months. By the time we came back our kids were teenagers, and it was a bit of a different deal and we decided we didn't want to travel any more. We put that aside.

In all those trips we were backpacking and using public transit and staying in small little places. We are country people, so we prefer the small villages as opposed to the large centers. With that we just basically, we were traveling but we were trying to avoid the big touristy areas. Just by seeing day to day people how they live and just the colors of the clothes and just the very ordinary everyday things are what appealed to me. Of course, I love the great museums, but those things are a little inaccessible for me, but when I see what ordinary people do in different cultures that totally intrigues me and when I see these beautiful, happy, bright and divine things, even though people appear to live difficult lives there is a spirit in people that drives them to create these wonderful items. That is what I like to try to capture, is the spirit that people have when they make things, even though they may not have a particular skill they do it anyway. I guess it is folk art is what really appeals to me, and people have done this forever. There have always been people who have been driven to create even though they don't have fancy tools or lots of training, they do it anyway. That is magical, so that is what appeals to me. These different cultures, every day ordinary people's work. Even though I don't have a lot of training I don't apologize for it. For that reason, I think I'm one of those people who is also driven to do these things and so when I try to do.

KM: You said you entered a piece in the National Canadian Quilt Show.

HB: Yes.

KM: Tell me more about Canadian quilts.

HB: I'm quite new at all of this. I've been involved for about three years now and I'm just really finding out what is going on. It is quite big, it is not as big as in the United States, which is a little bit frustrating for me because I would prefer to be able to show more often in Canada, but it is growing, and it is wonderful. You have everything from art quilts to the very traditional to people who are replicating antique quilts and using all different varieties of materials. Some are trained artists, and some are people who have been doing it for generations and for some, it is the fifth generation and all of that is very exciting. There is one national show, and it changes from city to city every year, so we can't always get to them, but everybody has a chance to travel the country. It is a great way to meet other quilters and to see what is going on across the country. It is so big here. I'm from Eastern Canada but I don't really have much affinity with Western Canada, so it is nice when you have a national show to really spend time with people that are from so far away and just to see what you do have in common. That kind of thing. Of course, their vision of Canada would be different than mine because they come from such different places. That is really interesting as well.

KM: What are you working on right now?

HB: Right now, I'm working on a Japanese quilt. I work mostly with wool and cloth that I've dyed, and it is really hard to do fine hand quilting in thick fabric, so I decided I wanted to learn how to perfect my stitch work so I thought I would try some Sashiko. If anything will do it, that should do it. I'm just finishing up a large Sashiko quilt that I've done by hand, and I'm pleased with it. I'm getting the hang of it, even fine stitches. Working with such thick fabric I think it will help me with my woolen quilts. I also do pictorial quilts and I've got a couple of pieces in a show in California right now that is supposed to be on this coming weekend. That is fun too. I have a couple ideas for pictorial quilts and bed quilts. I tend to go between the two. Once I finish doing this Japanese one, I will be working on a piece, a pictorial. That will be all made with fabrics that I've dyed myself and it will be a picture of where we live now. Before leaving I want to make sort of a memory quilt for our family. It will be a picture of our house and the big tree and what we do in our yard when we are here and all that comes with it. I guess it will be a bit of a folk-art piece. I'm dyeing cloth for that now.

KM: Is there any aspects of quilt making that you don't enjoy?

HB: I don't really enjoy doing geometric quilts. The very traditional ones with very fine points and very exact. I have tremendous difficulty with those, and I find them really frustrating to work with. I've tried because I think they are a really great exercise for me to better my skills, but I have to admit that is one part that I really find work as opposed to fun. I much prefer to do something that is freehand. I don't work with a machine very often. I do once in a while, but mostly I work by hand because I'm a bit of a luddite [laughs.] so I get frustrated easily. I kind of stay away.

KM: Your pictorial quilts, are they appliquéd?

HB: Yah, they would be a mixture of appliqué and lots of embroidery and bead work and all kinds of things. I'm playing with dyes now so when I do pictorial quilts, I make them out of cotton because cotton is easier to manipulate than wool and then I will use synthetic dyes for those so I can practice Shibori and all those other types of dye techniques and incorporate those into the pictorial quilt. I will add whatever, branches or whatever I feel like putting in there. They tend to have a lot of embroidery on them.

KM: Describe where you work.

HB: I have a studio in my basement, and I have a couple of tables and two display walls and lots of shelves around the periphery of the room. The light's not the best but it is a great room to have. This is the first time I actually have a studio and I've had it for three years now, so it is absolutely wonderful. It's the full size of the house. I'm all set up.

KM: What does your family think of your quilt making?

HB: They are really encouraging and supportive and we are hoping that I will be able to make a bit of money at it eventually, so right now everyone understands that it is a learning process for me. They are really great that way and they are good at giving me constructive criticism and all that. It works really well.

KM: How did you find out about the show in California?

HB: For the past two years I've been trying to get my work out there, to try getting a bit of recognition because I don't have any background or formal training so I'm trying to make a bit of a name for myself. By going onto the internet and I go through all the shows that are out there and if there is a show that I think I have a piece that would be suited for, I will submit it and sometimes I get accepted into these shows. Then you go from there. That is how I found the show in California, just through what I found on the internet. So far it is working. I'm getting a bit of a resume, so it is good. I have my work appraised when they are at shows so it gives me a sense of how realistic it is for me to be pursuing this, that I can make a living at it. And the feedback is really good and also for the shows, whether or not I win it doesn't matter, I always get really good feedback from the judges and that gives me, it tells you your strengths and weaknesses and then I can just work on those weaknesses. It really helps to give me direction in my work. So, I think I will keep pursuing the shows for a little bit longer until I feel more confident in my own work. I do lack some confidence in getting my work out there. The shows help in that way.

