Helen Ridgway




Helen Ridgway




Helen Ridgway


Helen Kamphuis

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

Mary Persyn


Houston, Texas


Helen Kamphuis (HK): This is Helen Kamphuis. Today's date is the 3rd of November. 12:09 pm. I'm conducting an interview with Helen Ridgway. Hello, for the quilters S.O.S., Save Our Stories at Project of the Alliance for American Quilters and am I allowed to call you by your first name, Helen?

Helen Ridgway (HR): Please.

HK: Helen and I are at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. Helen will tell you about the quilt you bought today. Could you please explain?

HR: Well, what I want to talk about because my quilt that is in the book, The Lone Star Legacy , is a group quilt and this reminds me of that quilt also. I want to talk about our bee and how our group works together. This quilt is called "Fairy Frenzy" and it started as a quilt with five balloons and a big bow at the bottom. And since you're looking at it, you can tell it looks nothing like that with a big bow at the bottom.

HK: No, No. [laughing.] What part is the balloons? [more laughter.]

HR: Well we were all charged to make a balloon and there are 8 of us in the group. We came up with the idea just by drawing out ideas and one of our members drafted this pattern with these balloons. We thought that would be cute and we've always made a quilt together. And we've been together about ten years. We go on a retreat every year for four days in a B&B;,. and we kind of come up with ideas to start our quilt together. So we all went home from this meeting and we were all supposed to make something that looked like a balloon. So we were just doing little ideas. I remember well that I only did a quarter of mine because I thought, 'Gosh, that got pretty big,' and it was going to be round. I was going to have four of those. They call me the anal person in our group, because I like good points and everything to work together. Some of them are way more artsy than I am. I consider myself a traditional quilter. I did that one with all those pieces at the top. I'm exhausted by the time I get around to this, but I brought mine and a couple of people made little ones that you see down here. They really do look like small balloons. Then I think the rest of these were made later. When we brought them together we thought, 'I think those look like flowers, not like balloons. Why don't we make a garden?' So we scrapped the bow, we scrapped the balloons, and we decided to make a garden. We still didn't have fairies in it at all but we all started using--I hate to tell you--ugly fabrics that we had in our stash and we put all these fabrics that we thought were ugly fabrics together and made all of these flowers. They are all paper pieced and then appliquéd onto the background. We had a hard time coming up with the background and somebody had this green batik in their stash so they gave it to us so we did that and then we started putting stems on the flowers, we started fraying some of them, we thought that was cute. We turned one of them upside over at the leaves, and then we decided what were we going to do with the bottom of this thing. Then somebody said, 'If it's a garden, we probably need some grass.' So we took all of those greens and we put fusible on the back of them and then we kind of swirled them and put all of that green there. We still didn't have a way to stop it. So we must have worked on ending this quilt at the bottom for three months. We did different things, we came up with different fabrics, we came up with different ideas, and then you see this one right here is something that I had and it was definitely old fabric. We cut out pieces of it and put it down there. Then we decided to scallop the bottom and then we decided to put all of this in there.

HK: What made you choose the ladybugs?

HR: [laughing.] Then somebody said, 'I think I see the fairies poking out. I think that would be a good idea.' So she handpainted all of these fairy faces. Then we made the wings and we put those behind the grass. And then she put this one flying off the edge over there. And then somebody said, 'Well I have these ladybugs and we put some of those on there. Then somebody said, 'I think we should do these mirrors, and we put those on there. It was just a conglomeration that took us about 18 months to make.

HK: Why do you choose to work together?

HR: Because we love each other. We've been together all this time. We meet once a month and then we go on this retreat once a year. We've just had a bond, you know? There were eight of us originally, and then one of our members died. And then we got another one, somebody in her place. And then we've had two other members move away. And we've gotten new people over the years. But we all seem to get along, we all have different talents, strengths. We decided to put rickrack on. We thought that was cute. And that's how we have done quilts together over the years.

HK: And you always choose to do projects together or do you also make your own?

