ID Number: TQ.2015.004
Name of interviewee: Eva Labak
Name of interviewer: Anna East
Name of transcriber: Kim Harvey
Location: Eva’s home
Address: Wembley, London
Date: 24 January 2015
Length of interview: 0:34:54
Eva introduces her ‘Roses quilt’ made from a pair of old curtains and paper pieced in the car while waiting to pick up her son’s from school. She explains the influence her mother, who died before she made the quilt, had on it including her fabric frugality, why she made hexagons and the therapy of sewing. Eva also talks about a ‘ghastly’ quilt she made from Ikea Cath Kidston fabric, her love of traditional hand pieced and quilted quilts, and how her family view her quiltmaking.
Anna East [AE]: Right, finally, good morning Eva, this is Saturday 24th January. I’m in Eva’s house, talking to her about her quilt called Shabby Roses and my name is Anna East. So Eva, thanks very much for having me here, and erm what would you like to tell me about your beautiful quilt hanging in your hall?
Eva Labak [EL]: Erm, well I made it around 20 years ago, around the same time we bought this house really, and um, money was short. We were having to gut the house and do a lot of things and we had to move out for six months and we went to living over our old flat over our business in central London. So I had periods where I was bringing the kids up and down the Westway to school and hanging around waiting for them to come out and I needed to stitch something, um because everything was in storage including my sewing machine. So I was looking for a paper project, and I had a paper pieced project I should say, and I had a whole load of estate agent details of properties that we had looked at before we moved, bought this house, and so I thought, right, I will cut them up into hexagons. And I had a pair of tatty old curtains with roses on, I’ve always loved roses, roses were my wedding flowers. And I thought right, that will be my starting point but I wasn’t quite sure how to utilize the rose pattern on the fabric and then there were vast expanses of just plain green, so I looked at Averil Colby’s book on patchwork and I love these old books because although they are black and white you sometimes get more ideas in there.
AE: Mm, absolutely.
EL: And there is a quilt in there where Averil has actually cut out a patterned fabric, cut out all the flowers and leaves and sort of done a pattern on a hexagon quilt with them. So that was my starting point, and then once I started piecing the hexagons it just grew and grew and grew and over a period of gutting this house, about six months to nine months, that’s when the quilt was made. So I was quite chuffed because it sort of came together quite quickly. But what I regret about it, is that at that time it wasn’t so easy to get cotton wadding and I used a 2oz. polyester which has faded to nothing, erm but because I used very small, tight stitches, it has held together well, [AE: okay] so hopefully it will last a long while yet.
AE: So back then were you able to get the fabrics that you wanted to match? You said about wadding in the 80s, was there the range that you could choose from? You were using curtains?
EL: Well not so much, I mean we had a couple of local fabric shops in Edgware and one in Harrow Weald that have long since gone and I used to go down to The Quilt Room in Dorking and get bits there, but yeah I managed to get the wadding for that quilt. But with regards to the fabrics, I’ve always been a bit of a, not a frugal quilter, but my upbringing has meant that I like to see if I can recycle and use things, and I do like going to charity shops. So some of the fabrics in this quilt are Laura Ashley fabrics from dresses cut up that I found in charity shops. There’s some calico in there with little pink roses on that I got down Portobello Market for 50p a yard [laughter] and the plain fabrics are all bargain remnants from John Lewis. They are all sheeting remnants, the greens and the pinks, so it all came together really, you know, quite nicely.
AE: And did you find those bits as you went along or did you have them all at the outset? How was your thinking about making it?
