Bonita Morley




Bonita Morley




Bonita Morley


Amy Henderson

Interview Date



Amy Henderson


Amy Henderson (AH): This is Amy Henderson. Today's date is May 31, 2001. It is 10:19 a.m. and I am conducting an interview with Bonny Morley for Quilters' Save Our Stories S.O.S. project in Saratoga, California. Bonny, why don't we just start off by you telling me a little bit about where you are from?

Bonny Morley (BM): Actually I grew up in San Francisco, and after college at San Francisco State, I moved down here to the peninsula to teach school in Menlo Park. I've worked in, and been a part of both the San Francisco and peninsula communities.

AH: Native Californian!

BM: No, I'm not a native Californian. I grew up in San Francisco, but I was born in Shanghai, China.

AH: Oh?

BM: My family lived in China from the early 1900's.

AH: And how old were you when your family came to the United States?

BM: When we immigrated here to the states, we left China in 1948 and we arrived in San Francisco in 1949. It took 25 days on a troop transport ship, the USS Breckenridge, for us to make the journey. We stopped and picked up lots of people from different ports.

AH: And you came with your whole family?

BM: Yes, there were four of us – my mom, my dad, my brother, and me.

AH: So why don't we go ahead and start with this quilt. Tell me about the quilt you brought today: Who made it, where it was made and how old is the particular pattern?

BM: I am so thrilled to be able to talk about this particular quilt because it was my very first quilt. I was a young girl growing up in San Francisco, and had never had any background in stitchery. My grandmother knitted, but I don't recall she ever sewed. This particular quilt was the outgrowth of a summer project. Alice Zwanck of St. John's Presbyterian Church invited the high school girls to join her one summer to learn how to sew. She called all of us and said, 'Oh, I thought it would be nice if we could maybe have a quilting bee.' I thought about this. I was sixteen years old, and said, 'Oh, thank you for calling, but I don't think I am interested in sewing.' So that ended our first conversation. Next week Alice called back and she said, 'Well, I've kind of rethought what we will do for our summer. I've invited the boys to come and learn how to play bridge with my husband at 8:00 on Wednesday nights, and we can have the girls come at 7:00. We could have cookies and maybe do a little bit of sewing. How does that sound?' Well, she got ten of us there the very next week! [laughter.] And for me that was my introduction to sewing. So, it's through her that I have to give a lot of credit for the excitement and the enthusiasm that I still continue to feel about quilting.

AH: And that summer, did you each have your own project, and this was the result of it, or did you work on one quilt together?

BM: No, we each made choices. We looked at many, many books. This particular pattern, Dahlia, came from somebody's aunt who worked with the Dorcas Quilters of St. John's. I was just captivated with this pattern, because it was colorful, and had large pieces that I could handle. That summer I was working at Levi Strauss Company and I was in the department that did a lot of ordering for their sport shirts. So, I was always given the samples as they were discontinued. The pieces were the right size for the dahlia petals. This quilt really has a combination of Levi Strauss samples and anything I could beg, borrow, or snitch. [laughter.]

AH: Do you remember which ones some of the sport shirts were within the quilt?

BM: They would be primarily be the ones that are plaids. Levi Strauss was just hitting the market with a new sports line.

AH: Tell me about how you made it. Is it an appliquéd top?

BM: Yes. Alice and I were both learning how to quilt together, really. She kept one step ahead of me. Since this pattern came specifically from another person, I looked at it, and thought I could draw it out. Alice said, 'Yes, we can draft that.' So she and I drafted the pattern together. I didn't know you needed to do things in a block arrangement. I prepared the whole cloth background, which is the yellow and I appliquéd each one of those flowers to it. I was always lugging around this big hunk of yellow material [laughter.], and carefully hand-stitching the flowers down. If you were to measure this quilt, it might be a little askew, but to my eye it looked alright. One night, Pat Zwank, who was Alice's husband, recognized that not too many girls were working on their quilt tops. Since everybody had chosen different patterns, each girl had a different outlook on the progress of her top. Some preferred to sew, others just wanted to eat cookies or play bridge with the guys. Pat decided on a little competition. He promised that the first girl to complete her quilt would be taken to dinner at Scomas Restaurant on the wharf. I accepted his challenge and two years later, Pat took Alice and I out to dinner.

AH: He held his promise two years later!

