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Top quilter inspired by grandma

By Jillian Kellerman

Helen Smith Stone was recently named Minnesota Quilter of the Year. She was inspired by her grandmother, who was known as one of the “Quilting Bees” in her community. Contributed photo

Helen Smith Stone, of Duluth, a quilt maker and teacher of quilt making, was named 2024 Minnesota Quilter of the Year. Inspiration from family tradition has brought her on a 40-year quilt-making journey.

Helen said her grandma, Stella Smith, had 14 children and was known to escape (maybe for sanity reasons) across the road to sit and quilt with her friends. Known as one of the “Quilting Bees,” she came to have quite the collection of quilts that were passed on to the “Keeper of the Quilts,” Helen’s Aunt Katie.

“When I was a young girl, growing up on a farm in Windom, Minn., every year Aunt Katie (who was the oldest girl in the family of 14 children) came to visit and she most often would have a quilt or two along,” she said. “She would show them to us periodically, and she said to me once, ‘One day you will get one of these quilts of your grandmother’s when you get married.’”

When Helen got married in 1971, she did get one of grandma’s quilts. 

“I remember looking at them in great awe. They were handquilted. They were beautiful, very traditional handmade quilts,” she recalled. “I thought years ago that some day I would want to learn how to make quilts. It took me a long time to get to that point, but the initial inspiration was my grandma, Stella Smith.”

Helen’s mom was not a quilter, but a hand embroiderer. So her very first lessons with needle and thread was hand embroidering with her mother. She, in turn, taught her mother how to hand quilt and said it was probably the only thing she ever taught her mother.

“We started making quilts together and we made eight. I would choose the pattern and the fabric and would do all the machine piecing to put the quilt together and then I would take it to her and she would do the hand quilting. A queen-size quilt would take her almost a year to do the hand quilting.”

Pictured are some of the handcrafted quilt squares made by Helen. Contributed photo

Helen said now she might make two or three quilts a year if they’re small quilts; a large wall quilt may take her about a year to finish; and “If I was making a quilt for a bed, I would probably take my time and work on it over a year. I work on these as I can as I have other things going on in my life.”

Helen’s quilts have been published in the American Quilter’s Society yearly engagement calendars five times over the years and she has won several awards on her quilts. Helen said now “all the beds are covered and all the walls are covered,” so most recently, over the last four years or so, she has started making smaller quilts that she wraps around a painter’s canvas to be more easily exhibited. She said she had an exhibit at the Duluth Folk School two years ago of new, original work that she had made and said it was like hanging a painting on the wall.

“I started thinking, if I want to display these in small venues, maybe I should start treating them more like a painting, like an art gallery would hang,” she said. “And so I’ve started doing that because, after 40-some years of making other people’s patterns, I’m at a point where I want to start showing original work, creating my own designs.”

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing Helen’s drafted designs printed out in patterns and made available for sale, as she says she has given it some thought. In the meantime, she has been learning new techniques and focusing on creating original pieces.

Quilting isn’t Helen’s only creative love.

Helen helping a student with ruler skills at Duluth Folk School. Contributed photo

“I fell in love with photography when I was a freshman in college,” she said. “My favorite subjects to take photos of are flowers, nature scenes, birds, and animals. So when I came up with this idea of creating some of my own original work, I started by taking a photograph of the poppies in my garden. And then, once I chose the photo I wanted to use, I was a little unsure on how to approach it, how do I now take this image and recreate it in fabric and thread. My intention was not to print it onto fabric; I wanted every little sliver and petal and stem to be a separate piece of fabric.”

Helen said all of this happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. She discovered that an art quilter she had admired for some time was teaching an online class, so she jumped into that and learned her technique.

“After learning how she actually creates a floral art quilt from a photograph, that’s how I approached it. It took me months. I practiced the technique and jumped in and did the poppy art quilt (pictured). It was challenging for sure and it took plenty of time.”

