Helen Sager




Helen Sager




Helen Sager


Le Rowell

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Moda Fabrics


Chautauqua, New York


Tomme Fent


Le Rowell (LR): So, this is Le Rowell, and today's date is October 9, 2007, and it is 4:55 p.m., and I'm conducting an interview with Helen Sager for the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories, a project of the Alliance for American Quilts. And we are in the Brasted House Bed and Breakfast at Chautauqua, New York. And Helen and I are in one of the lovely bedrooms in this bed and breakfast. So, thank you very much for coming.

Helen Sager (HS): Thank you.

LR: I really appreciate it. And tell me about the quilt that you selected to bring.

HS: It's one of the pieces that show cases my work the best. It's some of the best work that I've ever done. It's hand appliqué. It's all hand quilted. And the colors are colors that I don't usually use, but they made me happy.

LR: Talk a minute about the fabrics and the different colors in the fabrics.

HS: Most of my quilts are scrap quilts, and if you look at that closely, it is a scrap quilt. It's a controlled scrap quilt, and I didn't buy anything for it. I chose the colors out of the stash that I have. I'm just very pleased with the way it came out.

LR: Describe some of the colors and the fabrics.

HS: Well, it's called a Texas Rose, and it has the bright oranges and red-oranges and the desert colors that I associate with Texas, and now it lives in Texas, at my daughter's house.

LR: And so, these are fabrics that you have collected over time?

HS: Yes.

LR: And what colors do you normally work with? You said you don't work with these colors.

HS: I normally work with pinks and mauves and tan, and so to use bright yellow and bright orange was really a leap.

LR: So what was the inspiration then? Because your daughter lives in Texas or what inspired this?

HS: A magazine picture. It's a pattern put out by Piece O' Cake Designs. They showed it in similar colors and that's what I liked and that's what I did.

LR: And it's all hand done?

HS: It's all hand done.

LR: All hand done. And do you have batting?

HS: I have a very thin batting. In most of my wall hangings, I use Thermolam, which is a--that's not right, I use Thermore.

LR: Thermore?

HS: Thermore.

LR: Is that--how do you spell that, T-h-e-r--

HS: m-o-r-e. I think it's a Hobbs product, and it's very, very light. It gives dimension but it doesn't give puffiness, and you can hand quilt through it effortlessly.

LR: So this quilt lives where?

HS: It lives just outside of Dallas, Texas, with my [oldest,] daughter Christine [Gomez.], and I visit it about twice a year. She wanted to give it back to me when I told her that I had chosen it for this interview. She thought I should have it back. If it was my touchstone quilt, I should have it, and I told her that I was very happy with it where it was and I'll just visit it.

LR: Well, it's a lovely, a lovely piece. So you like hand quilting and hand work?

HS: My first love is hand appliqué. I really enjoy doing hand appliqué. I find it relaxing. I do a lot of machine work but it's more because you can get it done in a hurry. It's not what feeds my spirit. The hand work, the hand quilting, the hand appliqué--I don't hand piece. I piece on the machine. I'm doing a hand appliqué piece right now that is a gate, a black wrought-iron gate, appliquéd on a watercolor background, and it's taken from a picture that I took in St. Petersburg, Russia. And I'm very pleased with the way that came out. The appliqué is done and I'm hand quilting it now.

LR: And what are your plans for that quilt?

HS: I don't know. I don't have a real place to hang it up, but it's something I'm going to keep.

LR: What is your first memory of a quilt?

HS: When I was a young expectant mother, I bought the kit from Lee Wards, was the company at the time, and it was an appliqué quilt top for a baby. And I started that for the first baby and finished it for the second baby. I don't have it anymore; it's gone, who knows where. It's gone. But that was the first. My mother didn't quilt. As I've heard many times, I think it skipped a generation. Her mother quilted. Her mother quilted very utilitarian. She used the method, the hand-quilting method with heavy thread where the stitches were large. I have one of her quilts that she did.

LR: And what, is it a large quilt?

HS: A bed quilt.

LR: A bed quilt. And where did she live, what area?

HS: She lived in Ohio. She was a Quaker lady.

LR: And the pattern, do you know?

HS: The pattern is a Four Patch. It's a variation of a Four Patch block. It's not a very controlled pattern. I think she used what she had. At one of our quilt shows, we had a display of generations, and I had her quilt and I had one that my mother made. I said my mother didn't quilt, but she did a little. And I had one that she made and I had mine and I had my daughter's and I had my granddaughter's. So we had five generations of my family in quilts.