EL: No I found them as I went along, you know. I was like on a mission. I couldn’t walk past a fabric shop or a market without seeing if I could get something else to go with the quilt. There is another fabric in there that I found in the Lake District. We happened to come upon a patchwork quilting shop up in Cumbria. So I bought [AE: as you do on holiday] half a metre of fabric there which happened to go with the colours in the quilt, and then the border erm was I think it was a Jinny Beyer fabric because there was a shop in Pinner called Artisan [AE: right] and although it was primarily embroidery, erm, she, the lady Beryl who owned the shop, she stocked a few patchwork fabrics and it grew and then she invited Jinny Beyer over for a lecture and I went to the lecture and there was some fabrics for sale and I saw that pink rose fabric and I thought that would work great as a border, though when I got it home it was too stark. It really jumped out of the quilt and I wanted more of a shabby, subdued effect that looked a bit like an antique quilt, so I thought oh, big mistake. But then I flipped the fabric over, perfect!
EL: So that’s what you see on the border, it’s the reverse of the fabric.
AE: Oh, very clever. So when you started, you were driving up and down the Westway, you’d got time waiting between school trips and things, were you thinking the design as you went along? You’d got the Averil Colby picture in your head, so can you tell me about the stages that it started with one thing and then became what it did at the end. How did you work the design?
EL: Originally, I was going to do a kind of a Grandmother’s Flower Garden, which is a central hexagon with six hexagons around it. But I had an awful lot of curtain fabric and I didn’t really want to waste it, so the more roses I cut out they suddenly morphed into diamond shapes, you know. And then I flicked through the Averil Colby book again and I did find a quilt that she had done with hexagon diamonds and so I thought ‘oh that’s good I’ll do that’ and as I’m talking to you I can’t find it in here. Oh there it is… [AE: Right] a diamond patterned coverlet in hexagons with a plain sort of sashing made up of hexagons in between, so that’s what I was aiming for.
AE: Right, so the book was your inspiration for changing and then you got the fabrics.
AE: So what were the influences in all your skills do you think, in developing from hexagons into what you made?
EL: What do you mean?
AE: What was behind your ability to think about design, to think about colour, to have the skills? What influences were around you, where did you learn? How did you find out about patchwork and quilting and developing into that?
EL: Well I think that quilt, it just sort of, it was a bit organic as I went along. But going back, to how I ever started thinking creatively erm, I was never academic really. I knew there was creativity in there. My Mum and Dad were immigrants into this country, so everything we ever did was based on frugality, you know. And I remember at Christmas my Mum would always sit me down and we’d cut Christmas decorations out of paper, newspaper, because that’s all we had and I think that creative streak came from her. And then she worked as an outworker for making dolls for Sindy, you know the [AE: Oh doll’s clothes] doll’s clothes, so the factory would bring in all this fabric and she’d sit there with her old Singer machine that she’d got second hand and all the remnants would drop onto the floor and I would save them. We were given a project at school, we were doing Sri Lanka at the time and we had to do a piece of art. So I did a fabric collage of a Sri Lankan dancer. Because my Dad was Indian, I had a lot of influences there, my Aunties wearing saris and all that sort of thing, so all the little remnants of fabric I saved from my Mum’s knee working on Sindy clothes I took into school, cut them up and I made this collage and at the time I thought it was quite good you know, and I got a prize for it.
AE: I’m not surprised, it sounds brilliant, did you keep it?
EL: No, didn’t keep it, no I didn’t keep it. I don’t know what happened to it. But that was… we had very rare opportunities to do that sort of thing in my school. Then when I went to secondary school we had to make a house apron, in our house colours, so I was Norman and it was yellow gingham but it took us a year to make these aprons and I just thought oh god do you know what, this has put me off sewing for life so it wasn’t until many, many years later, my Mum had passed away and I had just had my second son, he was six weeks old when Mum died. And I think I had post-natal depression but at the time we were so busy running the business and everything else erm I thought I needed to do something creative but at that time I wasn’t thinking anything to do with textiles and I was reading a lot of profound work about bereavement and you know quotes on dying. I know that sounds morbid. So I thought erm calligraphy, I’ll do calligraphy. So I got a friend to babysit for me a couple of hours one day a week and I went to Harrow to do calligraphy and the first couple of years all I did was poems on dying and nobody would sit next to me because they thought I was a bit weird and I thought gosh, this isn’t winning me any friends you know! To actually get to the calligraphy class, we had to walk through Lyn Kilbride’s patchwork quilting class and I didn’t really look too much at what the ladies were doing, but one day a friend of mine from calligraphy said ‘why don’t we do patchwork next year?’ and I said to her, I remember saying this to her ‘Oh gosh no, that’s for older ladies with silver hair up in buns and rocking chairs no, no, no that’s not for me’. And she said ‘oh come on let’s give it a go ‘cos I don’t want to go by myself’. So I did, I signed up for a term and at that point I was even afraid to use a sewing machine, you know. I did everything by hand. Sometimes Lyn would say ‘go on Eva, get the sewing machine out the cupboard’ and I would say ‘no, no, no it’s okay, I prefer to do it by hand’ and to this day I still l prefer hand sewing, although I do like the quick rotary piece methods. I just got hooked. So I gained a lot more friends doing quilting than I did at calligraphy!
