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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

When the smoke cleared from October’s wildfires, 17 members of the Santa Rosa Quilt Guild had lost their homes, including many lifetimes’ worth of handmade quilts and all their quilting materials. Just as devastating to the organization, the Fountaingrove garage that held the Guild’s stash of fabrics used for charity quilt projects had also burned. Somewhat wryly, the Guild’s fire survivors are now known as the Cinder Sisters.

The Santa Rosa Quilt Guild is well known and beloved in Sonoma County for the hundreds of quilts they make annually for premature infants in NICUs of Sutter and Santa Rosa Memorial hospitals, for veterans and pregnant teens and for foster kids at Valley of the Moon Children’s Home. They make lap quilts for seniors, pillowcases and doll quilts for children and even pet blankets for animal rescue organizations. Their handiwork represents thousands of hours of hand- and machine-sewing, in their homes and together at regular marathon sewing sessions. Tens of thousands of Sonoma County residents have received quilts from this group since its inception in 1976. The community stash is where the materials for most of these quilts come from.

“Quilters are warm, they are loving, and they’re there with a quilt when you need one,” said member Diana Watson. She should know; she’s living in a 30-foot trailer in Santa Rosa with two members of her family after losing their home in the Orchard neighborhood off Piner Road. Her home studio was filled with beautiful fabrics, notions and finished quilts, all of which burned when the fires swept through northwest Santa Rosa.

Even as fires were still smoldering and evacuated quilters were trying to figure out where to live, the quilting community got busy. Somehow, word got out through Facebook and various influential quilting websites that the Santa Rosa Quilt Guild had lost its community fabric stash, and of the Cinder Sisters’ losses. A quilter in Texas came up with the idea for a “Fat Quarter Drive” (a fat quarter is a quarter-yard square of fabric). The posts went viral, and suddenly, SRQG president Jim Jensen was inundated with messages via the Guild’s website. Boxes began to arrive daily at the Guild’s P.O. box, sometimes more than he could load into his car. As packages of fabric piled up, Jensen said he tried to stop the flood, but to no avail. Generous donors sent yards and yards of fabric, backing, batting, notions, machines and more.

Vice President Linda Hooper had a new shed and the fabric filled the space so quickly, “the storage shed started showing a definite tilt,” according to Jensen. By New Year’s, the donation pile comprised some 30 cubic yards of material — equal to 30 pickup truckloads.

A group of Guild members started meeting weekly to sort and prepare the materials to share and sell. The Cinder Sisters had first pick of the beautiful fabrics, and the rest have been bundled in small batches to sell to Guild members at their bimonthly meetings, and to make community quilts. All proceeds from the sale of fabrics go to the Cinder Sisters, Jensen said.

Fabric donations came from 49 states, six countries outside the United States, and from some 80 quilt guilds around the country. Newly made quilts also arrived for the Cinder Sisters and for others who had lost their homes — 178 of those.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Cinder Sister Pam Beebe was the keeper of the community stash at her home in Fountaingrove; she’s living in San Mateo while they rebuild. For several months she has been unable to sew at all.

“I’m only just now beginning to think of making a quilt for me,” she said.

Her favorite sewing machine was in her car after taking a class, and her husband of 49 years grabbed half a dozen quilts off the stack as they fled their home, for which she is grateful. She laughed about the silver lining to losing her home in the fires: She had this upright vacuum cleaner that she hated. “And now it’s gone. It’s the little things!”

For others, getting back into the hobby came more easily.

“A community like the quilting community is so incredibly generous and tight knit — I was literally quilting before I had a bed,” said Cinder Sister Toni Anderson, who lost her “dream home” in Fountaingrove. “I had no pins. I had no scissors. The loss was incalculable.” But the donations from quilters got her “back to living again.”

Guild members regularly bring their finished quilts to meetings for Show and Tell, and the shared quilts are photographed and cataloged. For many of the Cinder Sisters, those photos are all that they have left of their quilts. But Watson said she was always too bashful to share her completed works. As a result, her quilts were not photographed and she has just memories to comfort her.

“When you think about losing everything — we lost all of our photos, everything — and suddenly to be the focus of all this generosity, it’s overwhelming.”

The first Guild meeting after the fires was emotional, members said, and true to form, the quilters immediately set to work that day to make bed linens for the Cinder Sisters and their families. “Putting on a quilt is like someone hugging you. It’s such a nice warm feeling,” Watson said.

Quilters have had different reactions to losing their life’s work.

“Some folks mourn over the loss of treasured family heirlooms and valued crafting items and linger there for months, years or the rest of their lives. Others bounce back quickly, are grateful for surviving, move on and eventually view the event as a positive change and a great reason to go fabric shopping. Both reactions are honorable and worthy of our support,” Jensen said.

With a cheerful outlook that seems to emanate from all the quilters, Watson added, “I had a beautiful sewing room — and I will again.”

Julia Park Tracey is a writer based in Forestville. Find her on social media @juliaparktracey.

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