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Today’s Modern Quilters: An interview with Heidi Parkes

Heidi Parkes

To celebrate her birth, Heidi’s grandmother organized a collaborative quilt to be made. She was born to two creatives: one a sewist and cook, the other a talented woodworker. Heidi likes to believe that she was holding a needle while in the womb, and she recalls sewing around cardboard shapes with shoelaces at the age of three. Later, Heidi attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and was a high-school art teacher for 9 years before she made the transition to full-time artist. In addition to quilting, she enjoys woodworking, making her own clothing, and is a passionate foodie and cook. 


We hope you enjoy our conversation with Heidi.


When did you start sewing/quilting?

In college, I made quilts with wire, metal, book pages, and tracing paper. In 2013, I made my first fabric quilt. I quilted it by hand, and that’s the moment I truly fell in love with quilting.


Why do you quilt?

I like the slow pace of quilt-making. It provides moments of focus and creative choices, balanced with moments where I feel like my hands are I removed a word expert robots. I like that quilting can be inexpensive, portable, not messy, easy to start and stop, intuitive, soft, and rooted in the feminine.

But, I Tried to Remember - Parkes

 Do you have any mentors that have helped you along the way? If so, who and what did they do that has made a difference in your life and the way you create? 

In high school and college, I was an assistant to Laurie Pollpeter Eskenazi, a local ceramic artist who went to SAIC. I learned so much from her about work ethic, attention to detail, and what it means to be a full-time artist. She helped give me the courage to go to art school. My experience working with her also inspired me to leave art education to become self-employed.

Do you have a favorite part of the quilting process, if so what is it?

The hand quilting part. It’s so easy for me to get in a groove and spend hours and days at a time working on it.

What are a couple of your favorite, can’t live without, sewing/quilting tools?

I love my Clover protect and grip thimble. It’s great for pushing with the tip of my finger, and most importantly it’s soft. It fits snug enough to stay on my finger but doesn’t put too much pressure on it. I also have to have a rubber gripper/needle puller. Lately, I like the ones from Little House. This simple tool is essential for protecting my fingers while pulling the needle through layers of fabric.

Scavenger Hunt, I Listened - Parkes

You seem to have a very organic and candid approach to creating; where do you think that comes from? Does it ever feel emotionally overwhelming when you're creating? 

There is a lecture I’ve given a few times entitled, Improv Life, Improv Quilts.  It’s about the idea that when making a quilt, I try to put myself within the same constraints that I’m under when living life itself. I am limited to the supplies and time that I have. Once I’ve sewn it, I don’t unsew. I am allowed to adapt my plan as I work. I like being able to find beauty in things made this way. I think it allows me to see more beauty in my own life-- which I sometimes wish I could edit; undo a few minutes or years, have more supplies, make things appear right away, or have people behave the way I want them to, etc.  

This organic approach to creating came from my education at SAIC, from loving the art of people like Mark Bradford, Sally Mann, Andy Warhol, and Julie Mehretu, from appreciating the aesthetics of wabi-sabi, from connecting with outsider and folk art, and also from my childhood wounds, losses, and current sorrows.  

I know that there are certainly times when I feel emotionally overwhelmed-- I think though that quilting is a slow enough process for me that it doesn’t create a feeling of overwhelm. Instead, it is the calm that I seek to alleviate difficult personal emotions, and worldly cares that affect me. The quilting process is a reminder that no pain or emotion is without end, and that no quilt can be made in a single sitting or day. Making this work is a place to be, a place to transform hard emotions into softer feelings. In short, the quilt is always bigger and longer-lasting than the feelings. While quilting, there’s enough time to run through a gamut of emotions, and come out the other side, “With my sand settled, and my water clear,” as my yoga & meditation teacher Rolf Gates would say. I’ll be giving a lecture (LE35) on the subject of quilting and emotions at QuiltCon Together in February 2020.

Do you approach your projects with a deliberate idea about where you want them to go or do you let the projects take over and drive the outcome?

When I begin a quilt, I start with a particular feeling, idea, or concept. That idea serves as a compass throughout making the work. I also make sure to approach every project with curiosity. In that way, the work continues as I’ve planned, but is also responsive and surprising at the same time.  

 For example, recently I made a quilt to document a trip to India. I’d dreamed of going there for years and I wanted to make something to remember my time there. I packed a few scraps of gifted fabric and a 7x7’ piece of muslin. As I traveled, I sewed the scraps to the muslin. I accumulated more fabric on the trip which was then also added to the quilt.  