BM: Yes. And then that year, 1958, Alice encouraged me to enter the Dahlia quilt in the California State Fair. I felt so special because here I was a city girl, and I was in the home-economics building. It was fun to see it hanging in the show. It didn't win any ribbons, but that didn't matter. Alice felt that she had accomplished a lot in two years by just encouraging me.

AH: Now did you quilt the top yourself or did you do it with these other young women?

BM: No, I quilted the whole thing myself. For some reason I added a black border to the yellow top. I had run out of yellow material and black seemed like it would work. I wanted especially to quilt leaves, and so Alice and I designed an undulating garland to unify the seamline between the black and yellow fabrics. A circle of three leaves was quilted between the dahlia flowers. I marked the black fabric with chalk and the entire design was quilted in yellow thread. The cross-hatching was quilted horizontally, creating squares on the background. I didn't know that cross-hatching needed to be quilted diagonally if you wanted to have a diamond look. I just plugged along quilting all of those straight lines resulting in one inch squares.

AH: How do you use this quilt?

BM: David and I have used this quilt on our bed over the last twenty years. Prior to that it was in my hope chest. The quilt was used on top of our bed, but then it started to fade. Now we use it as a blanket.

AH: Tell me a little bit more about Alice. She sounds like your first and main inspiration in quilting since neither your mother nor grandmother, or other family members were quilters. How did you know her, and just tell me a little more about her.

BM: Alice was one of the most wonderful people that I'd ever met. She was the counselor for our high-school group in church. She and her husband had no children. They were married right after the Korean conflict in 1952. They joined St. John's church and immediately jumped into a lot of church activities. Alice had garnered an interest in quilting by looking at some of the craft catalogues showing cross-stitch tops. Her interest was piqued and that was the beginning of quilting for Alice. Her first quilts were the cross-stitched ones. Her completed tops inspired and interested me. She was a very bright, intellectually interesting and curious individual. She was the one who taught me how to draft quilt patterns. She had that mathematical ability to look at something and then be able to draft it. She always wanted to be an architect, but the circumstances in her life didn't permit that. Alice was the middle child in a family of five, and at the age of sixteen she was sent to a boarding school in Ohio. The schooling she received at Villa Marie was stimulating and intellectually challenging. Alice and I would collaborate on implementing designs for quilt patterns. It was a wonderful experience for someone who was seventeen! We continued this relationship until she passed away in 1976.

AH: So you learned to quilt side-by-side with Alice. Did you work on any other joint projects after that?

BM: Basically, our joint projects consisted of bouncing ideas off each other and then creating a new pattern. I have one quilt called "Point and Counterpoint." It's a cross-stitch pattern - a Ying-Yang design - one color comes forward and the other recedes. Alice had seen an ad in the newspaper for the I. Magnin department store. The ad showed a snippet of what maybe this design could become. Together we collaborated by drafting the pattern, selecting the colors, marking the top and finally quilting it with the Dorcas Quilters. I supported her and she supported me. Alice kept me interested and always moving in new directions. She encouraged me to continue with my education to become a teacher and then an interior designer. As I reflect back on twenty years of experiences, I know Alice shared her many talents with me. Her architectural, mathematical, and teaching abilities helped me to enjoy all aspects of my quilting and design work. We had a connection enjoying what the other had to offer. It was a true friendship.

AH: What was it like to quilt in the 1950s and '60s, was there a large community of quilters?

BM: The quilting bees in the churches were the ones, I think, that kept that whole craft alive. We were separate people working together to complete individual projects. We relied on mid-western catalogues and pictures of patterns printed in newspapers for our inspiration. Specialized fabrics for quilters was not a consideration because it was not available. The real effort was to work with 36 inch wide cotton fabric in limited colorways that faded regularly. We used dress fabrics and available remnants for our quilt project. Our approach was to utilize what we had and to search for what we needed. Because Alice never drove a car, when she found some fabric, primarily solid colors, she would buy it by the bolt. Her husband Pat would drive down to the store so she could bring home one bolt each of blue, red, pink, orange, green, and lavender. I'm still using some of those 36" wide cottons to do some repairing or completing existing tops. After finishing college in 1962, I started to do much more quilting. I probably finished three or four quilts after graduation. We started to see fabrics manufactured at the 45 inch width and many more prints which harmonized with new solid colors. So I would say that probably in the '50s and the '60s we were hemmed in by the lack of tools. We cut our patterns out of shirt cardboard and then marked the grain of the fabric on each pattern piece in accordance with the overall block design. Because we hand pieced the blocks, we took the whole width of the material and exactly marked each pattern piece. An allowance for seams was added to each piece before it was cut. Occasionally we would think of double cutting. Oh speed cutting today is lovely. The Olfa cutter is [sound implying great.], so--

AH: A necessity of the twenty-first century quilter.

