A tiny guild with heart: Meet Burnaby’s master quilters
“Sometimes we just think we're just a tiny little guild and don't really matter that much, but I think we do. And I want to tell the world that we're here.”
Once a month at Christine Sinclair Community Centre in Burnaby, you can find a group of people—sometimes up to 50 of them—armed with heaps of fabric, sewing machines, and thread.
They are the Pacific Spirit Quilters’ Guild, and they’re getting ready to celebrate their 31st anniversary next month.
The guild was created in Burnaby in 1991, out of the New Vista Society, by a group of likeminded quilters who simply wanted a community with which to share their passion.
Program and workshops coordinator for the guild, Ieke Giese, told the Beacon that people fall in love with quilting for a variety of reasons—but a common one is that people have a baby coming into their lives, and want to make a quilt for them.
“I actually met a man whose wife, when she retired, decided she needed a sewing machine. … And then they were going to become grandparents and he said, ‘Well, now you’ve got your sewing machine, you can make a quilt’ and she said, ‘I’m not doing that’,” Giese said.
“He went, ‘Great. I’ll do it.’ That’s how he became [interested]. I think it’s really a love for someone in your family who did it, or you just have an affinity for it.”
Others, meanwhile, are used to making their own clothing, and quilting is a natural hobby for them. And still, others become interested in it because they’re simply looking for a way in which to express themselves artistically, through fabric, plans, and patterns.
And a benefit of this art form versus others is that you end up with something tangible at the end of your project, Giese said.
“It’s a very tactile medium. It’s something to give to the community—it’s a useful art. And you can give it to people and they can lay on the couch—everybody wants a quilt, they just don’t know how to get them.”
One of the guild’s mandates, apart from sharing their common passion for quilting, is for members to take those tangible products of their art and give them to those who could use them.
The guild donates comfort and wheelchair quilts to organizations like Burnaby Family Life and St. Michael’s Hospice, along with incubator quilts for premature babies born at Burnaby General Hospital and Royal Columbian Hospital.
Volunteers teach classes to new Canadians at Maywood Community School and do outreach programs at local high schools and at Burnaby Village Museum.
“Also what has been happening a lot lately is—a quilter will pass away in a family, and there’ll be a bunch of unfinished quilt. And we have some members that will actually finish the quilt for their family,” Giese told the Beacon.
“We have some members who sew all sorts of really great things like fidget quilts for seniors that may have dementia or Alzheimer’s.”
Most members of the group are in their late 50s or 60s, Giese said—but several are in their 80s. About 10 of the group’s founding members have been around since the guild’s beginning, and are still active members.
Giese reflected that quilting is an activity that seniors can keep doing even as they get older and their eyesight gets poorer, even as other hobbies become more difficult.
And along with a space to enjoy their shared love of quilting, members have found something equally precious—a sense of belonging and community.
“The reason I joined the guild is because my friend had retired and I needed a reason to continue to see her at least monthly. And through that, my personal friendship group has grown through these women that I would never in a million years ever know except through the guild,” Giese said.
“They go walking, they go quilting, they go for lunch. We pride ourselves on our field trips … you get to really know people and it becomes a real social group.”
During the pandemic, of course, that social group had to quickly adjust to a new reality.
They met on Zoom instead of in person and did informal Thursday night chit chats, which Giese said would often host between 15-25 people. Folks kept in touch via email threads, Facebook groups, and phone calls.
Some members never got used to the switch to using technology to stay connected.
“But on the other hand, for many people, especially the women in their 70s and 80s, this was a whole new skill to learn—and they learned it, and they learned it really well. So we kept together that way. People would occasionally just call other people and just make sure that they were okay if you didn’t hear from them.”
The guild still uses a hybrid platform, with a mix of in-person and virtual events planned for the next few months—including a virtual New Years’ Eve party.
But the pandemic meant that members had to miss an important milestone last year. They weren’t able to have a proper celebration for the guild’s 30th anniversary.
To make up for that, they’re hosting a celebration to mark their 31st anniversary instead on Thursday, September 8.
“We’re just going to have a big show and tell, to show all the quilts that we have made over the last couple years that no one’s seen. And then we’ll have some words from the mayor and some words from our executive, and then we’re gonna have cake,” Giese said.
“It’s just a simple little celebration party just to share our love of quilting with people.”
The guild always welcomes new members. Giese said it has a policy of allowing guests to visit one meeting for free before you decide if a membership is right for you.
And if you aren’t a quilting master, or even a novice yet, never fear—they will assign a quilting mentor who will help you pick up the basics.
The guild also plans to hold a Quilt Expo in March. The details for that event will be announced soon, but there will be workshops, activities for visitors of all ages, and quilts on sale.
And if you’re simply looking for something cozy to have around the house, Giese said many of the guild’s members take commissions and sell their quilts.
You can find more information about the guild, including a calendar of events and details about membership, on its website.
“Sometimes we just think we’re just a tiny little guild and don’t really matter that much, but I think we do,” Giese said.
“And I want to tell the world that we’re here.”