Perhaps no other artistic domain has broadened its horizons further in recent times than fiber art. The Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum modified its name in 2017 to embrace the realm beyond the quilt, and there’s no better place to enjoy works using fabric, fiber, textiles, and found materials than this unique place in La Conner.
If you consider spending a few moments there on your next trip to this little town on the Swinomish Channel—maybe after visiting farm stands or before happy hour on the water—think again. You’ll want to set aside plenty of time to explore three stories of magic in the 120-year-old Victorian mansion. There’s so much to take in!
Quilts and Fiber Exhibits
For many, the term “quilt” conjures up visions of old-fashioned bedcovers pieced together from scraps—and those heirlooms are important, asserts volunteer Debbie Banta. Indeed, the museum has an extensive permanent collection of more than 700 quilts and textiles dating from today to the early 1800s. You may not get to see most of them when you come, however. These post-COVID days provide opportunities for the museum to welcome a huge range of exhibits, “just about the best variety we’ve ever had,” says Debbie. Traveling collections often fill the 4,700-square-foot mansion.
Depending on when you visit, you may see exhibits like these:
- Small quilts made from tiny, intricate pieces of vivid fabric, such as those created by Whatcom County artist Jane M. Buys
- A display incorporating a broad range of techniques—embroidery, weaving, applique, fabric dyeing and painting, collage, beading, and felting—in two- and three-dimensional works by Surface Design Association artists in northwest Washington
- Quilts highlighting black history, complete with the chance to meet the artist, Mary Johnson, and her family
- Works by High Fiber Diet, a group of PNW artists who create 3D fiber pieces as well as abstract and pictorial quilts
- A group of “slice quilts” by the Ocean Wave Quilt Guild from Alaska, put together by members who create a slice of a quilt without knowing the fabric choices of the other quilters.
Exhibits change frequently at the museum—visit the website to see what’s happening today.
The Gaches Mansion
Just like the term “quilt” falls short in describing the exhibits, images of traditional museum buildings that may come to mind do not apply here. The home of the Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum is a Victorian mansion loaded with character. “We’re really a destination,” Curator Jenny Walker remarks. “We have people who care about us all over the place.”
The exhibits are spectacular, but the grand mansion itself—built by George and Louisa Gaches (sounds like “mashes”) in 1891—is reason enough to visit. Alarmingly, at one point the home’s future was not assured. After being turned into apartments in 1940, fire destroyed the attic and third floor and damaged areas below in 1973. Some La Conner residents thought the place should be torn down. But a local group resolved to save the mansion, raised the funds, and completed the first round of renovations the late 1970’s.
The Gaches Mansion transitioned from housing regional artwork to displaying quilts and fiber art over the next several years. The La Conner Quilt Museum purchased the home in 2005 and completed a second renovation in 2013.
Today it’s a pleasure to see the place in all its glory. The Tudor-style home, with more than 20 rooms plus basement, attic, turret, and widow’s walk, features dozens of traditional English touches. Douglas fir floors, paneling, picture rail, and trim give the interior a warm, welcoming feel. There are three sets of tall pocket doors original to the house. They survived the big fire by being stored in the basement. “We’re very proud of our pocket doors,” Jenny says.
Paint and drapes in rich colors embrace the rooms, while custom designed wallpaper trim draws the eyes up toward the 11-foot ceilings. Period-proper antiques and décor are positioned throughout, including a “spouse couch” in the formal parlor. Three lovely fireplaces, trimmed with Italian ceramic tiles and intricate wood detail, are unique to the mansion, and the double staircase (one side for servants) is a feature you don’t see often. The museum tops TripAdvisor’s list of things to do in La Conner—it’s no wonder!
People and Activities
The organization is “small but mighty,” according to Jenny. She is one of two full-time employees and a small group of part-timers—volunteers outnumber paid staff. There’s an official greeter stationed in the gorgeous formal parlor. This lucky volunteer has the chance to welcome people from as far away as Europe, Japan and Australia. Gift shop cashier is another prime role, as the little store is filled with unique vintage and handmade items. There’s something delightful in every corner. Other volunteers help with hanging and taking down exhibits, preserving items in the permanent collection, maintaining the building and grounds, fundraising, and events. Workshops, porch sales, festivals and other happenings keep the events people on their toes.
The goings-on at the Pacific Northwest Quilt and Fiber Arts Museum is as vibrant as the works on display year-round—we’ve only scratched the surface. Check out the group’s website, then plan to visit and see the place for yourself. You will be happy you did!