HR: We definitely all make our own quilts. And we bring them to our meetings for people to help us and to critique and say ,'You know, you might want to do this,' or 'That's how to do this.'

HK: You just mentioned that you're a traditional quilter, this is a little bit more arty. How is that for you to be working in two kind of different areas?

HR: Well, it's really fun and exciting. They have stretched me to be more artsy. I don't think that I have any talent, I can just make seams correctly. I never sewed on a sewing machine in my life until quilting. I was a hand quilter, I mean a hand sewer. I made all of my daughters clothes by hand, I did the rolling and whipping and all that French sewing by hand I also did counted cross stitch. I did needlepoint, I'm a knitter. I did all of that. But when we retired and moved to the Texas old country, I told my husband that I always wanted to quilt. I saw a little thing in the newspaper about quilting and I went and these women just took me under their arms and taught me everything.

HK: What made you go for that transition? I mean this is a lot more artsy, you were making a bit more traditional things but that also can be used-children's clothes, and now you're doing very art kind of projects.

HR: Well but I'm still doing traditional on my own. However, I did do one small art quilt that got accepted into Houston. It blew me away.

HK: Wow.

HR: I'm thinking how in the world did this happen? I just did it and then it happened. And so, that happens. But if I were choosing something to make, I would go for either machine embroidery or traditional.

HK: How did you enter those quilts? Was it your idea to enter the quilts or was it a group decision? How did you decide?

HR: Our group decides whether or not to enter it. At the end of making a quilt, we enter it in our quilt show, and then we draw names and then one person wins it. If you won one, you can't win another one until everyone has won one and we're back at the beginning again. We've all won one, so we can start over.

HK: Congratulations.

HR: And I have Hot Flashes the one that's in Lone Star Legacy.
HK: Okay, okay. So that one is yours?

HR: And this one another friend owns.

HK: Why are you interested in quiltmaking? What made you choose quiltmaking?

HR: My grandmother was a quilter. I really loved being with her, she was a stabilizing agent in my life. When I was in the 8th grade, I was having some difficulty at home and so she got me to help her make a quilt so I cross-stitched a quilt. And then I quilted the whole thing with the punch and poke method, and I still have it. But of course I never ever quilted again, but I did make little cross-stitch things for my children. Then I just thought, I'm tired and my mother had died and that was what I had wanted to do.

HK: And you did. [laughing.]

HR: Yes I did. These women just surrounded me, carried me along.

HK: You say that you are self-taught, and if I listen to you, it seems that you are also developing your techniques. How do you learn?

HR: Well, I go to a lot of classes. Yes, I'm self-taught in that it came from within me, but I've taken classes and classes and classes all over. I take classes here in Houston, I've been coming here for about 15 years. I take classes in California, I take classes in Texas. Any excuse to travel, I take it.

HK: What makes a great quilt according to you? [laughing.]

HR: The precision of the piecing and the way it is pieced. Even in this artsy quilt, if these points were lopped off, that would not be a great quilt in my eyes. It needs to be precise, it needs to hang straight. It needs to not weigh a whole lot. But it needs to speak to me also; the colors, the form, the way that it's put together--they give a message.

HK: And this is not a traditional quilt? The very bright colors in your other quilts, your own projects, what's your inclination to what kind of fabrics you use and colors?

HR: They all laugh because I love black and black and white. But I also like brights and batiks. So I do lot that combines all of that. And lime green is my favorite color.

HK: Lots and lots of green in here. [laughing.] Why is quilt making important for you now? Because you chose to active as a quilter?

HR: Right. My husband has been really ill since we moved to the country and was in a wheel chair for one year with many surgeries. Being able to quilt has been like my salvation. We built our home on a ranch and I didn't sew or quilt at that point when we moved there. I joined the Guild in our town and started sewing on the dining room table - I didn't even own a sewing machine. I borrowed my daughter's sewing machine and finally I bought a sewing machine and my husband, after we had been there for a year wanted to add on a studio for me. I was just horrified because I thought if I do that, then I have to do it. It will become a job for me. I'll have to do this. He talked me into it and we added on a studio off of our bedroom, and it's just been wonderful. It's just saved my life. The year that he was so sick, I made this silly quilt and I named it "She almost came undone" and used these crazy women who looked like their head was exploding. Quilting calms me and makes me happy and just puts a smile on my face. And my husband loves that.

