ESCONDIDO — "I'm here because I'm curious about the value of these," Gilbert Strauss said, as he patted the five handmade quilts on the chair beside him. They were made, he explained, around the turn of the century by his aunt, Esther Tyrell.
"But most people called her 'Auntie Doctor' because she was one of the first women doctors in Ohio," he said. "She stitched all of these quilts while she was waiting to deliver babies."
Strauss was part of a crowd of several hundred quilt owners who surged into the Mathes Cultural Center last Monday for Quilt Day. Sponsored by the California Heritage Quilt Project, the day was a search for quilts made in California before 1945 or brought into the state by that date. And it was a search for quilts with family histories.
"We never know what kinds of quilts are going to be coming through the door. That's the fun part," said Mary Hjalmarson, who, as vice president of the project, has been through a dozen Quilt Days.
Quilts, she said, are big business now. Dealers comb isolated rural areas looking for quilts they can buy for $25 and sell for $500.
"Nineteenth-Century blue and white quilts sell for $800 now," Hjalmarson said. "And the woolen early Amish ones, with very fine hand stitches, can be worth $15,000 to $20,000."
Not all of the quilts brought to a Quilt Day are valuable, Hjalmarson said. Or beautiful. Some are tattered wrecks. Some, made in the '30s, are flecked with a color she describes as "that awful Depression green." And some, if it's a lucky day, are in wonderful patterns with names like "Devil's Claw" and "Star of Bethlehem," and are genuine American folk art.
"It's only in recent years they've been considered as art," Hjalmarson said. "So most of the people who bring them in have no idea of their value. We've found people using a $2,000 quilt as a mattress pad. Last April, at the San Mateo Quilt Day, a man brought in a valuable quilt that his daughter had been using to cover the front seat of her car."
The project, a nonprofit corporation, plans to show the best of the quilts gleaned from 30 quilt days in Northern and Southern California. At each Quilt Day exhibition, the one judged the most "significant find" wins $100.
"It's not always the oldest, or most dazzling," Hjalmarson said. "One winner brought in a quilt she had made herself during World War II while her husband, a pilot, was overseas. Her 9-year-old son drew planes around the border, which she stitched over with fabric. Shortly after the quilt was finished, her husband was killed. We selected it because we felt it had historical value to its era."
Volunteers from California's 100 Quilt Guilds staff Quilt Days. They measure, they photograph, they take histories. They gingerly pin a cotton sleeve to the back of every quilt so that a rod can be slipped through the sleeve and the quilt hung to display its full length, like a picture.
"Every Quilt Day is different," Hjalmarson said. "The flavor of the day depends on the people who bring in their quilts."
On the Escondido Quilt Day, they brought in 197 of them. And, intangibly, the ghosts of the women who made the quilts seemed to drift in, too.
"I've seen a picture of her. She had a face like a hatchet," Nell Estill, who had driven in from Oceanside, confided to the woman sitting next to her. Estill was speaking about her talented quilting ancestor, Susan Grant (aunt of Ulysses S. Grant).
"But she had two husbands," a woman sitting on the other side of Estill said. "She must have had something!"
The spirit of a woman named Betsy Bean was there, too, hovering above the "historical crazy patches" she made during the years she cooked for the men who built the railroad in Northern California. Silk and velvet and brocade patches, embroidered with historical stories, made in her spare time by a woman who was probably up at 5 a.m. heaving huge iron pots onto a stove.
"I'm amazed," one onlooker murmured, as she stared down at Betsy's patches spread out on a white sheet, "that she had that much spare time."
Even the few women who brought in quilts they had made themselves also brought in glimpses into the lives of women from a different century.
"That bit of dark blue cotton is from a dress my grandmother told me she wore to meetings of the Pythian Sisters during the Civil War," 86-year-old Mildred Neuman said. Her quilt spilled down over her lap, a hodgepodge of bright squares that she started in Illinois when she was 15. A silk ribbon in the center bore the message "Grover Cleveland for President."
"That belonged to my grandmother, too," Newman said. "In the 1880s they wore silk lapel strips, the way people now wear campaign buttons."