Kentucky. The Bluegrass State is famous for derbies, bourbon, bluegrass and… quilt-making? Yes, the bite-sized city of Paducah in Kentucky is a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art, and only two other US cities are on that UNESCO list: Santa Fe and Iowa City.
Paducah is also home to the USA’s National Quilt Museum. Now in its 21st year, the museum has attracted visitors from over 40 countries and as well as its core collection it houses 8-10 exhibitions a year. There are about 21 million quilters in the USA alone, and it’s a billion-dollar industry. The museum’s core collection displays quilts from the 1980s onwards, and features the works of 500 different quilters.
Every April about 30,000 quilters from around the world descend on Paducah (population 25,000) for the American Quilter’s Society QuiltWeek. Clearly for lots of people, quilting rocks.
Paducah’s museum is the biggest facility in the world devoted to the art of quilting, and though from the outside it’s an unprepossessing brick building, inside is an explosion of color. Within a few minutes of strolling around its galleries I’m convinced that quilting is definitely an art. My notion that it was something grandmothers did to turn scraps of material into bed covers is blown right out of the window. Quilting is a centuries-old tradition, but what’s on display here is as modern as tomorrow.
A startling monochromatic work shows cogs in a machine, while elsewhere there are shimmering rainbows. The use of variegated thread means some colors make chameleon-like changes as you move by them. One example of that is in several quilts by Sue McCarty that are ‘A Tribute to Tolkien’, where Gollum and Gandalf join quilted hobbits in such detail that you almost expect them to start moving.
Nearby two quilters from Ann Arbor in Michigan, Pat Holly and Sue Nickels, have created their own giant quilted tribute: to The Beatles. Yellow submarines and silver hammers dance around Penny Lane and octopuses’ gardens amid quilted 45s in an exuberant collage of musical fun. On my visit a special exhibition called Into the Wild was showing, with a range of quilted creatures – pandas, penguins, migrating cranes.
I felt like migrating myself at this point because the museum is all about hands-on activity and I’d recklessly agreed to join one of the regular quilting workshops for beginners, though there are workshops for experienced quilters too.
We were tasked with making a simple 9-square quilt block. Did I say simple? With each square able to be divided in two diagonally, vertically, or horizontally, it soon became clear that the creative options were multiplying faster than my brain could take in. On two tables lay the fabric samples we would be working with – triangles, rectangles, squares, patterned, plain, black, white, and every color of the spectrum.
I decided to keep it simple and stick to plain squares, but to design a colorful pattern of bold blues and yellows, to remind me of the blue skies and sunshine of my Arizona home. We were then given a lesson in using strange gadgets I was unfamiliar with, like sewing machines and steam irons.
As almost everyone in my group was a novice, a spirit of ‘we’re all in this together’ soon developed. People were comparing ideas and patterns, and commiserating when it got tricky. Some had bitten off more than they could chew, while others stayed quiet and heads down at their machines. We were shown how to pin two pieces together, face to face, and feed them through the sewing machine. Then you ironed the pair, added another square, and ironed again.
When you had three rows of three, you repeated the process but on a bigger scale. It wasn’t quite as simple as it sounds, as two of my squares didn’t line up right and I had to unpick them and try again. Just as I was getting to the end and thinking ‘this doesn’t look too bad’, my fabric scrunched in the machine and I ended up with a wonky corner. Shoot.
I remembered something our guide had told us when she was showing us round the museum. Sue McCarty took 800 hours to finish the main quilt in her Tolkien series. 800 hours! And this was outside her main job, which is making quilts commissioned by other people.
Some people clearly like quilting, and after discovering the National Quilt Museum and trying my hand at it, I can understand why. It was, remarkably, one of the most fun things I did in Kentucky. Though I definitely needed a shot of bourbon afterwards.
The 2016 QuiltWeek takes place from April 20-23. Full information is at http://www.paducah.travel/quilting/aqs-quilt-show/.