HK: I can imagine. It's very important to have your own time when somebody is ill. If you tell somebody to become a quilt maker, what would be your emphasis? What would you tell them to go and quilt?

HR: I would tell them that first of all to submerge themselves in the history of quilting and to see where it came from and how important it was not only in women's lives but in men's also. And to see what stories there are out there, and then to think about what their story is and how they want to be remembered for their quilts.

HK: Now how would you like to be remembered for your quilts?

HR: I think I would like to be remembered as someone who was generous and kind and wanted to share, not only my quilts but my love of quilting and my excitement for it. It just turns me on every day. I get so excited I can hardly stand it.

HK: How many hours do you spend quilting?

HR: The only problem with that is that I also travel a lot, 11 grandchildren, so I might go and visit my grandkids because none of them live where we are and I don't want them to forget me. So of course I make them all quilts too. I can't find time to stay in my room, but when I'm at home, I'm out there 4, 5, 8, 10 hours a day just depends on the day. I spend a lot of time out there. And right now I'm out there making a silk table runner that's embroidered, we have an embroidering machine, for our daughter-in-law for Christmas. I'm just hoping that I'm going to get it finished. I've done five blocks and I have to do 44. Can't believe that this is the first of November, I've got to hurry. [laughing.]

HK: You do. Have you picked other people in your family to quilt?

HR: Both of our oldest granddaughters have made quilts. One, the oldest one just got married and she made a quilt for her fiancé for Christmas last year and when she finished she said, 'Never again.' Now the second one is making a quilt for her fiancé and she loves it. I think I've infected the bug in her, and I'm really excited. I did make that granddaughter a quilt for her wedding and I made our daughter one also. I had everyone sign squares at the wedding. That was the back of the quilt. I did the top of my daughter's called "Steps to the Altar," it was very traditional. And then the top of this granddaughter's was all machine embroidered appliqué. So it looked very traditional also, even though it's done with the new methods.

HK: You mentioned that you were in a quilt bee together, do you also go together to the quilt festivals?

HR: Yes, there are three of us here together this time. Everybody, no four of us here together.

HK: Which people have influenced you, which artists?

HR: I have certainly been influenced by Carol Doak, I love paper piecing. In fact, I've taught
paper piecing. I really enjoy that a whole lot. I've been influenced by Alex Anderson; I've taken classes from her. I've been influenced by some art quilters, too. Esterita Austin is my absolute favorite and she is so different from me. And I just love her techniques and the painting, which I never thought I was a painter at all, and I've learned to paint on fabric. It's amazing. I think those would be my top three.

HK: Will you be incorporating those techniques maybe in your next quilt?

HR: Maybe so. In fact, I'm doing one right now for my husband that's totally not traditional. It's an outhouse; he wanted me to make him an outhouse.

HK: I'm sorry I don't know what an outhouse is.

HR: An outhouse is a place you go to the bathroom, that's a hole in the ground and it has a little wooden structure over it.

HK: Okay, I understand now. I thought it was a technique [laughing.]

HR: I have glued this whole outhouse, I have cut out strips of fabric and made them look like boards with different shadings and I have glued the whole thing down. Now I'm getting ready to quilt it down. Okay, so it's totally out of my box because I didn't like gluing when I was in kindergarten, and I'm not sure I like it now because it gets on my hands and I don't like that. But I thought this would be a fun technique to try. I'm always up for trying something new.

HK: Will you be showing other people this outhouse?

HR: Oh yes.

HK: Do you have your own website?

HR: No.

HK: How do you share your ideas?

HR: With our bee and guild. We have about 250 members in our guild in town. And we
have a great show and tell.

HK: What are the biggest challenges confronting quilt makers today?

