Kenan Quilters’ Guild: Celebrating the Crafty Art of Quilting

Quilting is both an artistic endeavor and a necessary resource. Walking the line between art and craft, aesthetic and function, quilt makers have long been essential to society. While machines and factories have largely taken over the quilting industry to mass produce products for market, there are still artisans that practice handmade quilting. The Kenan Quilters’ Guild is an organization in Western New York that is dedicated to this ancient art form. Every year, the Kenan Quilters’ Guild hosts a variety of events, showcases, and contests that aim to give quilters the opportunity to share their latest creations with the public. Every other year there is an exhibition of their work at Quilts at the Kenan.

The Kenan Quilters’ Guild operates out of a larger community center which offers arts, education and recreation programs. The mission of the Kenan Quilters’ Guild is to preserve and promote the art of quilting. The group aims to enhance the art of quilting by sharing ideas, expertise, and fellowship among members. The group also supports community organizations by donating quilted items, collaborating on public quilt projects, and encouraging new quilters through public displays and workshops. Many of their quilted items are donated to non-profits, shelters, hospitals, and more. The member’s quilts have even been displayed at art galleries such as the Castellani Art Gallery in Niagara Falls, NY, in a presentation entitled “Gather Together: Quilting Niagara.” Gather Together: Quilting Niagara, Exhibit Walkthrough

One of the most unique, creative, and charming initiatives launched by the Kenan Quilters’ Guild is the “Storybook Quilt Project” which manages the creation of quilts based on children’s picture books. Jan Jordan, a past president of the Kenan Quilters’ Guild, is the chairman of the Storybook Quilt project. Jan, a retired pharmacist, is proud of the beautiful quilts that have been produced by members of the guild who hail from Niagara, Erie, and Orleans Counties.

The “Storybook Quilt Project” was launched in 2017 based on Jan’s vision of creating a quilt lending program. That year, a challenge was posed to the guild members: they were asked to pick a children’s book and come up with a companion quilt. The first year elected seven responses/quilts. A nearby children’s book store was so impressed with the project that they invited the Kenan Quilters Guild to participate in the annual WNY Children’s Book Expo in Buffalo. Since then, the initiative has gained speed and there are currently 32 book-inspired quilts.

Jan initially hoped to lend the books and quilts to local libraries and school systems, even going so far as to bring the quilts to a preschool gym where the books that inspired the works were read to children. The Covid-19 pandemic halted many of these programs which will hopefully be resumed after the threat of the virus has passed.

Quilters Jan Jordan and Nancy Smith (who is the current president of the guild) recently responded to some exclusive interview questions regarding the guild, the storybook quilts, and their hopes for the future of the organization.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in quilting and how would you describe your style?

Jan Jordan (JJ): In the 1990’s I took a quilting class with my mother and really enjoyed the “time away” it gave me. I didn’t join the guild until 2008 when I really started to realize my desire to create. I’m drawn to classic blocks but because quilting, like art, is always evolving I find that I am starting to gravitate towards bright color, away from the neutral warms I started with.

MM: What inspired you to start the storybook series and, to date, what are some of the most creative quilts you’ve seen?

JJ: I was the guild president in 2016 when I started searching for a new project for the guild. Part of our mission is to promote the art of quilting and support our community with our endeavors. I had seen similar projects being done by other guilds. I can’t take credit for the original concept. We started with a challenge due in June to create a quilt around a favorite children’s book and I continued asking the members to create to build a “library” of quilts.

We have 32 book quilts in our library now. Looking at the quilt without reading the children’s book doesn’t always draw me to it. Once I read the book, I can find so many little things that the quilter has added. “Bad Kitty Does Not Like Thanksgiving” by Nick Bruel is a double quilt. The Thanksgiving dinner is velcroed down. When it is pulled away it shows a different scenario. “How To Babysit a Grandma” by Jean Reagan has all the different events with grandmas and grandkids shown in different blocks of the quilt. “With My Hands” by Amy VanDerwater is a poetry book where each page is a poem about a children’s craft. The quilt has all of those projects depicted on the quilt.

MM: What’s the most memorable quilt you’ve ever seen, period?