LR: Tell me about your granddaughter's quilting.

HS: My granddaughter [Abbi.] was just a little girl when she did this quilt and she's not done one since. She's a teenager now and far too busy to be bothered by quilting, but she was going to have a baby brother, and I helped her make a quilt for him. And that's the one that went in the quilt show. She was four.

LR: Oh, yes. [laughs.]

HS: So it was very, very primitive. As they say in Australia, it was 'naive.' And my [second.] daughter [Audrey's.] quilt was the only quilt that she ever made, it was a Dahlia quilt, which is quite an undertaking for someone who doesn't do much quilting. When she was working on that, we, my husband and I, would go to her house for dinner one night a week. We had a set day and we would go there and we would work on her quilt and have dinner. We did this week after week after week until her quilt was done. It was quite an accomplishment.

LR: So did you take quilting lessons? Do you consider yourself self-taught?

HS: I taught myself to quilt but I've learned many, many things from other people. When I taught myself to quilt, I was a farm wife and I didn't have anyone to teach me. I had always sewn everything, and I wanted to quilt and I just did. Then I went to work at a quilt store and learned rotary cutting and all those methods. And I've taken lots of classes from both local people and famous people. You can always learn something.

LR: Tell me about working in the quilt store and where was it?

HS: It was in Westfield [New York.]; it was Going To Pieces. And I went there to take a class and the girl that owned the store with her mother was teaching the class. And at the end of the class, she said to me, 'Would you like to work? Would you like to come to work?' And I told her I would think about it, and I said that I would. And when her mother came in the next day, she said, 'Mom, I've hired a new girl and you're going to love her.' And I do; she's my best friend now and it's been twenty-five years.

LR: And you're still working in the quilt shop?

HS: No, the quilt shop closed. We don't have one very close anymore.

LR: How do you use your quilts in your home?

HS: I use them as bed quilts. I use them on the walls. I use them stacked in a pile in the corner. I have one bed in an extra bedroom that I have them piled high on. I just do all kinds of things. I have quilts that are well-loved. Everybody has to have a couch quilt.

LR: And do you have a special place where you make your quilts?

HS: I do. I have the world's best sewing room.

LR: Tell me about it.

HS: A few years ago, I was having some arthritis in my knees or some problem with my knees, and my husband, who's been a carpenter most of his life, said, 'Well, we'll build you a quilt--a sewing room downstairs,' because at that time I had to go upstairs to sew. And I thought that was a bit much but he convinced me and we built this beautiful quilt room, sewing room. And we put vaulted ceilings and a whole wall for designing and beautiful lighting. My grandson thinks I'm wealthy because I have two office chairs that roll around. That's his idea of wealth. [LR laughs.]
And it's just a beautiful room and it's off from the main living--our living room and our dining room and you don't have to go off by yourself to sew. I'm very fortunate.

LR: How many hours a week do you quilt?

HS: Oh, probably between twenty and thirty. I like to get up early. I get up about 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and that's my time, because my husband doesn't like to get up early. And I always sew between 5:00 and 7:00, 7:30 in the morning, every day. It's such a special time of day to me.

LR: Has your quiltmaking taken you through any difficult periods of your life?
HS: I don't think so, really. It's always there. It's an important part of my life that's always there. The friends that I've made because I'm a quilter have taken me through tough times. I had breast cancer a year ago, and I thank God for my friends.

LR: So what do you find most pleasing about quiltmaking?

HS: So many of the things that women do are here today and gone tomorrow. You can prepare a beautiful meal and it just disappears; it's gone. And you can clean your house so that it's spotless and turn around and the dust is following in behind you. And quilting, you make a quilt and it's there to enjoy, to see, and to have satisfaction from. It's my talent; it's my artistic expression.

LR: Are there any aspects of quilting that you do not enjoy?

HS: I don't like to mark them. Other than that, I guess I do, I love picking out the colors. Some of my group, my sew group, sometimes want me to help because they think I do a good job at that. I love picking out the colors. I like putting them together. I like quilting them. I guess I like it all.

LR: That's nice. Talk a minute about some of your quilt-related activities. I know you belong to a guild and a sewing group. Do you teach?

HS: I have taught before. When the quilt store in Westfield was open, I taught there some. I don't teach anymore. It's not something that I ever really enjoyed doing. I would rather be taught than be the teacher. We have a very special quilting group, a small quilting group. There are ten of us, and we've gotten together once a week for the last twenty years. We're closer than sisters. They're an important part of my life.

