A quilt lies on a table ready to relinquish its mystery; its story; its history. A quilt-sleuth, Helen Martin carefully studies the fabrics, patterns, and colours used for the artistry. The thread used for each intricate stitch will tell if she has found the treasure she is searching for. With a careful snip, she inspects her find…
For over 40 years, Helen has been creating and collecting quilts. The “obsession” comes naturally. In her “red room” a hunter star patterned quilt has been carefully laid over a tiny buggy. It was a wedding present from Helen’s great grandmother to her mom – a special gift requested by a six year old who watched the hands of a beloved woman create designs with fabric and thread.
“All the quilts have a story to tell,” says Helen. “But that story is my favourite.”
Sewing her own designs has given Helen a fine appreciation for the skill. Imagining the woman or women who crafted the quilts she finds at auction sales and antique markets, Helen can piece together a story like she pieces together one of her quilts.
“I try to get the story of the quilt — the year, who made it, why it was made,” she says. “Many times, you can’t get the real story, but the quilt can tell its own.”
Clues can weave a line to the basic ancestry of a quilt. The pattern will conjure up visions of a wedding, a birth, or a death. The fabric tells Helen the approximate age of the quilt; different dyes denote a period in time. Cotton or wool batting dates the piece to a time before the 1960’s.
But Helen searches for one main clue to tell the age of a quilt – the thread. After the sewing machine was invented, six strands of thread were used to withstand the pressure of the new device. A quilt using three strands will date it to before the 1830’s.
The secrets sewn into each quilt blend beauty with mystery. While garage-sailing, Helen came across a quilt with a British emblem in the center. She was told that in 1911, a woman named Rose made her way from Poland to board the Titanic. Thankfully, her papers were not in order and she was turned away. In time, Rose made her way to Canada, more specifically, Preston, Ontario where she fell in love with Albin Krasno. Born in the same village, they had not met until their feet touched the soil of another country. Rose and Albin settled in Preston and here the thread ends. Whether the quilt was made in England while awaiting passage to America, or made after Rose’s arrival is unknown. The emblem is a curious clue, however, and the quilt has laid it secrets to rest.
Helen didn’t begin quilting until she was in her 30’s. At the time, she and her husband, Don, had two small children and Helen sewed everything. On a budget and needing a wedding present, she used her sewing skills to make her first quilt.
She stitches her quilts by hand using the Applique technique. This intricate and complex process uses small, hand-cut pieces laid out in a pattern then sewn onto fabric. Helen has never used a machine to piece together her creations. Each is brilliant, artistic, and unique to her style.
“I have no interest in learning how to do it by machine,” she says. “The process is soothing. I can dream about the next quilt.”
Not only quilting for family and friends, Helen donates her time and talents to Quilts for Kids. This season, they finished 59 quilts that will be sent to children in our area as well as children around the world. Some special recipients nearby are Haven House and Argus Residence for Young People. As well, The Herbie Fund in Toronto and McMaster Medical Centre in Hamilton receive the cozy comforters that are kept by each child.
“We do our own in our own little corner,” says Marilyn Armstrong, the founder of Quilts for Kids in Cambridge. Helen was one of the first to join the quilting group which now boasts approximately 20 members. Stay tuned for more information about this extraordinary charity.
Helen connects with the women whose hands thread the stories she imagines as she sews. Creating her own history with each stitch, she gives to her family, community and beyond.
…and the search continues for the elusive three-strand quilt.