AE: So you weren’t doing poems about death in quilting!
EL: No, but I remember going to an exhibition in Holland House in Holland Park and it was a Lebanese artist and she had all these amazing paintings. She came up to me and I didn’t realise she was the artist, and she asked me what I thought of her paintings. And I said well, they make me feel how I felt when my Mum died, that, you know, that bottomless pit within you and the pain and everything. And she said my goodness, she said, I painted these when my mother died. So we had that instant bond and I thought well painting is not for me, you know, what else could I do? And at the time I was a Scout Leader and I said to my co-Scout Leader who is Elaine who is now the treasurer of Honeybees, I said ‘I wish there were some groups around here that did a bit of patchwork and sewing’. Because I’d done Lyn’s course but I felt I needed to progress a bit more. She introduced me to a little craft group in Dollis Hill. It was a mixed craft group so I tended to concentrate on the quilting. But that was more for everybody to do their own thing, there was not tuition as such. So I started branching out and going to The Quilt Room in Dorking, you know, different places that I had heard of and sort of progressed from there. And then I just thought now I need to join a group and the only group at the time was in Harrow. It was a house group, they met in each other’s houses, and I didn’t quite fancy that, I preferred getting out of the house rather than have people come to me and so I thought, right, I will start a group. So I advertised in one of the patchwork magazines and the first meeting was held round my kitchen table and there was about 20 ladies and my husband came home and said ‘oh god you’re not going to do this every week here are you?’ So I thought no, so I hired a church hall and that’s how Honeybee Quilters came about.
AE: Right so at what stage is that, how many years had passed since you made the roses.
EL: Erm, well I made the Roses just before we started Honeybees.
AE: So the influence of Linda McBride [EL: Lyn] Lyn McBride and the exhibitions and trying things out is what culminated in the roses quilt?
AE: So when you started Honeybees were you showing them the Roses quilt and showing them that style, ‘cos you had invited all these people, how were you thinking then to develop yourself and also use that Roses quilt as a springboard for some of them?
EL: Well I didn’t really show it that much [AE: okay]. Because you know, going to exhibitions you start seeing all these amazing quilts and you’re thinking ‘ooh, I’ve only done these little hand pieced hexagons’ and you know I didn’t feel it was ever as good as. And I’m not competitive in any way. I found it very therapeutic, the repetitive part of doing hexagons, it was erm almost weaving your grief into something. And you can’t see that grief in that quilt but it represents erm a time, like a transition really, you know.
AE: A transition from?
EL: Sort of grieving and moving on, and em oh I don’t know how to express it really.
AE: That’s okay. [Microphone noise]
EL: Oh no, that’s terrible.
AE: It’s brilliant Eva because you’re actually describing… I mean, two boys, second baby, of course, you know, you’re overwhelmed emotionally, aren’t you. You’re tired, you’re exhausted. [EL: Yeah.] You’re looking for something, you’re mother has just died, I mean it’s a momentous time in a person’s life, in a young mother’s life.
