Empire Quilters Crafts a Pattern of Common Goals, Good Causes

Photos by Lakshmi Gandhi January’s guest speaker, Karen Kay Buckley, wows the crowd with her quilts (while passing on a few tips).
Photos by Lakshmi Gandhi
January’s guest speaker, Karen Kay Buckley, wows the crowd with her quilts (while passing on a few tips).

Monthly meetings a chance to forge friendships, build skills


Shoppers scope out patterns and quilting supplies.
Shoppers scope out patterns and quilting supplies.

BY LAKSHMI GANDHI | On the second Saturday of each month, quilters from all over the Tri-State Area gather at the Church of the Holy Apostles to share tips, take classes and show off of their newly-completed pieces.

Empire Quilters began in 1982 as a way for Manhattan quilting enthusiasts to learn from one another. It quickly grew into one of the largest and most well-known guilds in the country, and now has about 200 members. Quilters drive to the church (296 Ninth Avenue, at 28th Street) from as far as Connecticut for the opportunity to mingle with fellow artisans and learn unique techniques from visiting lecturers.

Arline Rubin has been attending Empire Quilters meetings for the last decade. “I’m always picking up news and tips at the meetings,” said Rubin, who lives on 12th Street and has been quilting for 30 years. Rubin has also led workshops for other members, the last of which was on making button pins.

Paula Kenney, the guild’s current president, has been part of the Empire Quilters community for 14 years. She says the most satisfying part of working with the group is “watching it grow, watching various people develop their skills.”

Kenney adds that she believes people are drawn to this guild in particular because of the wide variety of classes and opportunities. Members regularly go on trips to quilt shows, museums and fairs, and organizers work hard to find compelling speakers.

A visit to a recent meeting found guild members browsing through several stalls, as shoppers examined different patterned fabrics and tools for sale. In another corner, a small group of quilters sat around a table, discussing patterns from a workbook. Others sipped coffee or tea as they caught up with each other and flipped through books of patterns that were brought in from the Guild’s extensive library.

Ohio transplant Lisa Belle has been coming to Empire Quilters meetings since she first moved to New York City 13 years ago. The Harlem resident, who told us that she enjoys the meetings for both the camaraderie and the opportunity to sharpen her skills, is part of a small group that gathers at each meeting to try an assigned quilting block from the designs of noted quilter Jennifer Chiaverini.

“It is a creative outlet for me and for a lot of people here,” said Belle — who, as a child, learned to sew from her mother and grandmother. “It’s also a chance to socialize with other people who love your craft,” she said.

A Karen Kay Buckley quilt is displayed.
A Karen Kay Buckley quilt is displayed.

Many members joined the guild after searching for a hobby after retirement. Margo Dolan began quilting after taking a class in a community center shortly after she retired two years ago. A lifelong sewer, Dolan had never quilted before joining the guild. “What I really enjoy are the speakers that they have here,” she noted, recalling “a speaker that specialized in the Korean technique of bojagi and really expanded on the technique.” Several other members said it was the variety of styles and opportunities that kept them coming to the guild.

Marisa Gonzales Hart is one of the newer members of the guild. “I tend to do art quilts in an impressionistic style,” said Gonzales Hart, who noted that she often became inspired by designs she saw at the monthly meetings.

The guild’s January meeting was especially crowded because of the popularity of guest speaker Karen Kay Buckley. A noted quilter, Buckley’s designs have been featured in magazines and newsletters, and she has won several awards for her intricate designs. Buckley’s appearance was a big “get” for the Empire Quilters, and several members in attendance said they specifically came to the meeting to see Buckley in the hopes of learning some of her techniques.

Buckley did not disappoint. Several members oohed and ahhed as Buckley displayed quilt after quilt, explaining her methods along the way.

In addition to promoting the art of quilting and allowing members to learn from one another, Empire Quilters also emphasizes charity work in its mission. Each December, members come together to put together packages for local children in need.

The Ronald McDonald House, New York Foundling Hospital and Covenant House are among the past recipients of quilts. Last year, because so many local families were affected by Superstorm Sandy, all of the gifts were sent to families affected by the storm. Guild members sent packages filled with quilts, along with small toys and candies.

“We had an assembly line,” recalled Kenney. “Everything that could be handmade, was.”

In addition to the annual December outreach, the guild always devotes its March meeting to putting together quilts for charity. According to Jennifer Bigelow, who is in charge of the guild’s charity work, up to 150 quilts are made during the March meeting (this year’s bounty went to local hospitals and homeless shelters). Bigelow is also the liaison between the guild and other charity projects. At the January meeting, Bigelow displayed a quilt she put together for the New York Organ Network. Each block of the quilt represented the life of an organ donor.

Perhaps the liveliest part of each Empire Quilters meeting is the Show and Tell portion towards the end of each gathering. Show and Tell is exactly what it sounds like: an opportunity for members to share their quilts or works in progress and to explain their artistic visions. Other community members are supportive throughout, clapping, giving feedback and taking pictures.

Many of the members say they are grateful for the opportunity to celebrate quilting, a skill many consider to be a lost art. But at least one member of the guild says practicing that art in Chelsea does have one major disadvantage.

“Quilting is a stupid hobby for anyone who lives in an apartment,” said longtime Empire Quilters member Lee Ebbs. “We don’t have room for all of the fabric we want to have, but we can’t help ourselves!”

For more information about Empire Quilters, visit empirequilters.net or send an email to [email protected] Meetings are held the second Saturday of every month (with the next meeting scheduled for Sat., April 13), at the Church of the Holy Apostles (296 Ninth Avenue, at 28th St.). Visitors can attend the meetings for a $10 fee.