Expanding My Quilting Creativity With Empty Spools Seminars at Asilomar, California

Sharing my experiences taking an Empty Spools Seminars quilting class at the historic Asilomar Conference Center located on the scenic Pacific Ocean coast in California.

Empty Spools Seminars at Asilomar California

Last Updated on 10/06/21 by Rose Palmer

It’s important with any craft to continue to hone your skills. Whether its blogging, photography or quilting, I like to try classes that offer a different perspective, but they also need to be in interesting locations. Not long ago, I took one of the quilting classes offered by Empty Spools Seminars at the Asilomar Conference Center located in beautiful Pacific Grove, California.

I am primarily a self taught quilter, but once I had more free time, I decided to take some quilting classes from the craft’s top instructors. I’ve been fortunate to take a class with Kaffe Fasset in Dubai, experience a European quilting class with Crafty Retreats in central France, and learned how to paper piece with Judy Niemeyer from Quiltworx, one of the industry’s leading quilt pattern designers.

Since I also love to travel and take photos, I look for quilting classes that are offered in interesting locations, so attending one of the Empty Spools Seminars classes was a natural fit. The program takes place at the historic Asilomar Conference Grounds known as the “Refuge by the Sea” on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

This is why Asilomar is called the “Refuge by the Sea” – it’s easy to take a nightly sunset walk on the Asilomar State Beach

This one of a kind quilting retreat has been a yearly event since 1985. It has grown into a 5 week program that features classes by 11 well known artist faculty and one artist-in-residence during each of the five scheduled sessions. Instructors have included renowned quilters like Victoria Findlay Wolfe, Bonnie Hunter and Susan Carlson among others.

One of the things I really like about this program are the wide variety of quilting styles that are presented in the classes. You can hone your skills with traditional piecing, learn how to make an intricate paper pieced design, try your hand at producing a pictorial quilt or improve your machine quilting techniques, just to name a few of the artistic options available. Instructors teach for one or two sessions, and each class is a different project or technique.

The five Empty Spool Seminar sessions start at the end of February and run through April. Each session lasts for six days and the fees include class instruction, accommodations and all meals – as well as spectacular west coast, Pacific ocean sunsets.

My Empty Spools Seminars Experience

The schedule and program for the Empty Spools Seminars is set a year in advance and registration opens in early May. Some of the very popular classes fill up almost right away, but I was able to register in December for an end of February class.

I chose an Independent Study with Wendy Mathson which had the option of working on whatever quilting project you chose or learning Wendy’s fool proof technique for making the Storm at Sea quilt pattern. Since my son and daughter-in-law had chosen a Storm at Sea variation for their wedding quilt, this class was a perfect fit for me.

Wemdy Mathso and her signature Storm at Sea quilt

My session started on a Sunday afternoon in late February and went through till Friday lunch time. I scheduled my trip to the area to arrive in San Francisco on Saturday and leave from SFO the following Saturday. I was able to get less expensive air fare and better flight options into SFO versus the Monterey Airport which is the closest one to the Asilomar Conference Center.

Because I was arriving a day early, I booked an additional night at Asilomr for the Saturday night that I arrived. I also booked a hotel near the San Francisco airport for Friday night after the class ended so that I was close by for an early morning flight back to the east coast.

The closest airport to the Asilomar Conference Center is the Monterey airport. From here, you can grab a taxi to get to Asilomar, 30 minutes away. Since I was flying into San Francisco which was a little over 100 miles away, I needed a rental car which I was fine with since it gave me the option for some additional sight seeing during my free time.

After landing at the San Francisco airport on Saturday, I headed to the Land’s End Lookout Point and lunch with a view at the historic Cliff House. Land’s End is part of the extensive Golden Gate Recreation Area which has quite a number of  interesting sights and outdoor options. After lunch I explored the Land’s End area, including the ruins of the old Sutro bath house and  some of the trails with views of the distant Golden Gate Bridge.

Looking out over the Sutro Bath House ruins
Looking out over the Sutro Bath House ruins

I walked for a few hours and then started my drive toward Pacific Grove and the Asilomar Conference Center. I chose to take Rt 1 along the coast rather than the more direct interstate route. This turned the 125 miles into a slower 3 hour drive, but it was infinitely more scenic and much more pleasant to drive with less traffic. Before it got dark, I stopped at many of the pull offs along the way and discovered some of the Pacific coast beaches and trails.

Exploring the Pacific Coast along Rt 1 on the way to Asilomar

Even though I checked in to Asilomar after dark, it was still easy to appreciate the historic architecture. The site was originally built as a YWCA training facility in 1913 and was designed by female architect Julia Morgan in the California Arts and Crafts style. Despite its size and the massive redwood beams and huge stone fireplace in the Hearst Social Hall where I checked in, the space was warm and comforting and turned out to be a great place to relax during free time.

Heasrt Social Hall At Asilomar
Hearst Social Hall At Asilomar

I chose a single room in one of the original historic buildings and loved my very comfortable room with wood paneled walls, rustic designed furniture and a private bath. There are also more contemporary room options available, but note that none of the rooms have TVs, so this truly was a relaxing escape.