HR: I think we are being taken seriously now, but I think it wasn't being taken seriously. I think it was like the little old lady sitting around quilting and people didn't really understand what a quilt was and how expensive it was to buy the fabric, how time consuming it is to make the quilt to dream up the idea, how it is an art. I think Kerry has done an amazing job letting the whole world know that quilting is important. I think the Japanese women have done an amazing job. I think there were some Australian quilters that are way top notch, seriously. I think that all of these people gathering together have made us be recognized in our field as artists.

HK: It's a sharing thing, is that what quilting is?

HR: Yes.

HK: How do you balance your time? You already described something that you spend a lot of time in your studio but you have other important things.

HR: I do. I burned many a dinner because I would forget. I asked my husband for a timer for Christmas last year, an old fashioned timer. That's how I'm balancing is with a timer. [laughing.]

HK: I can image. What are your plans in the future with this quilt?

HR: Well this quilt belongs to Linda so it hangs in her home. My quilt that's in the booth belongs to me and it hangs at my house.

HK: It hangs?

HR: That's the problem with my house because I have no walls. I mean it's a real open plan and everything so it's in my living room. But it looks great there too, it's wonderful. But we did learn to make them not quite so big so they would hang on people's walls, because mine is bigger than this even and it's hard to hang something that size. But my friends wanted me to be sure to tell you that I have lots of quilt boxes with all of my quilts stacked in them because I just keep making them and I do give away a lot but I have a lot that I want to keep and so I just have them folded up in my little quilt boxes.

HK: Do you have quilts for your bed for example?

HR: I have quilts for my bed for every season. I made a huge Christmas quilt. We have a king sized bed and I love that. I have one that has stars on it. I also have another one that's red and white that's not Christmas.

HK: What do you use for material to make your quilts?

HR: They're all cotton. I'm a traditionalist.

HK: What do you think makes a great quilter?

HR: I think we talked about that.

HK: Did we? Then we'll skip that. Do you use a design wall?

HR: Yes, I do. In fact, I have two design walls in my studio. We used a design wall to make this quilt. You cannot do something like this without a design wall.

HK: How do you, for example, when you are laying it out together, how do you go home and do your own thing? How do you manage to keep the ideas?

HR: We take pictures when it's on the design wall, then that helps you also see if something looks right. When you look through a photograph or a digital image, you can really see where something is out of place or you want something a little bit different. And I do that a lot, at home also. I'll have stuff up and I'll think it looks good, and then I'll take a picture and go, 'Oh, that's not right.'

HK: You're incorporating different technologies to improve your quilting?

HR: Yes

HK: What other things do you use to get it across, to experiment?

HR: We do not try to make something and make sure it ends up in the quilt. You can make things and it won't be in that quilt, it could be somewhere else. We also made a quilt together of a woman, we call it "Woman interrupted." It was a Van Gogh painting. We couldn't decided which one to paint because we brought together all of these different groups of painters and we voted on which one we were going to do. Then we chopped her up into eight pieces but not eight squares, and then we each went away and we could not talk to each other. We each made our piece however we wanted to. You could appliqué it, you could piece it, you could paint it. But you couldn't talk to the people. Then we put it all back together. It was amazing, a couple of the people who were new to our bee, were traditional quilters. They panicked and said, 'This will never work.' I had half a hand and I painted my part, and then the other person with the other half of the hand painted hers. And it looked fine.

HK: How do you handle that in a group? I mean if people want to have more structure--

HR: We just laugh at that and keep on going. [laughing.] You know, we are very passionate and care about each other.

HK: Is it important that the number of people you have is eight? Would it work for you if you were becoming 10 members?

HR: It wouldn't work for us because the place we go on our retreat can only hold eight people.

HK: So it's restricted by the retreat?

HR: Yes, and getting more than eight working in a home is hard. We also makes lots of charity quilts together and do lots of fun things.

HK: What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or a special collection?

HR: Maybe someone who has won top prizes, and by that I mean the big prizes in shows. I think one of those quilts would be appropriate for a museum.

