Meet the Designer: Helen Stubbings

Helen Stubbings

When we asked Helen about her journey into the world of stitchery, she shared some beautiful memories of her family and early life as a professional musician. Stitchery came later for her – first as an adjunct to a gruelling routine of travel and work as a member of the Australian Army Corpband and later as a creative response to Army postings as a young mum in remote parts of Australia, away from her beloved family.

CGT has had a special connection to Helen ever since our resident alchemist and founder Pam created the thread Hugs N Kisses for her around 2012. It’s probably fair to say that we recognise in each other the energy, creativity and risk-taking inherent in building a small Australian business around the thing that is our shared passion.

Hugs N Kisses is a two tone red that moves between a vibrant true red and a deeper hue. No. 1007 Hugs N Kisses plays an important part in Cottage Garden Threads history, it was the colour to really challenge Pam as she tried to perfect the richness that Helen was looking for. The answer was in simply dyeing it twice. Hugs N Kisses is one of the few Cottage Garden Thread colours that are double dyed. Read on for our special offer on Hugs N Kisses. 

We started off our conversation with Helen by asking how she came to ask Cottage Garden Threads to develop Hugs N Kisses. She told us that she’s been a long-time fan of red and since beginning her stitching journey she’s used lots of it.

“One colour stitching is a classic style, and very therapeutic as you don’t have to think about or choose thread colours – and you can’t go wrong – it always looks good” she says. 

After a while, she found herself using variegated red to counter what she increasingly saw as the tonal flatness of single colour red floss. “A variegated thread gives the embroidery or stitchery so much more movement and depth to the eye and just draws you into the design”.And as Helen began working with variegated thread, as she tells it: “I developed a desire for slightly different colour changes, lengths and tone to (the thread) I couldn't find commercially, so I approached Cottage Garden Thread's Katie and Pam at a trade show and asked if they’d dye me one!"

Helen was looking for a variegation with intense red tones that also incorporated dark tones over its length so it could be used to stitch a “drawing” or a line. It took experimentation and a few long hours in the dye room for CGT to get the right tones of red – not too purple or too pink – as well as incorporating the ideal measurement of tones along the entire thread length. 

Helen was delighted with the result and of course, Hugs N Kisses has become one of the biggest sellers in the CGT signature range. Those who love red work are known to have multiples in thier stash! Helen has gone on to feature it in many of her designs.

Simply redwork by Helen Stubbings of Hugs n Kisses
Cornelian Quilt by Helen Stubbings
Cornelian Quilt by Helen Stubbings
Close up of Cornelian Quilt

Last month we reached out to Helen Stubbings to talk floss and stitching, and our chat ended up going to some wonderful places. We’re stoked to be able to bring you our conversation.

CGT:  You started off working life as a professional army musician – which suggests that you’ve been playing music for most of your life. What instrument/s and how did that all come about?

Helen: “My mother was a piano player and we had a little family band [which played] for all the oldtime dances and weddings in the district”. I will never forget my start and my parents love of old-time dance – I still remember all the old traditional songs that were best for the barn dances. My mother was a piano player and my father a bagpiper! I settled on the trumpet in Grade 6 after trying organ, guitar, recorder and all the other staples. I chose trumpet because my father had always wanted to play it and the idea was I’d learn at school and teach him at home. That arrangement lasted for about one week I think! I continued playing trumpet through high school, playing in regional concert bands. One of my biggest thrills was playing at the first ever Generations in Jazz in Mount Gambier- now a huge event patroned by James Morrison and many other famous amazing musos. Later, when the 4MD band(now the Australian Army Band Adelaide) toured the southeast, our little town band hosted a party for them. My parents got chatting to some of the musicians and before I knew it, I was doing work experience with the army band in the big city of Adelaide. And after school I joined the army! Over the next 13 years as a full-time musician in the Army I was fortunate to travel several times overseas,and to work all over Australia with some amazing musicians and singers.”

Two Fruits pattern

CGT: How did you come to learn stitchery in the first place?

Helen: My grandmother was a seamstress, dressmaker, embroiderer, crocheter, knitter and more. We only visited her during the holidays, but she taught me most things. I had a ‘fancyworkbox – an old shoebox full of printed doilies, tablecloths and all her old threads to learn with. She taught me to embroider fancywork, knit and crochet. Many years later, I taught her patchwork when she was in her 70’s and I still have her unfinished hexie quilt – which she made from scraps of her dressmaking fabrics – a project for me to one day finish for her. When she was at the end of her life, I took my three girls to visit her in hospital and she taught them to crochet. I have this wonderful memory of them all sitting around and on her hospital bed and making their first granny squares. She loved that she could still do that and it’s a memory they’ll never lose. I can’t knit anymore because I don’t have her to pick up my dropped stitches! But I credit my love for stitching to her and all the hours we spent playing with her fabrics, ribbons, threads and more.

