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JAUNTS: Ventura County

Stitches in Time

Ventura quilt show honors works of patience ranging from the traditional to the contemporary.


Behind every quilt there's a story, and when the Ventura County Museum of History and Art opens its newest exhibit Friday, you can peruse about 40 of these handmade beauties--some of them wildly contemporary, some centuries old.

Take the huge American flag quilt. This patriotic gem was handcrafted during World War I by a grandmother anxious for her young soldier-grandson (Carpinteria's Judge J.S. Willbrandt) to return from the war.

And there's the 1870s quilt that pioneer Mary Powell received when she left her Vermont home to head west. Each square in the design was sewn by friends who signed their names.

Flash forward 100 years to Bernice Weil's colorfully intricate quilt that took her 14 summers to make, using scraps from the clothing she sewed for her six children, her husband and herself. It has bright, bold prints from the 1970s and swatches from western shirts she made her sons for Christmas.

Working in her Ojai home, Weil's children helped her with the project during summer vacations.

"It was everybody's quilt," she said.

Packed away, it comes out for holidays when the family is around. To give it away, Weil said, would be like "giving away one of my children."

The quilts in the museum's exhibit are on loan from local quilters like Weil, antique quilt collectors and local families that have hung on to these heirlooms. The display will be up through March 29.

Nationally, quilting is hot--ever since the 1976 Bicentennial celebration revived the craft. Locally it's thriving too, quilt experts say, with guilds of around 200 or more quilters in Simi Valley, Camarillo, the Conejo Valley and the San Fernando Valley. Some even have waiting lists.

"It's big everywhere," said Tim Schiffer, curator of the Ventura museum. "It's such a good link between the old and the new."

In addition to the museum's exhibit, quilt fans can also attend three special programs during January and February. The first, on Jan. 25 at 2 p.m., features Patty McCormick, who served as the quilt consultant for Steven Spielberg's 1995 movie, "How to Make an American Quilt."

Filmed at a Santa Paula farmhouse, the movie, a love story, gave quilting a big boost because the plot evolves around a close-knit group of quilters.

McCormick, who lives in Corona del Mar, had her hands full--literally. It was her job to make the quilting scenes technically accurate, so she worked with actors including Anne Bancroft and Maya Angelou, coaching them on how to look like quilters.

McCormick also supervised 12 real-life quilters who supplied the quilts--in various stages--for the movie. And, when the script called for a "stunt quilter," it is her hands that moviegoers see in those sewing close-ups.

The project had its gut-wrenching moments. One scene called for a little girl's quilted "blankey," so one of McCormick's quilters put 200 hours of work into making one according to the requested specifications.

But the quilt didn't have the tired, well-used look the movie's prop guy wanted, so he immediately ripped a hole in it.

"I'm standing there getting [nauseated]," McCormick said, thinking of the labor that went into the quilt. Then he slopped paint on it, scrubbed it in a tub, laid it out on the cab of a truck for three days and dragged it through the dirt.

"What came out was the most loved, most cuddled blanket," she said. "It was like movie magic."

Quilter Jane Tenorio-Coscarelli, who also worked on the movie, will join McCormick at the museum to talk about her children's book, "The Tortilla Quilt," a rancho story about making a quilt from tortilla flour sacks.

The museum's Feb. 8 program is a hands-on session at 2 p.m. with veteran Ventura quilting instructor Jenny Carr Kinney, who will show novices how to hand-stitch a section of a quilt.

Finally, on Feb. 22 at 2 p.m., local quilters Charlotte Eckback and Kim Wulfert will display their antique quilts and explain how to date these old-timers and take care of them. (Quilt handlers usually wear white gloves.)

The oldest quilting example in the museum's exhibit is a simple white baby's cap, circa 1720-1750, with stitching so tiny and intricate that it seems impossible.

But actual quilts for children--those with playful images--didn't crop up until the 1920s.

"So many children died," explained Shirley Bertolino of Ventura, who is helping with the museum exhibit. "When children started to live longer and have better health care, juvenile quilts evolved."

Quilts have grown from a gentle craft, born of frugal necessity, to an art form these days. Sally Lou Nesbitt, taken with the view out her bedroom window in Santa Paula, created a watercolor-like image on fabric that is in the exhibit. But it's still very much a quilt--all 2,177 tiny pieces were hand-stitched.

And More Quilts: Ojai will be buried in quilts next weekend when the Third Annual Ojai Valley Quilt Show opens Jan. 22 for a three-day event.

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