HK: You wouldn't consider this quilt that you brought today good enough for a special museum collection?

HR: Well, good enough? Probably, yes. I think we did an excellent job. I think our quilting is wonderful, our design is great. I think it makes you smile when you look at it. But, I really want our art to be recognized and I think the people that are making the quilts that are winning the 5,000 or 10,000 prizes are incredible. So that's the kind of quilt I think belongs in a museum.

HK: What's the function of the museum for you as a quilt maker?

HR: To go and to see the top of the top quilts.

HK: When you were invited to the interview, what did you want to bring across during the interview?

HR: I really wanted to get across the joy and the camaraderie of working in the group because I really wanted to stress not just the individual quilt maker but how important it is to have a group and to be able to work together.

HK: Besides sharing the ideas, how do you work as a group? How does that function? What's important?

HR: It's important that we listen to each other and that we care about each other beyond the quilting. As I said, we have had one member die and it was very hard on all of us. We have had people that have been ill, husbands that have been ill, and we just share so much more than just the quilting. But, it's really important that we share new ideas, new techniques, new quilting gadgets, so that someone can come in and say, 'Oh look at what I found,' and then we go running around to get it. One of our members is an amazing appliquer - two of them are, actually. And some of us really aren't handy appliquers at all. So, they've been teaching us and working with us and doing things like that. Then somebody will go to a class and they will learn something and teach that technique to us, not in a formal way but sitting around saying, 'You want to learn how to do this?' and we'll say, 'Yes,' and we'll bring scraps and learn how to do it or whatever it is.

HK: You said that some people left the group or moved away. How do you find the right person to join the group?

HR: It's very difficult, because we are very close. When Marilynn died, we had a really close friend in our guild and we asked her to come the next year. And then when we had two members move away, we waited a long time before we asked somebody. And we did, and when she went on retreat with us that year, she said, 'Now I know that I am on probation here,' and we laughed. But it's worked out fine, we've been very fortunate.

HK: I can imagine that it's always a little difficult to get a new member.

HR: Right, it is.

HK: You said that you collect and sell quilts.

HR: No, I don't sell, but I do collect. I'm sorry.

HK: That's okay.

HR: I don't sell my quilts but I do collect quilts. But I collect my quilts, my friends quilts and I love antique quilts. I have several that were my grandmothers and they are very important to me. I love antique quilts and I love old tops. I have a whole bedroom that's got antique quilts and antique tops just all over the room.

HK: That sounds great.

[announcement over loudspeaker.]

HK: What is an amusing experience that you've had?

HR: You know, I tried and tried to think of one but the only amusing experience I can think of is when we were making "Hot flashes," it's a Log Cabin quilt. We were all working together on the retreat; we made the whole thing in five days that top. We were going to name it "Fire cracker" or "Fireworks," and we have ceiling fans above the table where we work in this B&B.; And somebody would say, 'Turn the fan on,' and somebody else would say, 'I'm burning up, turn the air conditioner on,' and we go in January so it was chilly. Somebody kept saying, 'Oh my gosh, I'm have hot flashes.' We decided to name the quilt "Hot Flashes" because we were all having hot flashes, so that's what we named it. [laughing.]

HK: Great explanation of the name. I'm going to slowly end the interview, is there something that you'd like to documented forever and ever? [laughing.]

HR: No, I can't think of anything except that quiltmaking is so important. The touching of the fabric, the looking at the threads, the relationships that you build with other people in your groups, in the world. I've met women from all over the world. We met a woman from England here about five years ago and she ended up coming back and staying with us. You just form relationships through this art, and it is an art.

HK: So your message is quilting is sharing?

HR: That's right. The whole thing is relationships.

HK: I think this is a nice end. I'd like to thank you Helen for allowing me to interview you today and for the Quilters SOS, Save Our Stories, and Oral History Project. Our interview concludes 9:44. Thank you.

HR: Thank you.


“Helen Ridgway,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024, https://qsos.quiltalliance.org/items/show/2400.