EL: But you see what’s happening is, you asked me just now about a timescale and I’m getting it all mixed up, it’s sort of a mish-mash.
AE: Who cares? I think that is part of it, isn’t it, that’s part of our history. But there’s something about what you have just described, because I came to quilting, oh, I suppose at a difficult time to a certain extent, but I have always found that repetitive paper, folding over papers, hand stitching, and then hand quilting is the most soothing thing in the world.
AE: And it does give you a feeling of a bit of control when everything around you is out of control.
EL: Yeah, and it grows, it grows that’s the nice thing about it you know.
AE: Well, let’s get back if you’re ready and we’ll talk a bit more about maybe, ‘cos hexagons are all getting fashionable again, and I know I think your point that you didn’t show it because you’re looking at other people’s things and thinking they’re so much better, but were they really?
EL: Yeah that’s why I decided, no that was the quilt that meant a lot.
AE: But we’ll come back to that. [EL: okay]. I hope I’m doing this right. We haven’t got all that… oh, I think it has still been recording all that.
EL: Oh no! [Laughter]
AE: We ought to cut that out. Yeah because the red button is still on!
EL: Oh no, you did that on purpose! (Laughter)
AE: Eva, sorry, let’s get back to talking about how you’re thinking it’s not good enough to show and yet it meant so much to you and how hexagons have come back again.
EL: Mm. What was the question?
AE: Tell me about the transition. You’re walking round shows seeing other quilts that you think look better. You are setting up a group and you are thinking that what you did wasn’t as good as some of these things on show and yet it means so much to you.
EL: Well, yeah my journey in quiltmaking has always been just to do, not what’s fashionable, although I am interested in all the arty techniques and things. But for me it has always been that slow, rhythmic repetition of stitching that is soothing and you can do it while you’re listening to the radio or TV and erm it just means a lot, you know. It’s like going out for a walk isn’t it? You go out to clear your head to clear the cobwebs you think much more clearly. With the quilting every stitch you make, you’re thinking, thinking, it’s like meditation, it’s like chanting isn’t it?
AE: So all of that you captured in that Roses quilt, so even 20 years later and all the things you’ve made in between, when you look at that quilt, it has got this store of memories for you.
EL: Yes, mostly sitting in the car waiting for the kids to come out of school because you know the school run, it’s mad at the school gates and you’re trying to find a place to park. So I would always get there about half an hour early so that gave me half an hour stitching time. And it’s amazing after a while how quickly you do stitch you know because I knew once I got home with the kids I wouldn’t be able to have the time. And it was quite funny taking all the papers out and seeing all the estate agents details and remembering all the houses I’d been seeing before you know, but anyway I digress.
AE: No you don’t because I think that is part of it; it’s the stages. So it took six months to complete the quilt?
EL: Yeah, six months piecing and then I can’t remember how long it took me to quilt it but it wasn’t that long.
AE: And it’s all hand quilted?
EL: All hand quilted, yeah.
AE: How do your family view it?
EL: They like all my quilts, you know. They are always encouraging me to spend more time, but then that’s easy for them to say, isn’t it? They come home and say ‘Mum, what’s for dinner?’ or ‘is my shirt ironed?’ you know, so, but yeah they do like it. Maybe not that one so much because of the floral, you know, the floral pattern and everything, but they do appreciate the work because they see me sitting and stitching, so they appreciate the time and effort that’s gone into it.
AE: Did your father ever see it?
EL: No, no. My Dad died a year after my Mum and no he never actually got to see me stitching, as such, and also because after he died we were busy because we had three restaurants so it was trying to keep that going but I’m sure he’s looking down from heaven.
AE: And your husband, does he have the same kind of memories from that rose’s quilt that you have? Does he look at it?
EL: Yes he does, yeah. Especially when we were doing this house up, you know, he said ‘oh, you know when you finish that, we’ll be able to have it in the front room’ and here it is 21 years later and we’re still using it. It gets used a lot by us, by the cats, by my grandchildren. I have washed it a couple of times. I’m just disappointed about the wadding, but hey ho, experience and all that.