Visitor's cottage at Asilomar
Visitor’s Lodge at Asilomar Conference Center -where my room was during the Empty Spools Seminars program

My class did not start till the afternoon on Sunday, so I used my free time to explore some of the Monterey Peninsula scenery. Of the many activities available, I chose to drive the scenic 17-Mile Drive that hugs the rocky Pacific coastline. It was a beautiful warm and sunny day to enjoy the sea views- nothing like the dreary winter weather back home.

A typical Pacific coast view alon the 17-mile drive.
A typical Pacific coast view along the 17-mile drive.

I continued my coastal drive south on Rt.1 and stopped for a great lunch with spectaculars views at Rocky Point Restaurant. I would have liked to continue driving on to Big Sur, but at this point, I had to turn back so I could get to my class on time.

The view from the Rocky Point Restaurant

Six Creative Days With Empty Spools Seminars

The first afternoon and evening was all about getting set up, getting acquainted and initial class instruction. An entertaining after dinner presentation introduced us to all the artist-faculty.

Wendy Mathson shows us another of her signature Storm at Sea quilts in class

Days 2-5 had a routine that nicely balanced workshop time, meals, and free time.

General schedule:

  • 7:30 breakfast in the dining hall
  • 9-12 quilting workshops
  • 12 lunch in the dining hall
  • 1-4 quilting workshops
  • 4-6 free time; shuttle to quilt shop in Pacific Grove (except day 5)
  • 6 dinner in dining hall
  • 7 evening programs (except day 4)

Day 6 continued through lunchtime and included breakfast, class time and lunch.

During the afternoon of day 5, all classrooms had an open house so we could see what each instructor was teaching and get inspiration from all the students’ work that was out on display. It was fascinating to see the many variations and interpretations of one design in every classroom.

The many different pictorial door mini quilts made by the students in Gloria Loughman’s class as they learned her technique

Each class had its own large room with plenty of space for a workstation for each student, including room for a design wall. Most everyone brought their own sewing machines, but the program had some for rent if you could not bring one with you. There was also a huge on-site quilt shop with items provided by The Cotton Patch quilt shop from Lafayette, California (near San Francisco).

For me, the class with Wendy Mathson was everything that I was looking for. It was a small class with about a dozen participants. A hand full took advantage of the independent study and worked on individual projects. The rest of us learned Wendy’s method and tips and tricks for putting together a perfect Storm at Sea quilt. I found her teaching style to be extremely organized and logical, which I really appreciated. Wendy has been teaching quilting for many years and she had a wealth of quilting tips and hints that she made sure to share with us. I know I left her class a much more knowledgeable quilter.

The beginnings of my Storm at Sea quilt

I found that there was quite a bit of flexibility with the schedule which I appreciated. I love to sew, but I can only sit for so long, so I appreciated being able to take a break and head for a short walk to the beach. On the free afternoon, I headed into Pacific Grove and explored the quilt shop in town as well as the Cannery Row area where John Steinbeck once worked as a fisherman.

Meal times however were quite fixed, so I always made sure to be back on time at the Crocker Dining Hall. The food was surprisingly good considering it had to be made in large quantities. It featured local, seasonal fresh organic ingredients, especially the vegetables and local seafood. With its huge open beamed ceiling and stone work, it was obvious that the Crocker Dining Hall was one of the original Arts and Crafts buildings designed by Julia Morgan. It was a true treat to get to eat in this amazing space three times a day.

Artist in Residence quilt on display during my session

Tips for attending an Empty Spools Seminars session

  • If you want to take a popular class with a specific instructor, plan to register the day registrations opens.
  • If you do not get into the class you want, it is worth getting on the waiting list as people change their minds over the course of a year.
  • While you may have a preferred instructor or class, it is worth taking any of the classes offered. All the instructors are top notch and are among the best in the craft. Being at the beautiful Asilomar setting for six days with so many like minded quilters is inspirational in and of itself.
  • If you are flying, you’ll want to decide which airport to fly into. Monterey Airport is the closest and allows you to get to the conference center by taxi so you would not need to rent a car. But this is a smaller regional airport and may not have a direct flight from your starting point and the ticket price may be more expensive than a flight into a large airport hub like San Francisco. If flying into San Francisco, you will need to rent a car to get down to Pacific Grove and the conference center, but this would also allow for additional sightseeing in San Francisco and along the coast.
  • Make sure you have extra room in your suitcase for items you’ll want to buy at the quilt shop or for one of the books sold by each of the instructors.
  • Do give yourself some additional time to explore the Monterey Peninsula and its gorgeous coastline.
Another beautiful Asilomar beach sunset

I really enjoyed the Empty Spools Seminars quilting class experience, both for the quilting instruction and for the location. I especially loved the gorgeous nightly ocean sunsets. I will definitely consider doing this again, but next time, I’ll add more time to explore the Monterey Peninsula and also the rest of the California coast.

These quilting classes at Asilomar are just one of a long list of Quilting Classes, Quilting Retreats, Quilting Workshops and Quilting Holidays around the world.

Thanks for visiting.



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