JJ: I really can’t tell you the name of one quilt but I am really drawn to the art quilts done of photos. Small pieces of fabric are attached to a quilt background and the finished project looks like a photo. When it is a photo of an individual it is especially captivating. This one of Jackie Onassis and Oprah Winfrey is unbelievable.

MM: You often donate quilts to nonprofits, so how does that work?

Nancy Smith (NS): We have a list of regular recipients for children’s and baby quilts. We sometimes get requests from members who know of a group that could use our quilts.

JJ: Most quilters don’t need an excuse to sew more. Our members know we need to support Lockport and its people so they are always handing something in. We have donated fabric that we make into kits that are taken, sewn, and handed back for donation. Nonprofits in our city are reminded yearly of the availability of the quilts, hats, stockings, Senior bibs, shawls, walker bags that our members create.

MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve ever gotten about a quilt?

NS: The personal connections are the most inspiring. Things like “my grandmother made me one just like this”.

JJ: I personally love the reaction by the children we show the Storybook quilts to and read the book to. They want to get as close as possible and feel it. All of our storybook quilts are made with that in mind. They are made to be touched.

MM: How did you decide which children’s books are selected to make quilts out of?

NS: Members chose books that appealed to them as a starting point.

JJ: We leave the choice to the quilter. Many are our favorite books or ones we have shared with grandchildren. We’ve partnered with two local children’s book stores. Busy Bee Bookstore lets us come in, take books for our meeting for the quilters to look at and then we can take back the ones we’re not going to use. Monkey See, Monkey Do has a yearly WNY Children’s Book Expo in Buffalo. She loans us books by the authors she has booked to come to the Expo and the guild members select the ones they would like to make for the project and also to hang at the Expo.

MM: How many people typically work on a single quilt and how long does it generally take to complete one?

NS: Most quilts are made by individuals. We have done a few group quilts as a guild which actually increases the complexity. Like with any art, quilters have their own style and techniques so meshing their individual contributions into a single quilt can be a challenge. Everyone needs clear direction as they make their sections and you need one person who can bring it all together. It’s hard to put a time frame around a quilt. Our baby quilts take about 10 hours on average. Larger quilts can take months or years. Many of us work on more than one at a time.

JJ: Most of our donated quilts are easy, simple baby or youth quilts. They may only take 6 to 8 hours to complete.

MM: When you bring these quilts and the books that inspired them to schools, how do the children react?

JJ: We allow teachers and libraries to take the quilts with their companion books on loan and use them as they would like. We have also gone to the schools and read to the children. As stated earlier, they love to touch but are generally well behaved in school. After a multi class presentation we had one classroom make their own story telling quilt blocks on paper.

MM: A local bookstore helps you promote the quilts and books, so how does that collaboration benefit everyone involved?

JJ: Both bookstores have taken a few quilts on loan and hung them during their story time at their shops. They have given us discounts on the purchase of books and have helped us get into the schools. We have hung all of our Storybook Quilts at the WNY Children’s Book Expo sponsored by Monkey See, Monkey Do bookstore. When you think about a benefit it is really all about the children and bringing books to life for them.

MM: How do you hope the Kenan Quilters Guild evolves over the next five years?

NS: I hope we continue to attract new members with new ideas. We’re known as a pretty welcoming group. We just need to get the word out a little more.

JJ: We will always want to give back to our community. We want to be pertinent, learning new things and keep up to date.

MM: What are your ultimate goals for the future and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

JJ: Our guild is possible due to the fact that the Kenan Center of Lockport, NY, took us on as an affiliate in 1985. The Kenan Center is a cultural, educational and recreational gem in our community whose vision is to attract passionate people who utilize their campus to learn, engage others, expand their creativity and better understand the world around them. We use their space for our meetings and workshops and help them by volunteering when needed. Ultimately, our guild would like to inspire the next generation of quilters. By being a presence in our city, sharing our knowledge and expertise along with offering the fellowship of others we hope to succeed.

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To learn more, visit the official website of the Kenan Center: www.kenancenter.org and the Kenan Quilters’ Guild: www.kenanquiltersquild.org

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