AE: Well cotton wadding wasn’t available then so much.
AE: What do you think makes a good quilt? And that’s really picking up on what you said about looking at some in exhibitions and then thinking your own is just simple hexagons. What to you is a good quilt?
EL: Erm, well obviously the ones that catch your eyes at the exhibitions are the fantastic art quilts and that. But I do like traditional quilts, traditional designs, and I love hand quilting but obviously not with the modern longarm quilters and that, everything has changed, but that’s what I tend to home in on. And a quilt that tells a story, that’s always nice you know.
AE: How do you see that story, when you look?
EL: Well it depends on the quilt doesn’t it? You see these like a double wedding ring with photographs of people on it and erm it’s nice, because you think to yourself in years to come if you look at a quilt, does it tell a story, who made it? Because sometimes you look at antique quilts don’t you, and you don’t know much about the maker. But something like the Dear Jane quilt, that’s a fantastic, you know, story. We know about her and the patterns and um so I think usually you have to read the little cards at exhibitions because your first vision of a quilt might be completely different to what is written on the card and then suddenly your eyes might well up because it might be a quilt that somebody has made when they’ve lost a child or something and then suddenly it takes on a whole different persona the quilt. I don’t know if that sounds silly.
AE: No not at all. So when you look at it you like traditional, you like art, you like a whole range of quilts.
AE: What’s the thing that would really jump out at you the most?
EL: I’d say colour, colour is important yes. But again in my case, I’m usually dictated by, I’ll see a fabric and you know I’ll think ooh yeah that’s cheap I can get five yards for a fiver say at a car boot sale. And I don’t care what colour it is because for me I will bring that fabric home and think now what else have I got to go with it, and usually you can get different colours to go with it. So you can start off with a really ugly fabric but you can blend in other things with it. So colour is important, but for me not necessarily so.
AE: So do you think that’s linked to what you talked about earlier about being frugal? You know, you talked about your Mum and the scraps from the Sindy clothes. Do you think that some of your design, your expression is through that?
EL: Oh definitely.
AE: How much of your Mum is in that part of it then?
EL: Well the more I think about it, you know, a lot of her is in it, a lot. She never had the chance to be creative though. In fact the Christmas before she died, I said to her ‘Mum, what do you want for Christmas?’ and this was before I started doing patchwork quilting, this was in 1984. And she said I’ve seen some cushions with hexagons on and so she said ‘I quite fancy something like that’. And I thought she meant a hexagon shaped cushion, you know a six sided cushion. Not with hexagon patchwork on it, I didn’t really understand and she couldn’t convey to me what she had seen. So I went all over the West End, I went to DH Evans in Wood Green looking for hexagon shaped cushions and I never got the cushions. So I ended up getting her, I can’t even remember, I think it was some pottery and she looked very disappointed when she opened it because she really wanted these blooming hexagon cushions. And then she died two weeks later, and when I eventually did start patchwork quilting I think I was drawn to hexagons because I had that in my brain. And in a way that Shabby Roses quilt is the quilt I was never able to make for my Mum.
AE: Oh that’s amazing. [Microphone noise] Eva we just finished talking about how the hexagons came full circle. You completed it. Let’s look about what you enjoy the most about quiltmaking.
EL: Well, apart from hand piecing, hand quilting, I like the social aspect of it because after a while it is nice and therapeutic to work at home, but it is so much nicer to get with a group of like-minded people and that’s what I enjoy. What else? I enjoy going out and looking for fabrics, I mean I am a car boot sale addict and I’m always looking for remnants and things and then coming home and putting them in a pile until I can find something to go with them. That’s what I enjoy. Again I think that is my Mum’s influence of making things out of nothing coming through. But then you know yesterday at our quilters meeting I did go a bit mad and spent some [money on] fabric but that’s because that’s going to be a special quilt for my brother. So yeah, don’t get me wrong, I do like spending money on fabric as well erm, and books over the years. But I’ve realised that quilting books are like recipe books, you know, you sort of get one design or idea out of one perhaps and same with recipe books. I don’t know if that’s the same for everybody but I’ve got basically a few now that I’ll keep and just get rid of the rest really, books I mean.