KM: Tell me about the appraisal process.

HB: I actually haven't been there, but I do just fill out a form and I guess they look at it and the people are qualified appraisers with some background. They compare the work to other work that is in that region. For example, I've been told there are quite a few quilters who do hand work in Eastern Canada as opposed to the Western Canada and so hand work might be valued a little less in Eastern Canada than it might be out west simply because there are so many people who do it here. That kind of thing. So, these are things that I need to know, and one person compared my work to folk art, and I was surprised to see that, that she considered it folk art so that would give it another venue as well. I guess they look at technique and they look at, compared to similar quilts or art that is in that region, what it is going for and give you a value for it.

KM: What advice would you offer someone starting out?

HB: In quilt making? Oh! Just enjoy yourself and just do whatever you like to do! I think it is important to belong to a quilt guild just to give you a sense of that it is worth it, because it is an awful lot of work and you can get discouraged, but when you see the work that other people are doing. I find quilt guilds are so encouraging. They support one another and they also provide venues that you can see other people's work and gage your own and see which direction you would like to go and things you like and things you don't like and that kind of thing. Get involved with a quilt group if you can, and that doesn't mean you have to sew with people, but of course you can if you would like to do that. Otherwise, just do whatever it is that you like and certainly you will learn from it. Just enjoy it, that is the main thing to make sure you enjoy it.

KM: Do you belong to a quilt guild?

HB: I do, but it is in the city, so it is about an hour away for me so this time of year I don't go very often, and I don't like to sew with other people, so I just go for the meetings. It is a large guild, about eighty people that go regularly. It is mostly to see what is going on in the community and see what other people are working on. They have a show and tell there, and they get speakers in and that kind of thing. It sort of keeps me in the loop in what is going on in Nova Scotia. I go whenever I can.

KM: What is the name of the group?

HB: The Mayflower Quilt Guild.

KM: How do they respond to your work?

HB: I haven't shown it, I'm too shy. There is a quilt show coming up so I will have a piece in that for the first time. I don't know. [laughs.] My work is a bit different from most people, I think some people will really like it and others will think it is a little odd. [laughs.]

KM: I think that is probably true of everyone's work though.

HB: That, you are right for sure.

KM: I don't think it is any different. Going off the grid, you've built this up and now you're going to go off the grid. Do you think it will take a while for you to catch back up?

HB: We actually just have a cabin right now, so we will have to grow food and all that kind of thing. We have to focus on our living, the way our lifestyle will be over the next few years. The winters are going to be quite severe and quiet so that is when I think I will be doing quilting. The good thing is I do it by hand so that I will be able to do. I will probably just do it in the winter months for a while until I see how much work living off grid is. How much it takes up of my time. Once the farm is going and all that kind of stuff, for the next five years or so I suspect that I won't be quilting very much. Right now, I'm taking advantage of the time that I have here to really hone my skills and learn as much as I can and use the internet and all those kinds of things. When I don't have access to those, I'm sure I will still have lots of ideas and I will be able to make a few quilts.

KM: What size do you typically work in?

HB: Sorry?

KM: What size are your quilts typically? Or do you have a typical size?

HB: I don't really. I've made a few bed quilts and my pictorial quilts tend to be about 40 inches by 40 inches. Yeah, I do quite a few wall quilts now because I have a lot of ideas and I'm trying to develop techniques, so I don't want to work on too many really big pieces. I do like to work on the big pieces just because I'm trying to train myself to keep my interest up from start to finish and I find with a couple of bed quilts I've done I get bored or I find it tedious toward the end and that is not good, so I need to make them, so I'm interested all the way. Big quilts are challenging in that respect and I'm figuring it out too. This Japanese quilt I'm making for example I thoroughly enjoyed that the whole time and I think that has to do with the actual stitching that I've been doing. I'm still in the learning process.

KM: Do you plan to do anything more with the ancestry quilt project?

HB: Ideally, I'd love to, but it depends on my time because I'm working on a couple of things now, yah so it really depends on what their deadlines are and whether or not I can actually make the time to make another piece.

KM: I don't get the impression they have a deadline.

HB: No? I thought it was February.

KM: Oh okay.

HB: If it is February, I don't think I will, but if it were an ongoing thing, I would love to contribute another piece. I really enjoyed it and I really think it is important too. The first needlewomen are often forgotten about. Other than maybe Navajo rugs or something, you never hear about textiles, native textiles, very much, a little bit of beadwork but not much and I think that is such a shame because it is such a rich tradition there. This project really can help bring that to the foreground.

KM: How do you want to be remembered?

HB: Oh dear [laughs.] I have no idea. That I was a good person? I don't think in those terms very much.

KM: What do you think makes a great quilt?

HB: Makes a great quilt. It has to have sparkle in that it makes you want to look at it, that it makes you want to touch it. Because it is textile, and textiles are tactile and so I think that is important that you want to touch it and that you are drawn to look at it and not just look beyond it and just see it as a blanket on a couch, but to actually really want to look at it. For me that is often color, I like a lot of bright coloring. It doesn't have to be, I love the quilts that are just one piece of cloth with the fine quilting all over it. Anything that really draws your eye to look at it, sparkle. If it is technically well made as well. I think they don't have to be perfect, it is fine if they are not, to have that pizzazz that makes you want to spend time with them. I think that is the magic of quilts that you just want to be with them.

KM: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we conclude?

HB: No. I can't think of anything.

KM: I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me.

HB: You are very welcome.

KM: We will conclude our interview at 9:56.


“Helene Blanchet,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1730.