by Cecilia LaFrance
Four times a year, the gallery of the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Golden hosts a new display of patterns, history, and inspiration. Stitch work hangs for inspection and appreciation; those who have attempted cutting, aligning, and sewing small fragments of hand-selected fabrics into a geometrically sound blanket may linger longer, step closer, and comment in approval. But, the gallery of the museum, like the decorative top of a quilt, is just the front facing portion of the museum. Next door, a small group of young students guide squares on sewing machines in a classroom, bookshelves burst with a wall of fiction and nonfiction books as part of the quilting library, and one-of-a-kind quilts line the narrows of the hallways leading to Executive Director Karen Roxburgh’s office. Keeping the quilting tradition alive is a personal mission; keeping the museum thriving is Roxburgh’s job.
“My time is spent raising money to keep the facility operating,” Roxburgh says from behind her orderly desk. The work involved in securing grants, memberships, and donations is not mentioned. Instead, Roxburgh highlights the impact of her work—reviving the specialty museum from the “death throws” of a $250,000 deficit nine years ago, moving the museum to a location with a better gallery space, and achieving fiscal stability. In fact, Roxburgh’s current mission involves a capital campaign to raise nearly a million dollars to purchase additional space at the current site near the west end of Colfax Avenue. “The goal is to own the entire building at some time.” Of course, her lead advocacy role for quilting restricts her time for the hobby she loves.
“It’s addicting,” says Roxburgh of quilting, her cheeks lifting out of a day’s worth of work. As she recounts her progression in the craft, details of her family and past form a version of life out from behind her desk: quilts made for her daughters while they were in junior high school; starting a business as a professional long arm quilter (a person quilters pay to apply the batting and backing to their handcrafted tops) “which for most people isn’t the fun part;” and building relationships with others who share the love of quilting.
Roxburgh found a place among an exchange group, a group that swaps blocks to produce quilts together. The 19th Century Patchwork Divas, aptly named, replicate antique quilts. “We were doing three a year, but are down to two a year.” Roxburgh states the reduction as matter of fact, more logical for the busy group members, including her, especially with the group’s craftsmanship expectations.
Like an infamous sect of a religious order, The Patchwork Divas have a reputation. With two books published and quilts having shown in Houston and Chicago, Roxburgh sometimes gets recognition for her and her group’s work. “I didn’t know you were a Diva,” she’s heard from people who’ve seen her work in the books. The greatest compliment, though, truly results from when others want to replicate her work, she says.
The Divas holds high standards. “99% of us, we won’t give a block unless it’s perfect.” Poorly pieced work with seams misaligned or with points chopped are subject to rejection. “Some of us are picky about that.” Roxburgh giggles, “Most of us.” With the caliber of skill in her group, she’s only once in 20 years returned a block to its source for correction.
“For us, it’s almost better than Christmas with the blocks you get.” For each quilt, the women decide on a pattern, colors, and fabrics, and then build their share of blocks. “The fun part is setting the blocks together.” Besides relying on each other’s sewing skills, they count on accountability and discipline. “We all have the same amount of time,” Roxburgh says. Meeting deadlines is a hard rule, excusable by only a death in the family or serious illness.
Unfortunately, a motorcycle accident kept Roxburgh from participating once. A broken leg and a dislocated shoulder requiring rotator cuff surgery took her out of the swap rotation, but not the group. When she recalls receiving a package with the exchange in it despite her absence, a smile as kind as the gesture lights Roxburgh’s face.
“Quilts don’t talk back very much.” Roxburgh wanted interaction with people when she moved back to Colorado. So, 14 years ago she volunteered as a docent at the museum, added newsletter responsibilities, joined staff as part-time help, and progressed to eventually take the executive position.
“I enjoy it. I like seeing the great quilts,” she says. Inspiring people, arranging exhibits, conducting outreach, and teaching kids to quilt are motivators. As in quilting, her role requires planning, construction, and precision.
“I know people think quilting is a dying art. It isn’t.” Roxburgh cites a 2017 survey that tallies quilting at a $3.7 billion industry. People show up, take classes, and, when she gets comments like one from a child in an offsite workshop, “This is really relaxing,” she knows an impact results from the museum’s work. “I’m happy doing this.”
Roxburgh hopes to meet up with the Divas this year. Distance and time constraints have kept her away for the past several years. The next exchange is due in July, Roxburgh’s eyes shift as if in calculation of days left. But, it’s an easy 9 patch, she says, the confidence resuming in eyes brighter with the promise of the task.