"Ican't draw, but I can make a picture of bits and scraps," said Zena Thorpe of Chatsworth, explaining her quilt-making skill. "I found out I could make a picture with a needle."
Thorpe's quilt creations have earned her trophies and ribbons on two continents. The latest was a champion award at the prestigious sixth National Patchwork Championship and Exhibition of Quilts last summer in Hertfordshire, England.
Included on the winning quilt is a scene of Chatsworth House, the Duke of Devonshire's palatial English estate, for which the San Fernando Valley's Chatsworth is named.
The reverse side of the quilt bears a huge beige calico bulldog against a Union Jack background.
"The bulldog is to England what the eagle is to the United States," Thorpe said in a distinct British accent.
In Hertfordshire, Thorpe was also presented with "The Rose and Hubble Cup," a smaller trophy donated by a fabric manufacturer as a result of winning first place in the hand-sewn applique class.
Another first prize was presented under the classification "Traditions and Customs of the British Isles." For Thorpe, the most exciting prize was the Quilter's Guild Award, a huge golden ribbon presented for excellence in workmanship. "It sort of validates the work," she said, since she never sells her quilts.
As a child in Mosborough, England--about 12 miles from Chatsworth House--Thorpe learned to sew "at the edge of the sewing machine," as she puts it, watching her mother work.
She took one look at California's palm trees during a visit in 1966 and decided to stay. She had known her husband, John, in England, and they met again in the Los Angeles area and were married in 1968. They have four children: Katie, 21; Oliver, 20; Alice, 17, and Johnny, 13.
Although Thorpe sewed for her family and dabbled a little in quilting and applique needlework, she had no particular interest in quilting until 1986, when she joined a group of quilters who were planning the Centennial Quilt, commissioned by the Chatsworth Historical Society.
Eleven women worked more than a year and presented the quilt to the community at its 100th birthday party March 10, 1988.
Thorpe said she did a lot of the sewing herself, her interest growing with every stitch.
Composed of appliqued scenes from Chatsworth's history (copied from photographs in the historical society's collection), it is on permanent display at the Chatsworth Museum in Chatsworth Park South.
That quilt was grand champion at the 1988 Valley Fair and went on to the State Fair at Sacramento, where it was exhibited and received a special prize since there was no category for a group-made quilt.
By this time, the quilting bug had really bitten Thorpe. She saw an advertisement in the Quilter's newsletter for the competition in England and sent in an entry blank.
Laid out in the kitchen of fellow-quilter Ruth Grant (who was "a big help," Thorpe said), the new quilt was based on parts of pictures in magazines and books. Thorpe, as usual, added a little bit here and a little bit there.
Grant calls the experience "one of the greatest joys of my life, to watch the quilt progress, and to see her win."
For 15 months, creating the quilt "totally obsessed" her, Thorpe said. She worked on it at least three hours a day, every day, between her other interests.
She has been president for three terms of the Chatsworth Community Coordinating Council and a warden at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Catholic Church. She is a docent at the Homestead Acre, an executive board member of the Chatsworth Historical Society and in her fifth year as treasurer of Friends of the Library.
In addition, she is the West Coast distributor for the Duchess of Devonshire's gourmet line of items such as jams and jellies, chutneys, fudge and souvenir cups. The profits help to maintain England's Chatsworth House.
Thorpe also keeps the books for her husband's business of repairing foreign cars.
At the moment, she is researching the heraldry of England for her next quilt, which will use heraldic symbols.
Again, she said, she will be adding her personal touches as she goes along.
The quilt that won the prizes in England has had a busy year. It won one of two top awards at the American International Quilt Assn.'s November show in Houston, where the theme was "A World of Beauty."
If she never wins another prize, Thorpe said, she would continue competing. "These competitions really do further the art of quilting. You see something someone else has done, and you say, 'I'd better sharpen up, there!'
"Or you get an idea to try something new, or another way, and it improves your own work," she said.