Interview with Alma Elias

Quilt Artist Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

woman seated working on a large quiltHow did you come to have an interest in quilting? 

I loved fabrics and I wanted to make a memory quilt for my son. 

My mother was an inspiration. She sewed out of necessity but she was always creative. She sewed most of my clothes including dresses with three tiered skirts and puffed sleeves. My sisters and I felt special in our Sunday best. Mom had an artistic eye and she adored beautiful fabrics. I can still see her caressing bolts of fabric in Friesen's Dept. Store. 

When I got married I was a student so out of necessity I too learned to sew. I found I enjoyed making my own clothes and also adding a personal touch to curtains and wool comforter coverings. 

When my first son was 6 years old I wanted to make a memory quilt for his bed so my very first quilt was made of his fabric crayon drawings on squares that alternated with checked squares. I still have it. It's still precious. 

How did you come to have an interest in designing the pieces you quilt? 

When I design I'm usually inspired to commemorate a special event like the birth of a new baby, a birthday or a wedding. This has led to a series of photo-transfer quilted wall hangings for my sisters' birthdays. Then for my parents 80th birthdays I made a photo-transfer quilt on a watercolor background depicting their family life together. Mom now has memory loss and is a resident at the Mennonite Nursing Home in Rosthern (Saskatchewan). This quilt hangs on her wall and acts as a reminder of who she is and the life she led. 

Sometimes a fabric is the inspiration for water or sky or a watercolor Irish chain or a log cabin. At other times a scene or a photo or another quilt dictates my choice. At the Saskatoon Quilt Guild meetings, show and tell time often offers inspiration. 

Do you design on paper before you start with the textiles? 

Sometimes. If I am making a building such as a church or a barn or the old red schoolhouse at Rosthern Junior College (RJC) then I work from a photograph. I make paper pieces to correspond to the different parts of the buildings and then transfer them to fabrics. For the RJC quilt made in 2005 to commemorate 100 years I made a lot of drawings of the different images but that is partly because I'm not very good at drawing the picture in my mind. 

large quilt with a cross pattern in the middleWhy did you choose to do "Easter Sunday"?

I love the watercolor technique. I enrolled in a class and started to prepare my more than 200 two-inch squares of different fabrics. Our assignment was to make a 13 by 15 two-inch square block. But I had this picture in my mind that wouldn't go away. I pictured a cross on a floral background with glowing light radiating behind it. And it was big. I saw it hanging in the front of our church. So I approached our pastor saying I had an idea for a quilt for Easter Sunday. Would he be open to using it as an aid to worship? I received a definite yes. So I kept on working. Now I really should have made that 13 by 15 2-inch square block because I did a lot of ripping and substituting. Watercolor technique looks much easier than it really is. One 2-inch square turned one-quarter turn can interrupt the flow of line or color. When it was completed, there were 2000 2-inch squares behind and around the cross and it was ready for Easter Sunday 2000. 

Was it a spiritual journey to work on this piece? 

For me it was an affirmation of God's leading. I didn't so much choose to make it as I felt chosen to make it, almost compelled to make it. I quit 3 or 4 times thinking, "what am I doing? I can't have my quilt in front of all these accomplished people. There are real artists here. What am I thinking?" Each time I stopped, exactly the right person came along and said just what I needed to hear for me to continue. I felt led when I couldn't abandon it. It was also very humbling later to hear people say that they were moved or touched by God's presence in the quilt. It reminded me that I was just an instrument and it made me wonder anew about the power of visual art in the church. 

How many pieces have you created? 

Over one hundred. Most have been made and given away as gifts for birthdays, weddings and new babies. I also make several every year for our annual MCC relief sale. 

Are you working on new projects?

Presently I'm exploring the bargello technique and it's many possibilities. I'm also working on Christmas gifts for my two grandchildren. One quilt needs to please a princess and the other a junior mechanic. In addition, ideas are starting to percolate for a wedding gift for a niece- maybe a bargello.