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The 'Quilt' Circle : How to make an American movie? Start by piecing together a network of O.C. seamstresses.

October 06, 1995|KATHLEEN O'STEEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When they needed quilts, the producers of the movie "How to Make an American Quilt"--based on a novel written by Whitney Otto at UCI--they called Patty McCormick of Corona del Mar.

McCormick, who has quilted for years, is president of the Southern California Council of Quilt Guilds, the largest organization of quilters in the state.

Otto, who hasn't quilted a day in her life, used the craft as a metaphor in her novel about the lives and loves of a group of women in a small, conservative California town called Grasse. Otto wrote the 1991 novel as her master's degree thesis in UC Irvine's graduate Program in Writing.

"What drew me to [quilting] was that as a writer I've always used different structures," says Otto, who now lives in Portland. "When I wrote in school, I often wrote in collages. I found my primary interest was structural."

The movie--starring Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Alfre Woodward, Winona Ryder, Maya Angelou and Jean Simmons--which opens today, is not about quilting. It is a love story that unfolds around a quilting friendship circle.

Nonetheless, thousands of hours of stitching went into making the film. McCormick's legion of quilters devoted every spare moment to the task.

"I remember the call I got from Amblin [Entertainment]," McCormick says. "They were going to make this movie and they said, 'We make really good movies, but we don't know a thing about quilting.' "

McCormick, who works as a nurse at an Orange County hospital, was brought in to assist in assembling the quilts: She found an art department staffed by five men who didn't sew. "They had tried to make quilt designs using tiny, sixteenth-of-an-inch lines. It wasn't working," she says.

She got on the phone and started working her quilt network.

The producers needed five quilts for the film, and they needed them in less than three months. She began hiring entire quilting circles to work on the mostly appliqued quilts.

"Amblin was . . . intent on being true to the art of quilting, even though there's very little quilting done in the movie," McCormick says. "They wanted authenticity."

At the center of the film is a bridal quilt that the women are sewing for Finn (Winona Ryder). Each of the blocks tells the story of a woman in the circle; there are 760 leaves appliqued around its border. A mermaid in the upper-right block denotes the swimmer Sophia (Lois Smith), and a home in the top center square represents the house of sisters Glady Joe (Bancroft) and Hy (Burstyn). An artist's easel in the left middle block stands for Em's story (Simmons).

It's not a practical quilt. The mermaid has a velvet tail, and the wedding rings in the middle square are made of gold lame--neither do well in the wash, so the quilt will always have to be spot-washed.

"I argued against the gold lame because it wasn't practical," McCormick says. "But I was overruled."

The circle of seven women made two complete bridal quilts. Some of the individual blocks were made four or five times each, left in different stages of completion for shots at various points in the film.

To find fabrics for the movie quilts, McCormick traveled to San Diego, Los Angeles and Arizona; she even bought fabrics from a Wisconsin store that was exhibiting materials at a local quilt convention. "I went into this project with the idea that I wanted to spread the wealth around. I wanted everyone to have a little piece of this movie."

*

Among the five quilts is also a slavery quilt, an heirloom in the family of character Anna (Angelou). McCormick had read a newspaper story about Barbara Brown, an African American artist in Maryland, who was exploring slavery themes in her quilt-making. "I am a white woman from Southern California," McCormick says. "I didn't feel qualified to design the quilt. So I called her up and asked her if she would consider designing the slave quilt."

Brown designed the quilt in blocks, faxing each to McCormick, who then assembled a paper quilt and gave it to Los Angeles quilter Dora Simmons to construct. The quilt is a simple yet eloquent telling of a slave's journey, with African animals used as a theme. Brown's pattern called for the Red Sea, as mentioned in the Bible, and Simmons took the reference literally.

"When I first looked at it, I thought, 'Oh no, she got it wrong,' " McCormick says. "The sea was supposed to be blue. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, of course, it had to be red. Slaves only knew what was in the Bible. They didn't get to the seashore."

One of the most exquisite quilts created for the movie barely made it onto the screen because of changes in the story.

It is a crazy quilt constructed of black velvet and silk, embroidered with French knots and beaded. Crazy quilts, which originated in the Victorian era, have no particular pattern and are usually intended to be decorative. McCormick hired Costa Mesa quilt artist Christine Dabbs to fashion the coverlet, which was meant as Finn's baby quilt.

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