CGT: How did you incorporate stitching into your life as a professional army musician? Did your fellow band members think you were a bit crazy?

Helen: I was only the second female to enter my band unit – until then it had been very much a male domain. And for a while I was the only woman there. Due to the random work hours with lots of weekend and night work, initially I slipped into the habit of doing lots of day sleeping and wasting my life. To counter that I began to take classes. I was such a country bumpkin – new to the bright lights of Adelaide city – and I enrolled in any class I could find. Along with knit wit classes, overlockerclasses, calligraphy classes, I began cross stitching. I started cross stitching on long bus trips – because it’s so easily portable. Then I was joined by a second woman band member who also cross stitched – and after that we were a team. While the guys probably did think we were crazy, they became used to us having our own seat on the bus and constantly having something on the go with a needle and thread.

Quilting work by Helen Stubbings

CGT: What are some of the milestones and achievements in learning to stitch that you most remember? 

Helen: After I’d left the band and become an Army wife, I gave birth to my first child in Wagga. Three weeks after she was born, I started a Certificate 4 in Needlecraft Skills at Wagga TAFE and then I began a small business called Molly A designs making women’s and children’s clothing. So much for relaxing with a newborn! The TAFE course was brilliant and set me up so well for where I am now with my business. Other highlights for me in my stitching journey are my early trips to the US – to a Long arm Quilt Market and winning an award at the Paducah Quilt Show in Texas with my sister and being on stage to be presented with the award. Another is my involvement in the QuiltAid program instigated worldwide as a way of bringing quilt makers together to support charities that benefit women. I’m also really proud of our homegrown charity program Snuggly bug Rug Project: which we’ve run for over 15 years bringing handmade quilts to children with terminal or long-term illness in Tasmania. Teaching stitchery around the world is another highlight for me, particularly teaching in Norway where I find stitchers are so like Australian stitchers!

CGT: As an Army wife – no longer actively serving yourself, but dealing with frequent relocations to and from Army bases and raising three children – how did stitching help you deal with those challenges?

Helen: Stitching was my way in to meet people. With young children and no family close by to help, and not a single person you know; its either sport, children or craft that are the in roads to meeting people. So it was playgroups and craft groups for me! The posting to Townsville as a young mother – which just felt so far away from family and friends –meant that the Army craft group was my saviour. The group came with childcare – so whilst we stitched, our kids had a wonderful time. I met the Chookshed Girls through this group. As successful pattern designers, they were an absolute inspiration to me. I started my own classes in my home for other mums, then came classes in several stores in Townsville once my kids were in kindergarten and school. The Army craft group also brought teachers to Townsville and I was able to learn new things and upgrade my skills from applique with Dianne Johnstone, quilting from Lee Cleland, pictorial quilts from Jenny Bowker and many more. I was hungry to learn everything.

Two French Kisses pattern

CGT: What advice do you have for women who find themselves in similar situations?

Helen: Put yourself out there, just turn up and be positive and happy and stitchery people will take you in their arms. It doesn’t have to be a defence group. Every state and area in Australia have guilds or groups, right down to just a few people who get together in their homes. Now it’s even easier with Facebook to find a group when you move into an area. Just reach out and they will welcome you. When I founded the Tasmanian Modern Quilt Guild (now Tasmanian Modern Quilt Group) with others, we made sure to have a ‘welcomer’ for any new visitors. I’ve made wonderful and talented new friends from people who have moved to Tasmania and joined this group.

CGT: Who or what inspired you to develop a business around your love of stitching?

Helen: I sort of fell into it! Once I started teaching casually, I recognised the need to have my own patterns and designs to teach so as not to be infringing on copyrights. My first patterns were designed under the name GollyG and as I didn’t even have a computer, they were pretty simple. My own computer(without a modem) changed my life… and how far we’ve come now! It was during a posting to Canberra, when I was trying to get a “civvy” job that I realised with two small children and only a 2 year limited posting, I was not going to land a job that I wanted. So instead, I employed a graphic artist, got myself a logo and business name and turned my hobby into a real business. Hugs’N’Kisses was born in 2001 with a book of about 24 sketched designs and I’ve grown it from there. My passion is certainly around the ‘therapy of stitching’ and making a difference. I guess that came from moving around so much and being isolated, and the therapy and opportunities stitching gave me. I feel if we are lucky enough to be able to afford to stitch and make quilts then the next step is using that passion to make a difference to others. Starting Quiltaid, and then Snugglybugs, along with so many therapy projects like Stitch Therapy 365 – I’ve seen and heard the difference they make. Let’s face it, most of us just want the enjoyment of the process, so if we can, then gift that, or incorporate it into making a difference to someone else – it also makes us feel doubly good.

