Helen Allen




Helen Allen


Helen Allen has been quilting since about 1980 while she was attending night school. She belongs to a quilter’s bee called “White on White”,and is also an active member of her quilt guild Piecemakers. Allen believes a quilt should have meaning, which is why she hopes to make a remembrance quilt for her five grandchildren.




Christine Sparta


Helen Allen


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Milford, Delaware


Heather Gibson


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Heather Gibson (HG): Today is Wednesday, August 23, 2000. My name is Heather Gibson. I'm sitting here with Helen Allen. And we're doing the interview for the Quilters Save Our Stories [Quilters' S.O.S. - Save Our Stories.] project as part of The Alliance for the American Quilt [Quilts.]. We're at the Milford Library in Milford, Delaware. And Helen, let's start out talking about the quilt you brought today, starting with its title.

HA: The title is "Snowbound with Tanner and Chelsea," who are my grandchildren.

HG: Can you talk about the stories that go along with these eight blocks?

HA: Well, first I want to say, Confucius says that you should never leave this earth unless you have proof that you have once inhabited it. So my goal in life, since I got older, was to have a quilt for each one of my five grandchildren. So this is my remembrance quilt to my grandson, Tanner. We belong to a quilter's bee called "White on White," and we chose to do this as a group project. And it's "Snowbound." Now some of these [block patterns.] are from the book "Snowbound." But about four of the blocks I have designed myself. The one on the end, with the house, is of their home in Dover, Delaware. I went up and took a picture, then graphed it on graph paper, and then made the patterns myself. So that's their house up in Dover. And that's their Christmas tree in the front lawn, the next one. And then I drew a sleigh and a horse, and put that to graph paper and put it in one of the blocks. Then my grandson said, 'Grandmom, I want my dad and mom in this quilt, too.' So I quickly had to incorporate his father pulling him on the sled and Denise, his mother, pulling Chelsea on the sled. So he was quite happy with that.

HG: Can you talk about the process of designing you own quilt blocks?

HA: Well, first I took a picture, as I said. Then you have to graph it all to size, so the house isn't bigger than the people and so forth. I did do some talks in school, and I had to incorporate math and things of that sort. So this brought in a lot of the math that the kids had to use, and I told them they had to know their math and how to put it to graph paper, and cut up the graph paper and then put it on material and cut the material. I had to explain all that to them. I also did some embossed things with the snowballs down there. Each quilt that I do, I try to learn a different technique or something new to do. I don't like to do the same quilt over and over again. Now this quilt is machine appliquéd. It's hand quilted, though. So, mine was different than any of the others. Everyone else decided to do the hand appliqué. I did mine all by machine, and I had to keep all different colors in bobbins ready to go at any time. I had to change colors with the color that I was working on.

HG: How would you compare the experience of appliquéing by hand and by machine?

HA: Well, I like to do both. This, though, you have to be at your machine all the time. With the hand appliqué, you can take it in the living room and listen to your television or your radio. You can to it any time. But this, you have to stick to your machine and do this.

HG: You have some wonderful fabrics throughout this quilt. Tell me about your journey to find the correct fabrics and how they matched up and everything.

HA: Well, as you can tell, this is all "Homespun" material, which is very rustic. And it's called "Homespun" material. So, as I said, we had a group of about sixteen girls, and we were all working on the same quilt. So we swapped materials, and if you had a plaid that somebody wanted, 'Help yourself, take it.' So this way, when you work in a group, you can switch fabrics with each other, which is very nice and convenient. You don't have to go out and buy a quarter of a yard just for a small piece of material.

HG: And tell me about the actual quilting throughout the quilt.

HA: Here I used the grapevine pattern through the small border. And then, since it was a boy I didn't want anything flowery. So I just used straight grids on the margins, or the borders of it. Other than that, I just quilted around each one of the figures. In-the-ditch quilting, it's called. So it's not a quarter-of-an-inch out, that's shadow quilting. But this is just in-the-ditch quilting around each one of the figures and trees.

HG: And it was all by hand?

HA: It's quilted by hand, but machine appliqué.

HG: Okay. Why did you choose this quilt to bring to the interview today?

HA: I thought it was different because I think you've had a lot of hand appliqué quilts. And I thought maybe this would be a different technique that you haven't had before, machine appliqué.

HG: That's correct.

HA: And that's why I brought it.

HG: And you gave this quilt to your grandson--

HA: For Christmas.

HG: Now, does he have this on his bed at home? Or on special occasions?

HA: Only on special occasions. His mother won't let him use it. In fact, she was having her living room decorated, and the decorator saw this and just went wild over it. She told her that she hadn't seen anything like it, and she was just amazed. It was on a rack in the living room.

HG: So this will probably end up being an heirloom.

HA: Yes, I'm in the process of making them everyday quilts now since they don't want to use it. I had intended for him to use it, but she doesn't want him to, now.

HG: Tell me about how and where you learned to quilt.