BM: A necessity, yes. I think it's broken down a lot of barriers. [laughter.]

AH: Now you mentioned that the church was one arena that helped bring quilters together. Tell me a little bit about your experience with, I believe, St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and when you began quilting with them.

BM: Well, St. John's is basically my home church. It's the church I joined when I was probably thirteen or fourteen. Because of Alice's interest in quilting, she joined the Women's Federation, a group that met from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. once a week in the Fellowship Hall. Several of the members enjoyed quilting and they encourage other ladies of the church to join them. The Federation had been established in 1938 as a missionary relief group providing quilts and afghans, knitted socks, bandages, etc to aid the British and American Red Cross. In the 60's, Dr. Carrick, the pastor of St John's, retired. He had served the congregation for fifty years. Dr. Bucholtz, the new minister, suggested that we call ourselves the Dorcas Quilters. In the New Testament, a woman named Dorcas did good works by sewing for those in need. As it's turned out, there are many Dorcas groups who work in churches throughout our country. These groups represent members who share their abilities and talents with others. I quilted with the ladies off and on until I graduated from college. Starting my teaching career, getting married and having children limited my ability to hop, skip and jump back and forth between San Francisco and the peninsula. I was grounded in my joy of quilting and came back to in as soon as our sons graduated from high school and went off to college. Since '85 my quilting life has been non-stop. [laughter.]

AH: What does the Dorcas Quilters bring to your life?

BM: Oh, they are such a treasure. When I was growing up in San Francisco, St. John's was really a very large church; many members from the Richmond and the Sunset district belonged to the congregation. As in all cities, the demographics of neighborhoods change. As newer immigrants move into established areas, businesses, cultures and languages change. I was an immigrant in the 50's and I recognized that pattern of change. Church attendance at St. John's declined in the late '60s and '70s. Currently the congregation consists of 250 members. Today the Dorcas members represent many communities throughout the Bay Area – Hayward, Piedmont, San Leandro, San Jose, Saratoga and San Francisco. We come on buses, taxis, trains, cars and our own feet. We come from different spiritual and cultural backgrounds. There is a sense of a worldly community because everybody brings different gifts to the quilting frames. We share blessings and food and are all mutually enriched. All funds received for hand quilting old tops is donated to St. John's. Our special reward is friendship.

AH: What is your favorite part about quilting?

BM: My favorite part is planning a new project--getting excited about translating an idea into a design. It's that first--and working the whole idea through to the finish.

AH: What's your least favorite part of quilting?

BM: Probably marking. [laughter.] I find that marking is very labor intensive. It's nice to have the idea of how you want it marked, and what you'd like to see. However putting pencil to the cloth takes a long time. Marking needs to be done methodically and carefully. It's not an exciting job but I know that stitching on marked quilting lines will turn a top into a beautiful quilt.

AH: How does quilting impact your family?

BM: Oh, that's an interesting question. They've had to get used to stepping on pins everywhere. They don't dare go barefoot in our house. [laughter.] They have to get used to lots of threads and to my total preoccupation when I am planning something. When they were children, each of our sons showed an interest in selecting the patterns for their own bed-quilts. They have had the joy of being recipients of quilts I've made for them. I have carried on the tradition of creating a Freedom Quilt for each of them. Historically the Freedom Quilt represented the opportunity for a young man to leave his family home and go out on his own. The top might be pieced by his mother, aunt, or grandmother. If possible, the top would be quilted out during a quilting bee – a gathering of relatives and friends. In 1989, Scott had seen a Radiant star pattern wall hanging in a Costa Mesa Quilt shop. He loved it and wanted it duplicated in blues and whites. In 1990, Scott's Freedom quilt was given to him on his graduation day from UC Irvine. He loved the Radiant Star and then turned the quilt over to read my personal message in the outer border. Within a week our younger son Bruce wanted to choose the pattern and colors for his [laughter.] Freedom Quilt. He made his choices and I finished his quilt in time for his graduation from UCLA in 1991. My personal message to Bruce was contained in the outer border also. I pieced and hand quilted these two Freedom quilts in two years.

AH: What pattern did he chose?