India Quilt - Parkes

In the beginning, I had to work small because of the elbow room on an airplane, and the trickiness of sewing in a mosquito tent on a twin bed. Once I returned home, I saw that I had lots of cloth bags from shopping and larger items to add to the quilt top. Being home meant I had the space to appliqué those larger elements in place. I named the quilt A Breath has Four Parts

India Quilt - Parkes

I love it when chance and a sort of collaboration with the planet takes over a piece like that.  I always had my compass: that this quilt was a diary of my trip. Through it, I could tell a hundred stories sparked by fabric, shapes, embroideries, and found objects.

When looking at your quilts, they remind me of people. Do you have any suggestions for how quilters can make their work more personal and intimate?

I’d start by listening to Brene Brown. Her work on vulnerability has been very powerful for me. In her book Daring Greatly, she outlines personal boundaries that are important to have. My takeaway has been to make work and speak publicly about things that feel healed while keeping private things that are still raw for me.

I also like to tap into current intimate subjects but to use them as a source for abstraction. For example, But, What Was it Like? was a quilt made shortly after a 2nd date that I thought went great, but the guy wasn’t feeling it. The quilt was a good way for me to process my feelings. It led to me use thread and fabric scraps in new ways as I sorted out the ‘scraps’ that I was potentially willing to settle for. Two and a half years later, it’s easy to share that story publicly, but at the time, the ambiguous title and abstract imagery were things that I spoke about with more ambiguity.

 But, What Was it Like?  Parkes

Ultimately, I think that the more personal and specific your work is, the more relatable it is too.  Quilters may want to consider using real ‘artifacts,’ like I did with my skirt in But, Was That Me?  They may also benefit from abstraction so that the story can be revealed in layers.  

But Was that Me? Parkes

Other work, like There’s Something Between Us, is harder to do. That quilt took a lot of courage, and when it was accepted into the Threads of Resistance traveling show, I immediately got cold feet. With difficult personal subjects, it’s important to do a gut check; one my dad uses is T.H.I.N.K., ask yourself if the work is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. If I make personal work with compassion and sincerity, I can live with the consequences of it.

What is your remedy for burnout?

I don’t know how advisable this is, but when I’m burnt out, I pause from all computer work and do hand quilting for a week or more. That always makes things feel better, although the computer stuff is still waiting for me later. A remedy that I’m trying to get better at is being more selective about what I say yes to. Just because somebody asks, doesn’t mean it has to be put on my to-do list.

What book, if any, are you currently reading?

My favorite way to read is a library audiobook on CD in my car. I’m currently reading Fix Your Period by Nicole Jardim, The Practices of Yoga for the Digestive System by Dr. Swami Shankardevananda, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer.

Is there anything you listen to or watch while you’re quilting? If so, what?

I really enjoy watching marathon TV while quilting as it helps me move more quickly while I sew.  I also watch YouTube for news, deep dives on health, DIY, and comedy.  When I can’t ‘watch’ because the work is too involved, I listen to comedy specials or pop music. Right now, I’m watching The Americans, and loving it!  

What are you currently working on and what is next for you? 

I’m nearly done doing a 100 Days Project Quilt, where I’m sewing on a quilt top daily, or at least making up for it on the weekends. It began on April 7, 2020. This seemed like an important moment to document diary-style. I’ve been working on a lot of mending commissions. Also in the works, and likely ‘up next’ is a series about tracking days and hormonal health.  

I’ve been excited lately about teaching virtually on Zoom. It’s been really special to work with students in the UK, Europe, and even Australia. With small class sizes, I feel like I can give more individual attention to each student. The additional cool thing about it is that the other students get to hear all of my interactions with each class member. It deepens the experience of learning about the creative process when students have access to hearing the questions I repeatedly ask and the varied approaches that each student has to the same class. It’s been a real gift to discover this new way of working and connecting with people.

Heidi’s quilt “Night Flight no. 3” appears in Curated Quilts: Minimalistic, issue no. 3. She also wrote an article entitled, Thread., which was featured in Curated Quilts: House, issue no. 6.

 Night Flight no. 3 by Heidi Parkes - Minimalistic issue

You can learn more about Heidi on her website www.heidiparkes.com and on Instagram at @heidi.parkes. Videos for her recently completed first Quilt-Along can be found on her YouTube channel. Heidi has patterns and Zoom classes available on her website and will be teaching virtually at QuiltCon Together in February 2021.

To see more of the innovative work that today’s modern quilters are creating, you can purchase your copy of Curated Quilts now. 


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