AE: So the pleasure is in finding the bargain, that’s your biggest pleasure, but you’re happy to go and buy things for special quilts [EL: oh yeah], so you then make the pattern fit after you’ve got the fabric [EL: yes], you let that inspire you?
EL: Yes, because obviously if you buy a particular patterned fabric, how you cut it up will affect the design. Some years ago in Ikea, I think Cath Kidston contributed a range and it was quite cheap so I went mad and I bought like metre lengths of each of the designs there were polka dots and florals and I put them all together in a quilt and it just looked totally ghastly you know. Because some of the fabric didn’t lend itself to the design and it ended up looking too busy. I need to make it into a table cloth I think that I don’t mind getting things spilt on. Because, you know it’s a shame because I put a lot of work into it but I haven’t wadded or quilted it. In fact that’s something I don’t like about quilting is layering up of quilt tops, especially if I’ve gone a bit mad and done a really big one. I find that very difficult because of my back problem. [AE: right] so that is a bit of a…
AE: And has that dictated now the size that you will make?
EL: Yes, I think I prefer to make smaller quilts really. I mean I’ve pieced enough larger quilts now for myself that they will keep me going for a while, but if anybody asks me in the family or friends to make them a larger one, that’s when I’m not too happy about it.
AE: Fair enough, so the main pleasure for you then is the piecing and the putting of colours together?
EL: Oh, definitely, yeah.
AE: And patterns, apart from being directed by the fabric, are there any patterns you find you gravitate towards?
EL: Yeah, I like traditional block patterns. I’m not so keen on anything involving curves. I have done a few curved piecing workshops and one in particular I did some years ago was freehand curved rotary cutting. I was really gutted because I had bought some lovely fabrics that I thought would go together and then we had to start cutting with gay abandon all these wiggly lines and I just came home and cried and thought ‘oh my god that is fifty quid’s worth of fabric down the pan!’ But, I unpicked it all and that is something I like doing, is unpicking, funnily enough. I do that in front of a film or something, erm yeah, so I unpicked it all and I chopped it up and will use it for crazy patchwork, you know, so it won’t get wasted, but it was a hard lesson cos I had admired curved piece quilts you see and I thought, ‘oh yes great’, but then when you actually come to do it you think no, no this isn’t for me, I’m digressing from what I like doing, so I prefer traditional.
AE: Lovely. [Microphone noise] Eva, tell me what is the biggest challenge you face as a quilter today?
EL: Em, for me the biggest challenge in any of the quiltmaking I do is actually layering them up, you know, the larger quilts. That involves asking husband and son to move furniture in the living room to make a space or perhaps go to one of the shops or workshops that offer that sort of service, where you can use tables at waist height level to layer them up, because it does affect me, you know, physically, so that’s the only thing. But I might start using the services of a longarm quilter, I mean if I had the room I would get one myself, because that would be great. But machine quilting I find very difficult as well because of the… you know, although the say don’t hunch your shoulders up, after a while you do find yourself tensing up. And there are different things on the market, like posture bracers that hold you back. I mean… I think even if I had a straightjacket on, I’d still find it [AE: yeah] hard and also controlling it erm, so yeah, that’s the only thing, that’s why hand quilting is the thing for me.
AE: And it’s what you love.
EL: Yes, yeah.
AE: Well thank you so much Eva, what we are going to do now is take some pictures of you with your quilt. [EL: okay.] Thank you it has been really interesting listening to your quilting story.
EL: Well I’m sorry if it was a bit of um you know all a bit disjointed, but it does link up eventually doesn’t it?
AE: I think it’s been brilliant, thanks again Eva.