THE stores are already stuffed with polar fleece, Gore-Tex and Thinsulate. But as temperatures dip, one unassuming shop in Midtown Manhattan has everything needed to weather an old-fashioned winter in the oldest of ways — though you should start sewing now. It’s the City Quilter, the heart of New York’s quilting community for nearly 15 years and a destination for fabric lovers from around the world.
If “city quilter” sounds like an oxymoron, be advised: The more than 4,000 fabrics it stocks are not all granny prints in periwinkle and dusty rose. With kitschy, retro-1950s textiles and colorful batik patterns, the store walks the modern edge of a traditional form, creating a distinctly New York take on an American craft. Nearly all of its fabrics are cotton, which is easy to work with and wash. And the store sells a variety of fat quarters, or quarter-yard swatches, that are ideal for quilting.
On a recent Tuesday, City Quilter, on 25th St
reet between Seventh Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, was a quiet whirlwind of scissors, sewing machines and voices in a half-dozen languages.
“This place is very well known,” said Jean-Claude Becker, a retired research doctor whose mother, Mauricette Bensoussan, was visiting from Paris for her 80th birthday. At the cutting table in the front, Mrs. Bensoussan, an avid quilter, handed a dozen bolts of brightly patterned fabric to a shop assistant as her son converted metric measurements and hand gestures into inches and yards.
“She landed yesterday, and here we are, first day,” Dr. Becker said.
Deeper inside the shop, Sarah Cubbage, the assistant costume designer for the coming Broadway revival of “Godspell,” compared fabrics for a dance number. “I love the City Quilter,” said Ms. Cubbage, 31. “It’s a must-know of the fabric district.”
Like many patrons, she is not a quilter. But the helpful staff and easy-to-navigate shelves keep her coming back. It also helps that the store sells patterns and supplies for making all kinds of non-quilt items, including handbags and toys.
Cathy Izzo and Dale Riehl, the married couple who own and operate the store, worked in television before opening the shop in 1997. Though Ms. Izzo had quilted as a hobby, neither had any formal sewing training. Perhaps this explains the almost evangelical zeal they have for bringing fellow urbanites into the quilting fold. City Quilter offers nearly 50 courses a year, from one-day seminars on silk ribbon embroidery to multisession instruction on quilting techniques. They have also designed their own line of fabrics that draws inspiration from New York images: the subway map, the Lower Manhattan skyline, vintage postcards of local landmarks.
Despite the economic downturn and the fabric industry’s move from brick-and-mortar stores to online sales, City Quilter has expanded over the years. In April, it opened an art-quilt gallery in an adjacent storefront; as the American Folk Art Museum has grappled with budget problems and surrendered exhibition space, the gallery has provided a much-needed place to display high-end quilting.
“It is very unique, and a huge risk for them; they should really be celebrated for it,” said Paula Nadelstern, a quilting artist whose name translates from German as “needle star.”
Ms. Nadelstern, 60, is a member of the Manhattan Quilters Guild, whose group show, “Material Witness,” will be on display in the gallery from Nov. 15 through Jan. 7. A native of the Bronx, she is one of the most celebrated members of the art-quilt movement, and has shown her work in museums across the country. She has been a regular at City Quilter since it opened.
But quilters do not have to be experienced to get the most out of the shop. City Quilter aims to serve all types of do-it-yourselfers, whether they are novices or artists.
“You just don’t know who’s going to walk through that door,” Ms. Nadelstern said. “A lawyer, a doctor or someone who works at McDonald’s. It’s a gamut.”