In a frenetic age more fragmented than ever, the quilter’s art sows consolation. Haphazard scraps and heirloom cloth find new life in geometric harmonies. Timeworn clothing—a child's shirt, threadbare trousers, a vintage necktie—is transfigured into embroidered mosaics.
Even the lexicon of quilting reflects the studied composure of its practitioners: a stabilizer, pinned under the backing fabric, keeps a quilt in place during appliqué or embroidery.
One of the Sunshine Coast's regional quilting groups uses coy wordplay to hint at the tranquil effect of its craft. The Pender Harbour Piecemakers are one of five local branches of the Sunshine Coast Quilters’ Guild.
Together with members from other pun-loving satellite groups—the Half Moon Crazies, the Fat Quarters, Gone to Pieces, and Cotton Club—the Guild claims a membership of over 80 from Langdale to Egmont.
The Guild was founded in 1982 by Pat Crucil, a Winnipeg native who hand-dyed and printed fabrics using a technique called deconstructed screen printing. Her abstract designs, more painting than patchwork, positioned her among the vanguard of modern quilting’s artistic renaissance.
“Another advent is that of minimalism,” says Hilary Henderson, a past president of the Guild and one of the organizers of a living exhibition at the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives in early 2022.
“There’s something new that’s happening all the time because they just keep coming up with new ideas. Myself, I like floral designs, and use the traditional applicator where you hold your piece of fabric down so you can stitch it on.”
Technological innovation has transformed the craft throughout its history. The custom of sandwiching padding between fabric layers first appeared in depictions of Egyptian pharaohs more than 5,000 years ago. Cotton irrigated by the Nile later became a trading staple in the Mediterranean and was quilted into protective undergarments for crusading knights.
Roller knives and adhesive backings now ease the process of cutting and arranging patterns. Embroidery machines allow precision stitches impossible to achieve by hand.
COVID-19 lockdowns only momentarily interrupted the ancient custom of in-person quilting conclaves.
“Sitting in your sewing room with your machine, it’s very lonely,” says Phyllis Argyle, a member of the Guild’s newsletter committee. “You don’t want to do that all the time. With our satellite groups sharing ideas and getting together, it's just a really nice way to get together socially.”
The Guild promotes regular quilt shows, classes, demonstrations and displays. Eight formal meetings take place between September and May. Resource Days typically take place at the Sechelt Seniors Activity Centre. The topics are like homespun TED Talks, light-hearted and hands-on. In November, wool appliqué specialist Uschi Greiner expounded on “Having Fun with Wool.”
When COVID closed borders, Sunshine Coast quilters sharpened their digital skills. Even now, members use web conferencing to attend workshops offered by the Canadian Quilters Association. Guest experts from urban centres like Toronto use Zoom to run demonstrations for Sunshine Coast audiences.
The Guild’s membership roll is composed exclusively of women. Startled by the appearance of a Coast Life photographer, a participant in a recent quilting retreat shouted a tongue-in-cheek warning: “It’s a man!”
Senior board members faintly recall a time when males enlisted, but acknowledge the wholehearted support by a corps of husbands and partners. As in fibre art itself, more strands means added strength.
“We’ve got people who are in their 90s, and the youngest people are probably in their 40s,” observes Argyle. “Everybody’s got a quilt or something they want to show. It has a story to tell or maybe you just finished it for somebody special. And you always hear, ‘Oh, I like that. I like that pattern. I’m going to find out where she got it.’”
Every member of the Sunshine Coast Quilters’ Guild is also a member of the Comfort Society, a separately-registered nonprofit organization. Quilts made by members are distributed to a variety of charitable agencies, including the Sunshine Coast Hospice, Christenson Village, Totem Lodge, Shorncliffe Intermediate Care Home, Meals on Wheels and Habitat for Humanity.
“On an annual basis we usually donate more than 300 quilts,” says Sue Lowell, current president of the Guild. “And one of our biggest donation spots right now is the hospital. Our goal is to give a quilt to every baby that’s born on the Sunshine Coast, whether in the hospital or a home birth.”
The Comfort Society coordinates distribution through nursing staff. The “quilt basket” is a fixture of the maternity ward at Sechelt Hospital. After delivery of her newborn, each mother selects a handmade blanket for her child.
“When a mom has been sent off to Vancouver to have the baby, we do our best to chase them down and make sure they get a quilt as well,” adds Lowell.
A Guild member recently accompanied her husband who underwent a procedure at the hospital. She carried her latest quilting project to keep her hands busy while waiting. As the doctor closed the incision with needle and thread, the quilter stitched in concert nearby.
After the operation was complete, the doctor glanced at the blanket in progress. “Oh, are you involved with the quilting?” she asked. The quilter nodded. “I deliver a lot of babies at this hospital,” continued the physician, “and it’s wonderful that they get quilts. It’s a very cherished program from our perspective.”
The Comfort Society also works with Sunshine Coast Community Services, which distributes quilts to newly-settled immigrants. During the Syrian diaspora in 2016, each member of local refugee families received a handmade blanket.
Ukrainian families arriving in 2022 benefited from the same treatment.
The Quilters’ Guild maintains links to a network of local supply shops that provision its tight-knit community. In Sechelt, both Fibre Expressions Quilt Shop and Sew Easy offer cottons, threads and embroidery essentials. Gibsons-based Stitch and Bobbin sells a range of sewing machines and materials.
In Madeira Park, the yurts of Fibre Works Studio and Gallery have become a hotbed of quilting know-how. Alexis Bach, the executive director of Fibre Works, will be the featured artist at the Sunshine Coast’s biennial Quilt Show, scheduled for May 26 and 27, 2023.
“Every two years, we hold the quilt show,” notes Lowell. “We didn't hold the last one because of COVID, of course, so 2023 is going to be a large extravaganza. We’re still in the early stages of organizing it, but I would estimate that there will be close to 200 quilts on display.”
A theme of Circling Back was selected for the 2023 Quilt Show. The slogan is much more than simple inspiration. Guild members are urged to contribute a “challenge quilt” whose design conforms to the theme.
Quilt Show visitors will select a Viewer’s Choice. “That’s sort of the big ribbon,” says Lowell. “And we’ll have a raffle quilt and a little section where people can purchase quilts or quilt-y items that have been made by members.”
Sustaining the tradition is a priority for Sunshine Coast quilters. Through its outreach program, two local youth were selected in early 2022 to exhibit work at the Canadian Quilters’ Association exhibition.
Using earth-toned fabrics, nine-year-old Caleb Shields of Gibsons depicted the log-lined foreshore of Hotel Lake. 19-year-old Maya Somogyi used appliqué and machine quilting to create a self-portrait. Her fabric doppelgänger is clad in bright yellow, splashing in puddles fashioned with a trapunto technique to achieve three-dimensional effects.
In the hands of Sunshine Coast quilters, fabric fragments form the stuff of community.
Prospective members and future quilters can learn more online about the Sunshine Coast quilting community at scquiltersguild.com.