LR: And you are a member of the Westfield Quilt Guild, as well?

HS: Yes, I am.

LR: And what are your activities in that guild?

HS: I've kind of been coasting for a little while. I've been most of the officers at one time or another, President, and Secretary, and Vice President in charge of programs, and I've done all of that. And right now, I've been coasting. I've had some health problems. The most difficult position that I was in was the Vice President in charge of the national teachers. That was such a demanding position.

LR: What was involved in that position?

HS: Researching and getting them booked. That part was usually not much of a problem. And then making all the arrangements, their housing and their transportation. And we have never had the perfect place to have classes, and so that always was a problem, to find a good place. And the refreshments and there was just so much that went into making sure that everything went well. It was just the hardest. It was easier to be President. Oh, don't tell anyone I said that. [laughs.] They won't get anyone to do Vice President.

LR: It's okay. It'll be part of your interview. [laughs.] You mentioned on your quick questions that you won an award. Can you talk about that?

HS: I can. At one of our Westfield Quilt Guild shows, which we have every other year, I won Best of Show and Viewer's Choice for the same quilt. It is a beautiful king-size Triple Irish Chain with a scalloped border, and it was all hand quilted. And I wasn't the only one that liked it. The judges liked it and the public liked it. That was quite an honor.

LR: And where is that quilt now?

HS: On my bed, part of the time.

LR: You also have given quilts as gifts?

HS: I give away a lot of my quilts. I've had people approach me about buying. I have told them that I don't sell my quilts; I only give them to special people. At least here in this area, there's not a market for hand work, handmade quilts at a price that would be worth doing it. I'd rather give them away. I've given quilts to many, many, many people. I started when my children were little making flannel quilts with batting in them and with satin binding, and I have given--I wish I had kept track because I have given hundreds of those to new babies. And they're their 'blankie'; they're the ones they drag around. The satin binding I think is the pièce de résistance.

LR: It feels good.

HS: Yes. They're not fancy but the babies love them.

LR: Do you make wearable art?

HS: Not very much. I have done some. I've done a few jackets. Not a lot. Certainly not my first love.

LR: So, let's talk a minute about some of the design and the craftsmanship aspects of quiltmaking. What, for you, makes a great quilt?

HS: Well, I think it would have to be a combination of the color and the design. When I choose a pattern to make a quilt, I don't want a simple Four Patch; I want something that's a challenge. Right now, I'm working on a pieced shadow quilt that is a traditional star block that looks like it's three-dimensional. The shadow behind the star block just makes it look like it's about that thick [indicating.]. There's nearly a hundred pieces in each block, but that's the kind of challenge that I like. I know people, I know lots of people, who will look at a pattern and say, 'Well, I can't do that. That's got too many pieces in it.' And I always have to count the pieces. I always have to know how many pieces are in that quilt and how many I've done and how many pieces I still have to go.
LR: So you know how many pieces are in this?

HS: I would have when I was doing it. I don't know anymore.

LR: In this particular piece that you brought, you don't?

HS: Yes.

LR: What makes a great quiltmaker?

HS: I think the definition of a great quiltmaker could be so many different things. I don't think you have to be on an expert level to be a great quiltmaker. I think you could be a great quiltmaker and be a beginner. I think you put so much of yourself into a quilt. When I taught classes, I tried to encourage people to do their own thing, and I always told them there was no right and wrong. If they were more comfortable doing it this way, rather than the way the book said, do that because quilting is an art; it's not science.

LR: What were the classes that you taught? Were they beginning?

HS: Mostly beginning classes. I had a lady come to one of my beginning classes one time and it was a sewing machine class, and she was trying to sew her first seam and she couldn't understand why it didn't stay together. And she was such a beginner; she didn't know you had to have thread in the machine. Now that's a beginner.

LR: In what ways do you think quilts have meaning for, say, women's history in America?

HS: I think quilts have always been a way that women can express themselves, do something that they can be proud of and take satisfaction in. And like I said before, it's something that lasts. If we look back through history, that's a really interesting study to see how the quilts have survived and how they have changed through the years, just like my grandmother and her very utilitarian quilts.

LR: What are some of the quilts that have special meaning for you that you remember?

HS: I'm not sure I know what you mean.

LR: I was thinking if you look back in history and you look at certain quilts, are there any that you are particularly drawn to in a particular period of quiltmaking, Crazy Quilt period or the--

HS: I love the traditional blocks, the things that now they're making reproductions of, the Kansas Troubles. I love those kind of colors and those traditional blocks. I've done a Baltimore [Album quilt.]. Baltimore Albums are wonderful, and it's my appliqué, my love of appliqué. But the more primitive ones are the ones that really speak to me.