While Helen said she isn’t typically one to enter into challenges or competitions, she had figured out and felt comfortable with this new technique so she entered a competition last year hosted by Cherrywood Fabrics of Baxter, Minn. The theme was that of the monarch butterfly and it was an ironic coincidence that she was inspired to enter this particular challenge.

“I raise and release monarch butterflies,” Helen said. “Whenever I release my butterflies, I take a photo of them and send them on their way.” This was the inspiration for Helen to enter the Cherrywood Fabrics competition. Out of 472 entries, Helen’s monarch butterfly quilt (pictured on Page 12) was one of 225 quilts chosen as a finalist. As a finalist, her monarch butterfly quilt has been circulating around the United States on display at various quilt shows for the last year. Ironically enough, Helen’s monarch butterfly quilt made its way back home to Duluth just in time to be exhibited at the 2024 Minnesota Quilt Show, held in Duluth in June. The show had over 700 quilts on display, over 70 vendors, and there were about 6,000 people in attendance this year.

“It’s educational. It’s informative. It’s inspiring. But, it’s also a community,” Helen said. “As quilters, like so many other areas of interest, you meet people, you become friends, you create this quilting community around you. It’s really like a great big extended family over time and that’s really fun, too. That circles all the way back to my grandma when she would sit and quilt with her friends.”

While making a quilt can be time consuming, there’s more to it than the time it takes to put it together.

“A quilt is not a quilt unless it is three layers -- the top that you’ve pieced together, the batting that you lay down below the top and then under that you lay a solid piece of fabric. Rather than hand quilting those three layers together, you machine quilt it with a great big sewing machine -- that’s what a long-arm quilting machine is,” Helen said.

Long-arm quilting is another layer in Helen’s 40-year journey of quilt making, as she also started her own quilt show that was about the same size as the Minnesota Quilt Show. The show was dubbed “Quilting The Quilt, QTQ 2002” and was organized by Helen and a couple other ladies for an Iowa-based long-arm quilting machine company, American Professional Quilting Systems (APQS). The first show was held at the Duluth Convention Center in 2002 and had about 5,000 people attending. That was the one and only show APQS held, as the company was sold and they let the show go. Helen stepped in to take over and continued the show under a new name, and “Quilting on the Waterfront” was born.

Helen demonstrates machine quilting at one of her classes at Duluth Folk School. Contributed photo

Helen said it takes about two years to put a show together, so her next show was held in 2004. hosting just under 6,000 people. She had another show in 2006, again with huge attendance of about 6,500 people from all over the United States. She retired in 2008, but Quilting on the Waterfront remains her business name today.

Quilting on the Waterfront is Helen’s quilting studio space where she also teaches quilt making to a variety of age groups. She also teaches at the Duluth Folk School in the Lincoln Park Craft District in western Duluth, at quilt shows, and as requested for quilt guilds.

“My goal by teaching is to help carry on the tradition. That’s important to me,” Helen said. “I’m only working to help carry on my love of quilt making and to hopefully inspire others to want to give it a try. It’s great fun. It’s very creative, very fulfilling.”

While Helen is technically retired (three times, in fact!), she is not yet ready to retire her love for quilt making.

“I guess it’s a bit of an obsession, if you want to look at it that way,” she said. “I love it and I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore. Plus I have a lot of fabric I want to use up.”

Helen was named 2024 Minnesota Quilter of the Year by Minnesota Quilters, Inc., the statewide quilt guild for the state of Minnesota. The award honors Minnesota quilters who dedicate time and talent to preserve and promote quilting, has made a significant impact on the quilt community and has both personal and professional work. She has been a member of this quilt guild since 1985 and said she has come to know a lot of people in Minnesota who are quilters over her 40-year journey.

“Sitting here looking at this list, I am in the most amazing company,” she said. “The women who have been chosen before me, I knew many of them. Several of them have become friends of mine over the years all because of our love of quilting. For me to be in their company, I’m just so honored. It’s quite an award.”

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