Quilting work by Helen Stubbings

CGT: What have been some of the challenges about running a small textile business in Australia? What have been some of the highlights? 

Helen: Small business is tough – you have to wear all the hats! And a quilting business is not going to make anyone rich! I now have 4 streams to my business – Quarter Inch (the retail store in Hobart), HNK design brand, QIlaser and Helen Stubbings Surface Pattern Design. My mind doesn’t stop! I work long hours and am forever thinking about what happens next.
We manufacture goods (like applique paper, stabiliser etc), wholesale and retail, Laser for other businesses, and run a café in the shopfront at Quarter Inch. We run events and I teach and design (patterns, projects, books) and do all the marketing and graphic artwork. Being in business for myself has also given me flexibility to be with my kids growing up – to travel the world and meet so many amazing inspirational people and to finally collapse into my lounge chair late at night and bring out my needle and thread.

CGT: You live in Tasmania now and have opened a shop-front that’s been trading since 2015. Do you have any reflections about the difference between on-line retail and a bricks and mortar shopfront as a physical retail space that people can come into? 

Helen: My only reason for opening a shopfront was to get my house back! The business had taken over every available space and my family had to live amongst my ‘stuff’ and staff coming and going. So, we bought a building and to help pay for it, opened a storefront which we called Quarter Inch. At first, I thought I might just enjoy being a shop owner. But my own production of work just stopped – it wasn’t my bag. So now we have lovely staff who meet and greet our shop customers, the amazing Jo who manages the backend and most other things. And I work mostly from my home studio. I’ve always been a person who needs to achieve for myself every day – or for me it’s a day of life wasted. I typically start each day with an ever growing list and if I don’t get anything ticked off I’ll either keep going into the night – or be a very grumpy mumma…. It is NEVER completed though.

Thought of the day. Believe in yourself, face the world with and smile and you will shine inside and out.
We love Helen's inspirational posts on her instagram account. If you don't follow Helen already, go give her a follow. Details at the end of the post.

CGT: Your business takes you all over the world – what are some of your favourite places overseas –and why?

Helen: I love Norway, the stitchers there have a similar style of stitchery and use of colour to Australians. They love handwork and slow stitching. I’ve found that Americans seem to prefer quicker projects and more machine work but preferences are also changing over the years and there’s lots of exciting things happening there. This year I’m teaching in NZ for the first time which I’m excited about. I particularly love gathering events and weekend retreats where its more about the friendship and passion of sharing stitches. I’m particularly proud of our ‘Stitching Affair’ family – lifelong friendships formed at our exclusive retreats over the past 7 years across Australia and NZ. This is a family that’s always the first to comment and support in times of need, sadness, achievements, birthdays and more. I’ve had the opportunity to teach on cruises to Alaska and the Caribbean and at retreat centres in Indiana and New York to name a few. The best thing is meeting so many wonderful designer friends and stitchers and learning about their lives and home. And the beauty of Facebook is I can stay in touch with so many of them. It can sometimes be isolating working fulltime in your studio with just Mr Bentley (the dog) for company!

CGT: Your stitching hot tip? And what are you most looking forward to in 2024?

Helen: Mmmm this is hard, I love so many things – but I am always trying to come up with easy and more enjoyable ways to get results for my stitching community.
We’ve recently introduced easy app packs – lasercut applique paper templates to use as you wish with so many options – along with including lasercut applique templates into our patterns – no more tracing and cutting out templates. Mod EPP is another technique I’ve been extending to other shapes from hexies – now playing with diamonds, honeycombs and applecores – this method with our EPP Iron-ons is so quick and fun to do but the projects look great. And right now I’ve been playing with fusible grid piecing and stash busting slow stitching projects –with a possible new product in R&D right now. My best tip would be to stitch what brings you joy! A slow stitching, ready and on the go project to grab when you just have a few minutes to spare – to make the most of every minute. You’d be surprised how much you achieve and get finished whilst also getting some daily ‘you time’. It’s the much needed time out and the therapeutic flow that taking a stitch brings.

Helen was one of many designers who contributed to our Hearts For Pam project. Helen designed 'A Hearty Cottage Garden' which includes her Hug n Kisses thread.

Helens Hearts for Pam design
Helen's Hearts for Pam Design 'A Hearty Cottage Garden'


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Quote from Helen Stubbings Instagram page
Helen inspires stitchers through her socials

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