Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Winona Pepin, Quilter Extraordinaire

Last December The Dorcas Quilters of St John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco lost a guiding light when Winona Pepin died at the age of 98. Here is a picture from a few years ago with John Maxwell and Patricia Pepin holding up one of Winona's many quilts and everyone else gathered around her.

Winona was born in Kansas and came to San Francisco in the 1950's, I believe. What I know about her for sure is that when I first moved to San Francisco in the 1990's and attended a quilt show, she was there with the Dorcas Quilters as ever, quilting at the frame as a way of inspiring and teaching all comers about the joy of quilting. She was quiet and contained, so one might overlook her at first, but once you sat at the frame for a few minutes it became clear that Winona was the acknowledged master quilter and the sparkle in the atmosphere. She was always very clear about what she liked and how she liked quilts to be done, but she was also always open to new ideas.

I got to know Winona a bit the day she turned 91. That year I had received a grant to have a long exhibition of my own quilts together with antique quilts from which I had drawn inspiration. Part of the show was a Walk Through How-to-Make-a-Quilt Wall, which culminated in a frame with me sitting there and quilting all day, every day. I loved because I could see the whole show from where I sat, so I could answer questions, conduct tours and teach quilting all at the same time. One day in July Winona drove herself up from Daly City to sit an quilt with me for a while. Over the course of the day I learned it was her birthday, and this was the way she wanted to spend it. We had a ball, talking quilts and life. I learned that she had been quilting all her life, and that she came from a long line of quilters. But most important was that I learned even more about her agile and fertile mind, that she was always curious. Fortunately few people attended the show that day so we told stories and quilted for hours.

After that whenever I had a quilt frame set up in the public somewhere Winona would always spend at least a day there with me. Generous to all, and always fun to be around, she lit up the room. The Dorcas Quilters have quite a few brilliant and accomplished quilters, but none who learned to quilt so long ago, none with that amount of experience. She is irreplaceable there and in my heart as well. We all miss her.

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