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

HS: I don't know that everything needs to be preserved. I think when I make a quilt and give it to my daughter or give it to a grandchild, that is a type of preservation. Of course, if we didn't have people doing projects like this [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.], we wouldn't have the history, so it is important. And the documentation is wonderful.

LR: Do you document every one of your quilts, as far as labeling?

HS: Yes. My husband thinks I'm fixated on labels on things. We were in a restaurant in downtown Chicago, and our waiter, I don't know how we talked about quilts, but our waiter had just been given some quilts that were his grandmother's. And somehow, during the course of the evening, he told me about them, and I made him promise to go home and make a label for each of them because they didn't have any documentation. And I convinced him that when he was gone, no one would know where they came from. So, I think that's very important. So many of the old quilts that you find don't have people's names on them or dates.

LR: It's true, and it's why this particular project is so important, that we have a record of quilt stories and the quiltmakers' stories. How do we encourage quilting in young people?

HS: I don't have an answer for that. My little granddaughter, [Elleigh.] she is my youngest grandchild, started kindergarten this year. She's five and she loves my fabric. And I put no restrictions on it. I have a display area or a storage area in my sewing room with angled shelves with flat boxes. Anything less than half a yard I fold up and it's in those boxes, and they're all arranged by color. Elleigh loves to take those out, she will take out twenty, thirty of them at a time and just play with them. She doesn't sew them together; she isn't particularly interested in sewing them together, but she plays with them. And almost always, when she comes to my house, she goes to my larger pieces of fabric and pulls one out and takes her jeans off and wraps this lovely fabric around and we pin it and that's her skirt for the rest of the day. She feels them, she handles them, and I think she'll come to want to sew them. I'm not pushing it, but I think she will.

LR: You've planted a nice seed.

HS: I think so. I hope so.

LR: Yes.

HS: I have a box of little two-inch squares and she plays with those, but she doesn't sew.

LR: But how does she play with the squares? Does she make designs or what does she do with those squares?

HS: She does. She likes to put them on the design wall--

LR: Oh.

HS: in a design. She does that quite a lot.

LR: You mentioned the design wall. This is in your studio?

HS: Yes.

LR: Is that how you work?

HS: Yes. Yes, my design wall is about ten feet square, and so I can put a whole quilt on the design wall. I had one very intricate [quilt.], color-wise, it was shaded from dark to light and every piece had to be just in the right place. And my husband ran the vacuum in there one day and blew the pieces off the wall. How can you scold the dear man for vacuuming? [laughs.]

LR: [laughs.] I have the feeling he's very supportive of your quiltmaking, so it's a positive impact on your husband.

HS: Yes.

LR: What are some of the trends that you see in quiltmaking, from the time you started to now and as we're moving into the future?

HS: I think it's less individual effort now. I think the machine quilting, the way the machine quilting started out, I think they're going more to--more creative, but when it started out, you could spot a machine-quilted quilt across the street because they all had that same overall meander design and they looked awful. I'm not against machine quilting. I do some. But I think when I started, I had a book and I had what I had. I didn't go out; I didn't have money to buy a whole lot of new fabric to make. I always used new fabric, but I didn't--I couldn't buy quilting fabric like I do today. So, my quilts were very different from the lady down the street. They were my quilts. And I think today you find; it seems to me as if you find a lot of repetition. You go to a quilt show and there's a lot of it that looks very, very similar.

LR: So, what is the future of quiltmaking? Do you forecast a good future?

HS: I do. I do. All of the time-saving gadgets that are available now have come about in my quilting lifetime. I remember the first time I used a rotary cutter. It was just amazing because before that, you cut every single little piece with a template. So, I think that opens it up to people who aren't willing to spend quite as many hours. There will always be those of us for whom that's part of the joy, the hours that go into it. I say to people--or they'll say, 'Well, it'd take me two years.' So? Does that matter?

LR: So, you see a bright future?

HS: Oh, yes. Yes.

LR: Good. Our time is just about up. Is there anything else that you would like to share about quiltmaking?

HS: Just I'm thankful that the Lord gave me the talent and the ability to create such wonderful things.

LR: Good. Okay. Well, thank you very, very much, Helen, for participating in the Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories project, and our interview was concluded at 5:35 p.m. So, thank you very, very much.



“Helen Sager,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/1892.