Profile: Helen Richards

Helen Richards is a textile designer who makes gorgeous quilts and soft furnishings. She is especially known for her experimental, one-off and hand-made quilts, use of natural fibres, and a creative mixing of applique, bleach dye printing, painting, felting and Japanese textiles. As well as making her own work, she runs workshops in her beautiful St Ives studio.

Anthony, Black Parrot’s “Creative Director,” got to know Helen when they both worked together at Sydney Living Museums. They even ran a program together on the history of soft furnishings and fabrics in Vaucluse House, and, thanks to Helen, Anthony still likes to tell people a bit too much about the Indian origins of chintz and Sir John Soane’s invention of cadmium yellow silk furnishings. When we decided to put together a series of interviews and profiles celebrating the artisans, artists and makers of Sydney, we immediately thought of Helen.

AS: How would you describe your practice?

HR: … I do a number of things. I make bespoke quilts. I design and produce textiles for those quilts. I write patterns, which are sold online. I run workshops. Some that are derived from the work that I do. Some are tailored to specific events, such as Laneway Learning… Most recently I did a workshop for Glebe Library for one of their school programs. The Macleay Museum had a lecture there about taxidermy and I made small stuffed animals.

AS: Would you call yourself a textile artist?

HR: I don’t call myself anything actually. I come from a design background and so, if I’m anything, I’m a designer. A textile designer I think… I adore fabrics, since I was very, very little. You know that thing about how people go and touch fabric. I’m sure I was doing that since I was, ohh, 18 months old!

AS: Teaching is a big part of what you do? It’s important?

HR: Yes it is important. I’m good at it. And it’s one way that I can contribute to the world. It gives me a chance to do what I’m good at and, through workshops, to influence people’s lives and encourage them to get out there and take risks, and see how far they can push their own work.

 AS: How did you find yourself doing what you’re doing today?

HR: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in quilts. They integrate the two things that I think are important. They’re functional and they’re beautiful. And if you have both of them together you have something that actually is meaningful… They’re things that people care about. They carry them with them in their life. I was reading a story about part of a U.S. quilt. A lot of men in the Civil War would take a quilt with them, not only as functional a thing because they were sleeping rough, but because it tied them to family and to home. It gave them hope that they would get out of this god-awful mess. This young man, in his early twenties, had this quilt and he was killed in one of the major battles. The only reason one of the family slaves knew it was him was because he recognized the quilt. And he took the boy’s body, with the quilt, home again…  

AS: Are there regional styles and traditions?

HR: Yes. There’s a language…. You get national styles as well. And of course you get the whole thing with cotton fabrics and printing, and India!… It’s very rich… you just open it up. You’ve got layer upon layer of social history. Mostly women, but a lot of men made quilts. There’s a genre of soldiers quilts. They would make them out of regimental colours. 

And then you get the emergence of feminist movements in the ‘70s, reclaiming craftwork as a women’s issue… There are some very important people who are still doyens of the American quilting world who are amazingly formidable women. Nancy Crow is one who scared the bejesus out of me…

 AS: Is the feminist revival of craft an important part of your thinking?

HR: I fall a little young for the seventies, second wave feminism, and a little old for third wave, if there is such as thing as third wave. Feminism is an interesting thing, and the people who were interested in it interested me. Nancy Crow and Dorothy Caldwell who does beautiful work.

AS: Making fabrics is an integral part of your process?

HR: I’m interested in printing. So I’m interested in lino and block making. I started work using plain colours, solids, and what I’ve found is that the work that I started was probably unusual. I just find it hard to use lots of patterns in a work. I’m relatively minimalist as a designer, so trying to stuff too many patterns in that some body else has designed… I’ve never come to deal with it terribly well! If I print it then I know what’s going on in it.  

AS: You hand-paint fabrics before your quilt them, and you layer areas of colour with (what seems to me to be) free form drawing. I keep thinking of Paul Klee and German Expressionism. Do you draw on the traditions of painting in your work?

 HR: Other people recognize it. I see a big painting and, more often than not, I’ll see a quilt. I don’t see any particular difference. It’s blocks of colour and texture… I like colour, I like texture, and I like what people do with it…. I like abstract work. I have a real love of Rothko. I don’t know why. He was a rather melancholy little creature. I find that work quite profound, and beautiful and very quilt-like.

AS: Where do you hope to take your practice over the next five years?

HR: The next five years? I have no idea! I will continue on. I do the work that interests me… You do the work. Because it’s important. It’s what you do…