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The Pacific International Quilt Festival is held annually at the SantaS Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. The 2023 event October 12-15 included hundreds of competition quilts, dozens of vendor booths, and a special exhibit “A Lost Art: The Masterful Hand Piecing and Stitching of Wynona Howard.” This exhibit included 17 beautiful quilts created over a span of 25+ years, representing only a fraction of Wynona’s work.
Wynona (Bourn) Howard was in born 1926 on a farm near Gorin, Missouri, and lived her entire 85 years in Scotland County, most of them near Granger. She learned to sew from her mother Elsie Bourn and the local Price Sewing Club in the late 1930s and 1940s. No detail or mistake was too small to ignore. Patchwork quilting was an art and skill passed down through generations, a way to beautifully upcycle fabric scraps. Even printed-cloth flour sacks were made into utilitarian quilts. “Friendship” quilts with club members’ signatures embroidered onto each block and hand quilted were presented with pride to young women when they turned 21. Wynona kept hers in a cedar chest and never used it.
In 1928, the Kansas City Star newspaper began publishing patchwork quilt patterns weekly, which created additional interest in quilting throughout the Midwest. Most rural folks couldn’t afford a subscription during the Depression, so they copied and shared as they could. Electric sewing machines were just becoming available, but they were expensive, complex, and finicky; so, many rural women continued to prefer sewing by hand when details mattered. Wynona received a new Domestic machine in a freestanding wood cabinet sometime after she married Eugene Howard in 1948. She used it for decades to make clothes for herself and her daughters and patch her husband’s overalls. But never, ever for piecing quilts.
Wynona worked incessantly on their farm near Granger, often 18 hours a day. She raised two daughters (Sherlyn and Denise), cooked meals, tended up to 1,000 chickens, ran her own egg business, helped Eugene with the livestock, drove tractors in the field, raised a huge vegetable garden, canned, hung laundry on a clothesline, and made and repaired clothes. Yet in her fifties during the early 1980s, she somehow made time to rediscover quilting.
Her tools consisted only of a pattern, fabric, notebook paper, pencil, cereal box cardboard, scissors, a ruler, needle, thread, and thimble, all kept in a plastic ice cream carton. The kitchen table was her cutting table. Lacking colored papers or a computer, she sometimes made a sample block to help her decide whether to make an entire quilt of that design in that color combination. If a block didn’t lay perfectly flat or points didn’t meet exactly, she ripped out all her stitches and sewed it again. She hand-pieced every block, and if there was embroidery embellishment, she did that by hand, too. No exceptions. When asked why she didn’t use her sewing machine to speed up the piecing, she said “That’s cheating!” Out of modesty and her belief that others did better work, she never showed her projects outside her immediate family.
With only a couple of exceptions, she didn’t assemble a completed set of blocks into a quilt top, because that wasn’t the fun part. She told daughter Denise “Someday when I’m gone, you can dig them all out and you can finish them.” And so, after Wynona suffered a debilitating stroke in 2010, Denise sought out skilled quilters who could finish 23:
•Terry Sommers of Arbela, MO, and Karen Farnsworth of Downing, MO together finished 13 quilts plus some orphan-block quilts. Seven of those made their public debut at Wynona’s funeral in Memphis in April 2012.
•Debby Logan of O’Fallon, MO and Sally Reardon of St. Charles, MO together finished one quilt.
•Bonnie Schultz of Kirksville, MO finished one quilt.
•Jennifer O’Neill of Scotts Valley, CA, Toni McAuliffe of Santa Cruz, CA, and Martine Zaun of Boulder Creek, CA together finished eight quilts.
It was these expert quilters who first called out the perfection of Wynona’s hand piecing and hand stitching, showed her work to other quilters, and told Denise that it ought to be seen by the bigger world of quilters.
Denise, who lives in Santa Clara, CA, tapped into her experience as a professional artist to curate the exhibit like a solo art show, complete with a theme, signage, individual statements about each quilt, and a photo essay about Wynona’s life and work.
The four-day exhibit was a great success, drawing many daily visitors who marveled at Wynona’s skillful handiwork. The star was Wynona’s king-size “Crazy Quilt” made of satins which she not only embellished with fancy embroidery, appliqués and lace, but included a tiny bead on every one of the thousands of stitches. Her queen-size “Mariner’s Compass” quilt also attracted attention for its beauty and the expert joinery of its long, tapered points around circles, so that each block lies completely flat. Several visitors suggested that the exhibit should be offered at other large quilt festivals around the US such as Paducah, KY, and Houston, TX, so Denise is considering taking it “on the road.”
Modern machines speed the processes and require a different set of skills, but it’s good to pause and appreciate the skills of a woman who created her legacy one stitch at a time.