BM: Bruce also chose a star pattern. I've decided men love stars. His color choices were green, rusts and grays. It's called an Unfolding Star. And then David, my dear husband, complained that he had never received his own real quilt. After all, the yellow and black blanket [touch stone quilt] didn't count, because I made it when I was single. [laughter.] I knew David loved stars so in '92, I planned to make a Star Quilt to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. In 1994 we presented the quilt to him--I say we because our sons and daughters-in-laws to be all met in Oxnard, California at a barbershop singing convention. Our sons knew that I had been working on this quilt for two years. David never questioned why I carried around this big red garbage sack.

AH: You were able to keep it a secret?

BM: I kept it a surprise the whole time. Seven of us were celebrating our anniversary dinner at a restaurant in Oxnard. The finished Star Quilt was in the big red sack next to me. I gave the sack to David to open. Both sons said, 'Oh Dad, you have to stand up and show this quilt, you have to read what's on the back.' The outer border contained our wedding vows and our biographical history. This event really demonstrated to me how my quilting has been a part of all of our lives. In this case, to have a special quilt is really worth several unexpected pin pricks.

AH: These are all very positive memories of making quilts for specific people. Tell me if you have ever used quilting to get through a difficult time in your life.

BM: Yes I have. In 1984 when I was forty-four, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis. The disease had painfully affected every joint in my body. In early 1986, stabilized on medication, I started to use my hands for simple cutting and sewing. In the 70's, Alice had started a Blazing Star top. The multi-colored triangles were cut – just waiting to be sewn into blocks. Now I had piece-work to do! After all Scott needed a quilt for his dorm room! I started to piece a little bit at a time. As my stamina increased, I was able to do more piecing each day. Scott's Blazing Star was machine quilted and given to him in November 1986. Rheumatoid Arthritis is an auto-immune disease. I have learned to live with it for the past eighteen years. Quilting was able to lift my spirits during a difficult time. Quilting continues to lift my spirits each time I work with needle and thread.

AH: What makes a great quilter?

BM: Oh, a great quilter. When I go into museums to view historical quilts, I'm amazed at what women were able to accomplish with limited tools, and a small cache of fabrics. To see the graphic designs and geometric patterns emerge because of individual efforts. To labor over hand stitched seams which brings all parts together and to have the vision of something beautiful beyond what there was. I'm inspired by all the women who came before me.

AH: How do you feel about machine-quilting versus hand-quilting?

BM: My experience with machine quilting is very limited. In 1972, I machine quilted a bedspread. I have not tried it since. I love to hand-quilt in a hoop or on the frame. I like to make conversation and maintain eye contact when I'm in the company of other quilters. I feel that there is a meditative quality of physically doing the quilting stitches. It keeps me in touch with who I am. It allows me the freedom to dream.

AH: Why is quilting important to your life?

BM: It's important to me, because it keeps me connected; to people who have had different lives and circumstances; to people who have knowledge and are willing to share it; to people who struggle to learn and succeed. Quilting is a social yet solitary experience.

AH: In what ways do you think quilts have special meaning for women's history and experience in America?

BM: Historically women named quilt blocks in honor of events, people and places in their own local areas. As I read the 'honor roll' of named blocks, it shows a pattern of migration from east to west. Reading about the migration routes, I was struck by the fact that most of the settlers on the trail walked all the way. The women would cram some patch-work in their pockets and find a little time to stitch. Each piece of patchwork told its own particular story. It was a small measure of comfort on an exceedingly difficult journey from a 'home' to the 'unknown.'

AH: Have you tried to make a particular statement through your quilts that you would like the next generation to know about?

BM: I value the traditional quilt tops. They each have their own history which can be passed on to the next generation. They offer a connection between families and friends. For 48 years, I have known the joy of making them, renewing them and quilting them.

AH: Great. Is there anything else you would like future quilters and quilt-historians to know about you and your work?

BM: I've loved this effort that somebody else taught me and that I hope that I've been able to pass it on to others. To have a physical representation of different decades in my life by looking at all the quilts I made in the '50s, and 60's, the '70s, and the '80s, the '90s, and the 2000's gives me a view of my life.

AH: Is there any advice you would give to quilters beginning out with their quilting lives?

BM: Oh, the only advice that I would give is practice, practice, practice and wear a thimble. [laughter.]

AH: That's very good advice. Well, I would like to thank Bonny for allowing me to interview her today as part of the Quilters' S.O.S. project. Our interview concluded at 10:57 a.m., May 31, 2001. Thank you very much.

BM: Thank you, Amy.



“Bonita Morley,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed May 24, 2024,