Sonoma quilt exhibit bridges history, friendship through generations

A new exhibit in Sonoma highlights the artistry and evolution of quilting, with every stitch and each snippet of fabric telling a story or painting a portrait of historic landmarks in the Valley of the Moon.

Sonoma in Quilts” is the latest of four shows curated by Sonoma resident Kate Schertz at Depot Park Museum. It brings together 10 historic quilts from the collection of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, along with one surprise — 10 handcrafted quilts passed through five generations of a local family, and showcases the skill and creativity crafted into a dozen art quilts made especially for the exhibition.

Since its opening last month, the show has drawn more people than any other exhibit there in memory, said Patricia Cullinan, president of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, which operates the museum.

Quilts share, pass on stories

Visitors are greeted with an illustrated history of quilting, including the story of Lizzie Hobbs Keckley, a Virginia plantation slave who became a master quilt maker and purchased freedom for herself and her son with funds from her quilt sales. She later became a professional seamstress and quilter for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.

Schertz notes that “the quilt’s role in the fabric of society dates to antiquity.”

Many of the Sonoma quilts share stories: a friendship star quilt made in 1860 as a wedding gift by a group of friends, their names and a few quotations in the center of each star; a fancy silk patchwork quilt made in 1888 to raise funds for the steeple of a church in a California Gold Rush town; a cigarette quilt made in 1927 featuring thousands of French knots and more than 300 tiny silk flags that were included as collectibles in packets of high-end-brand cigarettes, much like “Cracker Jack prizes for adults,” Schertz said.

“The historical value of quilts is their provenance,” she said. “That just makes the quilt that much more significant. If you don’t know the story, it loses lots of historical value.”

For a group of men and women in their late 50s, the exhibit is a personal step back in time. They made a striking American bicentennial quilt in red, white and blue when they were sixth-grade students at El Verano Elementary School in Sonoma Valley. It earned a blue ribbon at the Sonoma County Fair in 1976, a ribbon now affixed to the quilt.

Local quilts display patriotism

Darla Parker-Buckley lives in Arizona but plans to attend the exhibit when she visits Sonoma Valley this summer. She graduated from Sonoma Valley High School 40 years ago but remembers making the quilt, which features 39 squares of patriotic images including stars, American flags and liberty bells, all surrounding a center panel with the dates 1776 and 1976.

“I remember picking what square we wanted to do, and we were given the flexibility to choose fabric, embroidery, etcetera,” Parker-Buckley said in an email. “I was set on a blue embroidery liberty bell.”

The project was coordinated as part of a history lesson by her teacher, Mrs. Turner, who was “kind, creative and inspiring,” Parker-Buckley said.

Turner and her 26 young quilters autographed the back of the quilt.

Another patriotic quilt in the collection came to Schertz by chance. Made by a group of local women as a raffle prize to help fund the Bear Flag Sesquicentennial Celebration, it ended up decades later with Carolyn Marcinkowski, who’d purchased the winning ticket she’d given to a friend.

The quilt’s original owner had moved to Florida, but when she died the quilt was returned to Marcinkowski. Marcinkowski’s son-in-law was chatting with Schertz when he was returning rugs his business had cleaned for her – and she happened to mention the upcoming quilt exhibit.

“My mother-in-law has this quilt,” he told Schertz, explaining the story. When Marcinkowski heard about the exhibit, she donated the patchwork quilt with handcrafted patriotic images and quotations to the historical society.

“It was just serendipity,” Schertz said. “It’s a fantastic, fantastic quilt.”

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This story was published on June 15, 2022 by The Press Democrat and was written by Diana Reber Hart

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