Sea Sewing

This large quilt, about 7-by-7-feet, features sea life including purple squids, silver sardines, rockfish and a diver amid a kelp forest. It took a year-and-a-half to complete.

It all started in 2001 with a need to dampen the echo chamber of a meeting room at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. The building was new at the time, constructed to replace the old building that cracked during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Even though the new meeting room was small, it had high ceilings and the sound bounced everywhere. “You could not hear what people at the other end of the table were saying,” says Donna Skaggs-Kline, who worked there as a researcher at the time.

The cost of soundproofing panels was prohibitive, so one employee, Lynn McMasters, a graphic artist, suggested fabric panels. And while they were at it, why not make them decorative? A group of colleagues, including Skaggs-Kline, an avid quilter who learned the art at her grandmother’s knee, joined in on the project. McMasters designed panels that could be raised and lowered, so that each week the group met they could bring the panels down to quilt and applique atop them using a variety of colorful fabrics, threads and quilting styles.

Using the sea as their inspiration, they added an array of underwater creatures to the panels. Some panels depict a MLML research vessel, sailboats and the Point Sur Lighthouse. Two panels feature full-scale baby blue whales crafted using trapunto (Italian for “to quilt”), a style of creating a raised, puffy shape to the surface of a quilt.

The panels worked to deaden the sound, but the new guild didn’t stop there. They kept meeting every Wednesday night almost without fail up until the Covid-19 pandemic. “We yack the whole time we’re quilting but our hands are moving the whole time,” Skaggs-Kline says. Over the years members of the group have included employees, students and alumni. Members come and go but the core group has remained intact.

Lois DeVogelaere, the wife of an alumnus (Andrew DeVogelaere, now a program manager for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary) joined at the very beginning. Like Skaggs-Kline, she was already quilting and doing different kinds of handwork, perfect skills for working on the soundproofing panels. Being a part of the group has improved her skills, she says, and her personal projects have gotten better as she learns from other members. Each one brings a different skill set and ideas and their collaboration shows up in their group projects. “We come up with stuff that nobody who works on a quilt by themselves would,” she says.

Over the years guild members have made more than 30 baby quilts for staff members and others connected to the labs. They’ve also raised over $10,000 by selling opportunity drawing tickets for their quilts, or selling creations at MLML open houses and other events. The money goes toward scholarships for university students conducting research at the labs. (MLML administers the masters of science in marine science for California State Universities in the region.)

Quilting is not an inexpensive hobby: They hold back some of the money they raise for materials for the next quilt and members often contribute fabric from their own stashes.

The last set of fundraising quilts they made before the pandemic was inspired by the 400-foot-long marine art panels by muralist Ray Troll affixed in 2009 along the top of the former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Pacific Grove. Skaggs-Kline has a special link to the building: She’s a Navy veteran who joined the Naval Reserves and worked inside the building while on an assignment there. After the reserves vacated the facility, NOAA took up residence.

The guild members created three quilts based on Troll’s colorful panels, two smaller quilts and one large quilt (pictured above) made of nine blocks. The block designs are complex, with multiple curves that caused the experienced quilters some angst. Curves are not the easiest shape, which is part of why it took a year-and-a-half to complete. They raised $2,500 in drawing tickets; it was won by a Southern California teacher and it now hangs in a school library.

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