Three days a week, a quilting bee meets at HD SOUTH, home of the Gilbert Historical Museum.
In a cavernous room secluded from the rest of the building, the volunteers work around a large frame in quiet companionship, wielding needle and thread to complete quilt tops and fashion them into works of art.
Each spring, they also organize a display of the community’s quilts in what has become a popular show.
Now in its 15th year, the “Art of Quilting” will take place from Feb. 25 to May 25. The show coincides with “A Night at the Museum,” the Gilbert Historical Society’s fundraising gala on Feb. 29.
The community is invited to submit applications for the quilt show Feb. 4 to 15 with a focus on Nine Patch Quilts. Other quilting styles are also accepted.
“We have about 8,000 visitors annually at HD SOUTH, with about half of them coming during the spring,” said Kayla Kolar, president and CEO. “There are many winter visitors in Arizona during that time, so we are happy to share this special quilt exhibit every year.”
During the three months, the walls and hallways of the oldest building in Gilbert will spill out with more than 100 quilts.
One room will highlight the nine-patch style, one of the earliest forms of patchwork quilts. In its simplest arrangement, it consists of joining nine squares of fabric to form a larger square, though there are many variations.
“It’s nine blocks, but you can cut them and turn them and it makes beautiful geometric designs. There’s a lot of creativity involved in it,” said Kathy Lester, a member of the quilting bee who leads the group of about 25 along with fellow quilter Ginny Martin.
Lester has been quilting for about 30 years, joining the bee after she attended one of its shows a decade ago.
“I fell in love with it and I’ve been here every week since,” she said. “I had young kids and it wasn’t always convenient to set up a quilt in the living room. It wasn’t till the kids grew up and I had the spare time that I could do this.”
After a long career at a leading insurance company, Lester finds the bee “relaxing” and “therapeutic.”
“We are always looking for new quilters,” she said.
They can be of any age. No rigorous qualifications are necessary, except, perhaps, some patience, interest in learning and free time. Some members have introduced their daughters to the art.
Currently, there are no men.
“A couple of husbands come now and then, they’ll put in a few stitches and that’s it. They’re just here for the atmosphere,” Lester said.
Quilters come and go. Some are winter visitors, so the numbers dwindle during summer.
Volunteers are constantly in demand because there’s an almost unlimited supply of quilt tops coming from the community that need completing.
Bee members draw the pattern, hand-stitch the quilt and place backing to complete it. The owner pays a nominal fee that goes toward the center’s operations.
Currently, there’s a waiting list of 18 to 24 months because the bee can finish only 10 to 12 quilts a year.
“People now do machine quilting because it’s easier and it’s faster, but people bring us the old quilt tops that they find that mom or grandma had and they never quilted, so we have some real nice old pieces,” Lester said.
At the bee, experienced quilters work with beginners because they strive to maintain the highest-quality of hand-stitching.
Similar to how the bee works, the tasks to organize the show are also shared by all members of the group.
Each member manages an aspect that they are good at, from installation of the exhibit and designing the collateral pieces to writing copy for the labels.
Some quilts are machine quilted. Lester calls them “works of art.” But it’s not a competition.
“We don’t judge them; it’s just to appreciate and inspire people,” she said.
In this electronic day and age, are quilts really worth the time and energy?
“Quilts are timeless,” Kolar said. “Almost everyone loves a beautiful quilt for their bed or as a wall hanging. Many families have passed quilts down through the generations.
“Many modern quilts are used as art. Most are machine quilted for speed and convenience, but the art of hand-quilting is almost priceless,” she added. “The time it takes and the care that goes into each stitch cannot be matched.”