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Petaluma Profile: Labels don’t apply for textile artist Susan Vorbeck

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In the living room of Susan Vorbeck’s 1922 home on H Street, framed examples of her quilted silk collages and drawings by her mother hang on the walls. An eclectic mix of 1930’s modern and craftsman style furniture graces the antique carpet, and balls of yarn and a partially knit sweater dot the table tops.

“I knit constantly,” Vorbeck says, “and create my own knitting patterns.”

As proof, she displays a sheaf of her own graph-paper patterns.

“I’m a self-taught textile artist,” she explains, “and a visual learner. If someone needed something made with fabric, needle and thread, I’d say ‘Yes,’ and then learn how. I do so many different things, I’ve almost run out of labels - seamstress; dressmaker; textile artist, designer/fabricator. Now that I’m semi-retired, I am a professional quilt restorer.”

Leading a tour of different rooms in the house, Vorbeck shows off examples of her talents. Photos document wedding gowns, hand-made tapestries and window treatments. An age-worn silk quilt of 5-inch geometric squares, patterned like a Mayan pyramid, is held together with pins atop the dining room table.

“The silk is deteriorating in this one,” she explains, “so I have to save what I can and create something similar — but a tad smaller than the original.”

Living in Grand Junction, Colorado with both parents for the first 14 years of her life, Vorbeck began writing down her childhood memories decades ago.

“My father worked in his family’s wholesale sporting goods business, and my mother was a housewife — but she was artistic,” says Vorbeck. “A good sewer, who did painting, drawing and sculpting. A women’s libber, and free-spirited, a self-taught artist, she was a renegade in 1930s Colorado.”

Adds Vorbeck, “My sister knows our family history better than I do, but I vividly recall certain scenes from my childhood. One recurring memory is visiting my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinner when I was 5 or 6. The place smelled of antiquity, and the loudest sound was the tick-tock of the grandfather clock. It was scary to go inside. My grandmother had aristocratic attitudes, and she was the queen of high society. Even at that young age, I knew that she didn’t respect my mother — or me either.”

Fueled by the uranium boom and anti-communist fervor, Grand Junction was a conservative Republican stronghold.

“In 1955, my aunt and mother snuck my sister and I out of town,” Vorbeck says with a smile. “We moved to Ojai, California, where my high school had less than 400 students. After graduation, I became an Arthur Murray dance instructor in Santa Barbara, and was a professional ballroom dancer specializing in the mambo and the cha-cha.”

After relocating to San Francisco, Vorbeck became what she calls, “a maker/designer for wealthy women and unorthodox brides. My best clients were women who enjoyed the designing process. One bride-to-be helped me remake her dead sister’s wedding gown.”

A Petaluman for the last 21 years, Vorbeck says she moved here when her son started his sophomore year at Cardinal Newman.

“I enjoy the small town vibe, and the proximity to both San Francisco and Santa Rosa,” she says. Of her commitment to her various artistic pursuits, Vorbeek explains, “I’m a bit of a handwork evangelist. Making things by hand is a lost art, and I want to make sure my granddaughters have direct experiences knitting and sewing, and instill in them the opportunity to be makers themselves.”

(Contact Gil at gilmansergh@comcast.net)