Spotlight on Karin Hellaby

This week we have been having a natter with leading quilt expert Karin Hellaby. Karin’s teaching has taken her all over Europe and beyond. She is a regular teacher at the Houston International Quilt Show and has taught in New Zealand, Dubai and most of North America! Karin has recently returned from teaching on our quilting retreat on the beautiful island of Madeira. Later this year she will also be leading two Stitchtopia quilting trips South Africa and the Faroe Islands.

Here Karin gives us the low-down on how her love for quilting blossomed at a church hall, how her passion helped support her sons through university and how she is lost without her much loved Bernina machine!

Karin, you are an internationally known quilt teacher, an author of 10 quilting books and until recently, the owner of one of the UK’s largest quilting shops, Quilting Haven. Tell us how you discovered quilting and how you first became passionate about it.

Nearly 30 years ago, I was living in Lancashire. One day, needing to shelter from the rain, I ran into a nearby church hall and there was an exhibition of quilts. I loved the colours and was intrigued with the designs. Having grown up in the Durham area, I was only familiar with pastel whole cloth quilts. I signed up to do a couple of classes with Sue Belton, the local teacher. We got on well as we both had a Home Economics teaching background. When I moved to Suffolk a few months later, Sue encouraged me to teach quilt making in my new home.

Was there a single moment when you fell in love with quilting, or did it happen gradually?

I think I fell in love with quilting when I saw my first exhibition as described above. Gradually, as I taught others it became a passion.

Do you still have the first quilt you ever-made?

Yes I do! It is a sampler quilt in pink and greys made with fabric bought mainly on Preston Market - cottons and poly cottons. It is no masterpiece and I keep it for sentimental reasons. I was not aware of any quilt shops in the early 1990’s. Now with the 100% patchwork cottons available in lots of lovely quilt shops, the process is easier and the end result much better.

Where do you find the inspiration for your designs?

My books were written mainly to help my students to enjoy my classes and succeed. I wanted to make traditional techniques as simple as possible and developed fast easy patchwork, very achievable and fun at all levels. I find inspiration all around me. Sometimes it is a fabric that starts my creative thoughts. At other times I am inspired by floor tiles, scenery. Often it is the need to simplify.

What kind of quilts are you most drawn to?

I like the huge variety of quilts. Often I am drawn to colourful modern designs but I also love historical and Amish quilts. I am fascinated with social history and really enjoy the stories behind quilts.

What tools and materials could you not live without?

Everything in my sewing studio but especially my Bernina sewing machine, rotary cutting set and FABRIC, FABRIC, FABRIC!

Which quilt designers are you really excited about right now?

There are so many amazing designers in the quilting world and I get excited by many. I appreciate the exquisite workmanship of the Japanese quilters, the originality of some of the next generation and designs where I ask ‘How did they do that!’

Most people would consider quilting a hobby but you have turned it into a very successful career. What was the motivation behind turning your passion into a business?

I love teaching and started a teaching centre with a shop alongside. The shop eventually became more important as I was bringing up three sons on my own and needed the income. I started writing books to help my sons through university so I suppose it was them that became the motivation to make me succeed in business. As a single parent, I just had to get on with it. Now that they are all happy and successful in their chosen careers, I have been able to semi retire, sell my business and can do the things I really enjoy - travelling and teaching.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am working on my next book ‘Jelly Roll Bargello’. I am also preparing designs for future holidays. Later in the year, I will be taking an Arena tour group to The Faroe Islands and I am thinking through Viking designs.

You’ve been leading Stitchtopia tours for a number of years now you and have travelled to some amazing destinations including France, Italy, Spain, Japan, India and Norway to name a few. What has been your most memorable destination and why?

They have all been memorable for different reasons. I have loved taking groups to new places and getting to know the people who travel with me. Some of them have been on 15 of my tours and many have become good friends. Travelling to new places is a passion for me and can maybe be explained by my ‘Viking’ ancestry. Norway is my second home and the most beautiful country in the world when the sun shines. India is endlessly fascinating, the more you see the more you realise there is to see. Japan - I love the quilts and the loos. I wrote a blog about Japanese toilets and it was well read and often referred to.

What destination would you love to visit and why?

It is hard to choose just one destination. I would love to do part of the silk route. Burma and Guatamala are also countries I would like to visit. In Europe, I would like to visit the Aurifil factory in Italy and teach a retreat in the Italian Lakes. I also think Croatia and Montenegro would be interesting areas for quilting retreats.

In a career as exhausting as quilting, it must be easy to burn yourself out. How do you avoid this?

My family and friends view me as a high-energy person. I find that as long as I am enjoying what I do then burn out is not an issue. I love the variety of my work and as a local head teacher said ‘the harder you work the luckier you become’. I feel as if I have been very lucky in my career!