HA: I would say about twenty years ago I took a course at night school in Milford, and that was my first attempt at quilting. I used to sew all of my daughter's clothing, and I had all those scraps of material left. So I decided that I would make her a remembrance quilt, and my first quilt was a remembrance quilt to my daughter, Joan. It's just a scrap quilt, just sewn--no pattern at all. And she can point to the different materials and say she remembered the dress that I made. I almost brought that with me, but I thought maybe you had a lot of those. And then after that I put it away until eight years ago, maybe ten years ago, I joined a quilt guild in Seaford--Delmarvelous Quilters. And when Ginny Glen started the one up here I transferred up here. That was eight years ago. And I've been quilting every since. I guess I've made sixteen quilts now.

HG: Can you tell me about the different quilts you've made, because you said you like to learn a new technique for each quilt. Tell me about some of your other ones.

HA: I know the medallion quilt. We had a mystery medallion class, and I took the center of that and then designed my quilt around it. And I do not like to put the pillows in the pillow shams, so I have designed a pillow sheet. I make an extra thing that goes over the top of the pillows. So I designed two of those, exactly alike, for my twin beds. So I've done that. I've done an all appliqué quilt. I've done the wedding white quilt, which is interesting. Back in the pioneer days, you remember, they used to make wedding quilts out West. You know all about that then? I've made that. I've done dimensional appliqué. Now that's not two quilts. I made two pictures. And that's all dimensional, where the flowers are all above the material. Have you seen that?

HG: This might be a good opportunity to tell me about your quillow that you brought with you today.

HA: Oh. Alright. I'll just tell you about it. Quillow is designed to take with you in a car, or for children- for them to use. And when it's all folded up, it's a pillow. So quillow is a name for a pillow and a quilt together. And when you take the pillow apart, it's a narrow quilt for children, or just to wrap up with. It's a little bit bigger than a lap quilt. It's longer. It's six feet long. You make it, and you quilt it. And I chose to do mine in flannel, because I think it's much softer than material.

HG: I'm looking now at the quillow that Helen has brought, and it is very soft and cozy. We are touching it right now. Are there any quilts in your family history? Or quilters?

HA: No, there are no other quilters in my family. I'm the only one. I did take my granddaughter, Megan, to learn how to quilt down at Mare's Bears one summer. She made a lap quilt and took it to the Harrington Fair and got first prize. She got a blue ribbon.

HG: Oh my goodness.

HA: But she hasn't made any other quilts since then, I'm sorry to say. But she's got dibs on my sewing machines.

HG: I'm sure she'll get into it as she gets older.

HA: Yeah, I hope so.

HG: What's your first memory of a quilt, or do you have a first memory of a quilt? [pause.] Maybe since there were none in your family--

HA: No. There only other thing was a car robe that my mother had made by a quilter, I don't know who, for when the cars had no heaters. We used it always in the back seat of the car, when we went to Philadelphia or something. It was cold. It was made of left-over material. We used to have our clothes made by Mrs. Kinney in town. And we had a lot of velvets and a lot of wool. And they were all combined in a crazy quilt. So I do remember that. That's the only other quilt I can remember in the family.

HG: Well, that's great. So you've sewed pretty much all of your life.

HA: That's correct.

HG: Why did you wait so long to start quilting?

HA: It wasn't in fad, you know? [laughs.] It seems like it was just a forgotten thing to do. And then all of a sudden people started quilting, and we started quilting. Now quilting is really an art form. And you can see it in clothing and everything now. It's not just quilts. It's just so many other things that people are doing with quilting.

HG: Can you talk a little more about how quilting has metamorphosed?

HA: Well, I know over in Europe, when quilting first started- When I gave my talks in school I had to tell them where it started, and of course it started long before then, and they used hay in the quilts.

HG: As the batting?

HA: Yes. They'd make a pillow case open on one end, and they'd stuff it with either moss or straw, and they'd use it. You know why, because all they had was a fireplace! And of course, the further away you were from the fireplace, the colder you were. So they would use hay or moss and fill these pillowcases. In the spring, they'd dump all the stuff out and wash that, hang it up to dry. They'd use the casing form over again and again, and refill it for the next winter.

HG: Neat. Very utilitarian.

HA: Yes. And of course the pilgrims brought it over to the United States, and they used their quilts even to partition off their places in the ships. And then after that, they traveled West. And the wagon trains used them, and that's how they came out West. And in a small town, if a girl was getting married, they'd write back East and say, 'Susan's getting married. We're making her a white wedding quilt. We're making blocks. Would you make one and send it back to us?' So they'd send them the material and they'd make the block, and they'd send it back. And then they'd have the bee. And the ladies in the town would finish the quilt for the bride-to-be. And that would be their remembrance from all their relatives back east. And I think Mary Jo will show you a wedding quilt in a few minutes.

HG: That's about the history of quilts in American history. How do you think quilts are important to women's history?

HA: Well, they were their only social event, really, in pioneer days and days gone by. It was their get-together. That's where they gossiped, and where they learned all the things about life that they could from each other. It was really a social event that they came together and quilted with each other. And I think it has helped women's independence, too. Because this was something they could do themselves, and it didn't require a man.

