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Quilting a team effort for husband and wife

Posted: July 11, 2012 - 8:19am
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Jack Vellinga, right, uses a computerized quilting machine to quilt one of the three quilts he and his wife, Helen (sewing at left), are working on in their home in Kenai. The couple are avid quilters.  M. Scott Moon
M. Scott Moon
Jack Vellinga, right, uses a computerized quilting machine to quilt one of the three quilts he and his wife, Helen (sewing at left), are working on in their home in Kenai. The couple are avid quilters.

Depending on who you ask, either Jack Vellinga continues to quilt because he likes to run the 12-foot Grand Quilter 18.8 or because his wife, Helen Vellinga, makes him.

Either way, he has become firmly planted in the quilting world and is just as quick to talk about the couple's "stash" or spend an afternoon pulling stitches by hand from a quilt as any other quilter on the Kenai Peninsula.

"He enjoys it, don't let him kid you any," Helen said as she interrupted Jack from an afternoon of listening to a black and white movie Western in the couple's expansive living room.

He looked up from his work -- plucking tiny gold-threaded stitching from an enormous pile of crimson material draped over his chair.

"He designs the quilting, I design the quilts," Helen said.

Helen explained that her hands don't work as well as they used to, partially the result of an injury that left one of her fingers bent painfully to the side. So, Jack stepped in to take over the process of putting the quilt together after she comes up with a design and pieces it together on a smaller sewing machine.

"I'm 85 years old," she said. "I'm not no spring chicken and he's 83."
The two are prolific.

Jack shows off a binder of his stitching designs and another filled with photographs of some of the quilts they've finished together in their five years of working as a team; there are more than 50 pages sitting in the binder, more stored on the couple's iPad, still more on their computer.

They laugh and answer in unison when asked where all of the quilts are stashed.

"They're stacked in the corner."

The corner they point to is nestled between a sofa and a wall in the living room where two 5-foot-tall stacks of quilts are folded into large, neat squares.

When they talk, the two have a tendency to explain things one sentence a time and break into a back-and-forth dialogue.

"There's one on the bed. There's two or three hanging on the wall," Jack said.

"We give them away, we sell them once in awhile," Helen adds.

"There's one hanging there, one hanging there, one hanging there," Jack said pointing to several walls and one hanging behind the couple's bedroom, just adjacent to their sewing room where a stash closet overflows onto the floor.

"I've got a trunk full too," Helen said.

"There's several we haven't taken pictures of," Jack continues.

The quilting machine that sparked the partnership takes up the entire back wall of the sewing room and Jack powers up the automated quilter he programs to stitch each of their quilts.

The machine functions much like a large typewriter. After the computer is programmed with a design and size for the quilt it moves the arm of the machine, nearly silently, from one end of the narrow table to the other, stitching the top, filler and backing together to complete each piece.

Helen recalls when the two bought the machine and she chuckles while talking about it.

"I had a real cheapie one and I didn't like it," she said. "He decided we should get a better one and I said, 'If we do, you're going to do the quilting.' He says, 'Oh no I ain't,' I says, 'Oh yes you are.'"

As she's speaking, Jack starts tapping on the computer screen with a stylus, his movements quick and efficient as he selects a design and size parameter for the machine to work with.

"It's all computerized and he's the computer guru, I guess you could call him," Helen said. "But it acts up once in a while and that's what he's doing (in the living room). He's taking some stitching out that didn't come out to suit him."

After he's finished the initial programming, Jack waits for the computer to move the quilting arm into position. He said it took him about a month to learn the process.

"The key to having one of these is not being afraid to try something with it, figure out what it does," he said, lifting his head briefly away from the touchscreen. He looked back down, annoyance briefly deepening wrinkles in his forehead as he waited for the programming to kick in. "C'mon grandma."

Finally, it responds and moves to a corner of the long table, waiting to begin stitching.

Jack said he didn't have a favorite quilt that the two have made together but Helen moves back into the living room and over to their quilt stack. As she starts digging the two fall back into the pattern of rapid-fire question and answer discussion when Jack asks what she's looking for.

"I was looking for the one with all the ducks."

"The ducks?"

"You don't have any idea do you."

"Did I put ducks on something?"

"Yes."

"I don't remember putting ducks on anything."

"I know you don't. I have no idea where it's at."

Helen pulled quilts from the pile, stacking several into a precarious position on the arm of the couch before they succumb to gravity and spill over onto the floor.

A few she unfolds on the floor and Jack follows right behind her, folding them back into squares as she continues her search.

Each piece she unfolds seems bigger than the last and as she unfolds one that's about 10 feet long Helen calls it "one of her smally ones."

"I don't have a tendency to make small quilts," she said.

"It might be easier to find it this way," Jack says, giving up on folding and picking up the iPad. "There's 50 of them stored in here."

Then he moves over to the computer digging through photographs and pointing to thousands of plant and flower photographs the two have taken together, evidence of another team effort, much like the art and framing gallery the two used to run in Anchorage.

"One day she's looking and she says, 'The slides are losing their color. You'd better scan them in.' So 3,823 later I had them scanned. Then she has the gall to tell me I hadn't put the names on," he said. "So I went back and put the names on them. Then I told her, 'I will not put the botanical name on.'"

Neither of them knows of any other couples who quilt together and Helen estimates that they do something quilting related everyday.

"We don't pay much attention to what other people do," Jack said.

Helen gets her ideas from magazines, or dreams them up while Jack said a lot of his quilting patterns come from cartoons and coloring books he scans into the computer.

They've got several quilts in various stages of completion hanging on a rack near the sewing room, another white and cream colored concoction sits draped over an ironing board.

Helen estimated it would cost around $1,500 if sold for fair market value.

"That's just the cost of the material, the batting the backing and by the time I get through with it and he gets through with it," she said. "I won't buy cheap material."

Helen said the two have sold a lot of quilts but some of the more expensive ones just wouldn't sell.

"She appliqued one," Jack said. "It's worth $4,000 but no one is going to buy it."

The two started talking again about their future in quilting and projects they're working on together and the conversation turns back around to gentle teasing about Jack got his start.

"I don't have a choice. I bought the machine and she told me I had to learn to use it," he says, comically throwing his hands into the air.

"He's a good husband, he does what he's told," Helen says, patting him on the back.

Rashah McChesney can be reached at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com.

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