HG: What about quilting as a social process today? Do you think it's still important?

HA: Yes, we have a bee that meets once a month. And we get together and have a great time. Every Saturday that we meet. And our quilt guild--We have had one big show, and next year we're having another show. We're getting our quilt guilds together. In fact, Piecemakers- our quilt guild- started it first to get the quilt guilds together to share ideas, to show what they're doing, and just share everything together. So it's helping the community of women get together.

HG: It seems that Sussex County is really lucky to have three very active quilt guilds.

HA: Well, we have more. We have Ocean Waves in Rehoboth, Helping Hands [Dover.], Delmarvelous, Piecemakers, and there's another one down in Rehoboth. I can't think of the name right now.

HG: Now, this is a question we usually ask in all the interviews- What do you think makes a great quilt?

HA: A great quilt has to have a meaning. It has to mean something to you, doing it, and the person receiving it. So there's a harmony between the two of you. You know why you're doing it, and the joy you get out of doing it, and the joy of seeing someone else receive it.

HG: What do you think about the importance of quilting in relation to family?

HA: In my family, I think it's brought some of us closer together, especially my grandkids and myself. I really do. Because my oldest grandson--I made him a Lone Star quilt. It's in their living room on a quilt-rack, too. When he started to go to college, he wanted his quilt. So he was going to Gettysburg, so I made him a flannel quilt just to take to college. Now the rest of them expect it. So now I have to make one for my granddaughter who will start college next year. She wants one. So I'm going to have to make more quilts, flannel quilts for college.

HG: Did he want to learn to quilt, or he wanted a quilt?

HA: He wanted a quilt.

HG: Oh, okay. He wanted you to make him one.

HA: Oh yes. [laughs.]

HG: Why is quilting important to your life?

HA: Well, as I said, I started out with the crazy quilt with my daughter's material. And then I put it aside, and then I started quilting. And then, just as we started our quilt guild here, my son died--my oldest son. And if it hadn't been for quilting, I don't know if I would've made it. It gave me something to do to take my mind off of it. So quilting has really saved me. And I took a job as treasurer in the quilt guild, which also helped. And it's just been a godsend to me.

HG: I've heard that before, that quilting is a sort of therapy when you're going through something terrible.

HA: Yeah, it really is.

HG: How do you think the art of quilting can be preserved for the future? Or do you think that it needs to be preserved?

HA: Yes, I think it does because, as with everything else in life, it'll go in a cycle. And I think sometimes, in the future maybe, quilting will be less noted. I don't know. But I think it needs to be, so people can see what other people can do with their hands and their machines.

HG: Do you have a favorite part of the quilting process?

HA: Yes, I don't like to put them together. It's so time consuming quilting by hand. I like to design them, and I like to put the tops together--better than the actual quilting together.

HG: Interesting. Why is that, do you think? I don't mean to push you, but--

HA: Well, this you keep doing over and over again, but the hand quilting- you just keep doing it. But this, you design and it's different and it's not the same thing over and over again. But doing six or eight little teeny stitches, you know and pulling it, it's time consuming.

HG: Have you ever had a quilt sent away to be quilted by someone else?

HA: Yes, I have up in Dover. I had the Lone Star quilt done by the Amish. One of the ladies in our group has a machine, and I have had a machine-quilted quilt done. I've done the top and everything, but then I've had it machine quilted--which I think holds up better if the kids are going to use them. So I've had that done, too.

HG: Can your quilts be washed in the washer and dryer?

HA: I wash them, and I don't necessarily put them in the dryer. Right now I do have my son's quilt at home. He has a rip in his flannel one. And then I will wash it and he will take it back to college. I don't trust my daughter-in-law to wash it. [laughs.] No, she really doesn't want to. She'd rather I did it, because if anything went wrong, I'm to blame. But I use a special quilt soap, and stuff which she doesn't have at home.

HG: What has happened to the other quilts that you've made?

HA: Well, each one has a quilt of remembrance. So that would be ten. I have three at home for myself. I have the top done to Sharon's quilt. I have three down in the cedar closet that no one has claimed yet--that aren't being used at all. But I use three of them myself. I use them not only as a quilt, but as a coverlet.

HG: How do you feel about the contemporary practice of putting quilts in museums? Have you ever seen a quilt in a museum?

HA: Yes. I think it's great. It helps the public know what's being done in quilting, and what can be done. The designs and the art form that's used to design these quilts that these ladies make the patterns for us to use. As I said, this is a pattern [pointing to block.] from the same lady. And this one.

HG: Okay. I think all the questions I had in mind have been answered. Do you have anything that you want to add for the interview? [shakes head no.] Okay, well I've really enjoyed looking at this wonderful quilt. You have some great stories associated with it, and Tanner is really lucky to have it.

HA: Thank you.

HG: It is August 23, 2000, and this is Heather Gibson signing off at the Milford Library. Thanks.



“Helen Allen,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/22.