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THE TRAVELING QUILTER: Middle Atlantic Quilt Festival

Williamsburg - a Diary

By Carol Miller

It's the day before the Mid-Atlantic Quilt Festival, an event I look forward to all year, and I wake up feeling lousy. Doesn't it just figure? I baby myself all day but my nerves are on edge - all the weathermen are predicting snow, even the Weather Channel. We have had an exceptionally mild winter and my husband assures me that it will be "nothing." Worry anyway. This inflames my already nervous stomach.

I pack the car. I live only 60 miles from the show and prefer to drive back and forth each day, sleeping in my own bed and saving the money to spend on more important things - like fabric. I have a class on Saturday so I pack my supplies, show and tell for my Friday night dinner with my Compuserve buddies and snacks for the long drive back and forth. I run out and gas up the car.

Thursday morning: I wake before 6, too excited to go back to sleep and wait, yes, my stomach is still upside down. It reminds me of my college days when they would call up on the loudspeaker to tell you your date had arrived. Most of us were in the bathroom for those announcements. I drink hot tea and have some dry toast. Finally, I leave at 8:15. I want to be sure to get a good parking space.

It's my first trip down I-64 since a Christmas Eve ice storm. I remember clearly the reports of hundreds of trees down along the interstate but when I see the devastation, it comes as a shock. I rubberneck. In places, the highway crews have come and turned the trees into a stump and a pile of sawdust but for most of the journey, I am still witness to literally hundreds of snapped trees. It looks like a capricious tornado has whipped through the area.

I am coming up on the exit and suddenly there is tons of road construction. Disoriented (and let's remember my delicate condition and how early in the morning it is), I miss my exit. I go about 8 miles before I can get off and then can't find the "west" ramp to go back where I came from. Finally, after turning around several frustrated times, I get back on the highway, pointed in the right direction. All hope of being early is gone. Right now, I just want to find a clean restroom to get rid of all that hot tea.

I approach Williamsburg once more and get off. The surroundings do not look familiar. I look across the railroad tracks and recognize the backs of the shopping center near the Marriott. I am, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks. I have to go several miles before I stop at a Hardees and humiliate myself to a couple of breakfasting seniors (who all give me different directions) before I am finally going in the right direction. The good thing is that the restaurant has a clean restroom.

I park in the last street slot, blocks from the door. It is disgustingly cold and I am too far away to leave my coat in the car. At least it is not snowing.

Once inside, all else is forgotten. I spot several friends right away. The doors open and we go in to look at the quilts. The theme for this year's show is "A Decade in Quilting." They could call this "These aren't your Grandma's Quilts anymore." What a wide variety of techniques people are using these days - fusible applique, snip and sew, voile overlays, embellishments, machine quilting, hand-dyed fabrics, hand-painted fabrics - you name it and people are making quilts with it.

I totally enjoy looking at all these different things - I am mystified by quilts with loose threads hanging off of them - and often equally confused by some of the color choices or subjects - but it is obvious that creativity is alive and flourishing in the quilt world.

My favorite overheard comment is while I was looking at a terrific piece - a still life of bottles about 7 feet tall - done in subtle colors, it looks like an oil painting. These two women come into the cubicle, glance at it and say "You couldn't use that on a bed, could you?" Well, duh.

Last year's winner with "Petroglyphs," Patricia Styring, has another similar, but smaller entry - it also won a ribbon in its category. Judy Dales won for "Figments," one of her curved pieces. A fabulous mermaid "Within Your Reach" by Julie Duschack, was a top winner. A lovely blue applique quilt was a ribbon winner for applique. But the Best of Show totally perplexed me. It was a nice quilt - a log cabin design where she alternated 1" strips with 1/4" strips on each side - proving that her ability to sew straight seams was absolutely extraordinary. But the colors - shades of peach and brown - were muted and the set was straightforward rows. The quilting was technically proficient but nothing you would remember. I could think of 10 other quilts I would rather have seen with the ribbon - both traditional and innovative.

For example, there is a fabulous quilt ("Greasy Grass" by Carol Ann Sinnreich) about 7 ft by 7 ft of two Indian riders galloping on horses through a splashing stream with arms upraised and rifles pointed - the tree in the left background was terrific and the right hand background was a brown-on-beige traditional geometric block - laid on like wallpaper. It is breathtaking.

There is also a wonderful watercolor quilt, but not what you think when you hear the phrase. "A Woodland Sunrise" by Sally Rowe is comprised mostly of green and brown squares, laid out to be trees in a forest with the sun rising behind them and wonderful light streaming throughout.

One applique quilt, done with some raw-edge piecing is an African woman in tribal dress twirling around on a hill - her red skirt got nearly sheer near the edges - then little elongated crescents of a lighter color were laid on as if vibrating away from the skirt. Viewed from 5 feet back, it looked as if the skirt were really moving - outstanding!

Remember the "First Saturday in May" quilt from 2 years ago? The horses crossing the finish line? Well, the artist did it again - only this one is nearly life-size and is beyond words - then she put a completely different quilt on the back.

None of those quilts have ribbons of any kind. I'd like to see judges' notes by the winners explaining WHY they chose particular quilts - I don't need to hear why the losers lost but it sure would be nice to understand WHY the winners won.

(I'll add an editorial comment here. A lot of people have complained that this show has become too contemporary. I realized afterwards that I didn't see very many traditional entries. I'm reasonably certain the Mancuso Brothers don't turn these quilts away so I can only deduce that those who make this type of quilt are not entering them. Are they put off by the tone of the show or are there fewer traditional quilts of show quality being made? I can't answer that, but I do think we should stop blaming the show organizers for the content.)

At lunch, my friends chide me for being purchase-less, so after eating, I set out to conquer the Merchants' Mall. I go first to My Hands to Thee, a vendor out of Pennsylvania. Collecting a satisfactory stack of totally yummy fabrics, I join a long line at the register. Imagine my surprise when the lady in front of me turns out to be my online friend from Scotland. We were supposed to catch up with each other later, but this serendipitous meeting is even better. Unfortunately, this means that she witnesses my panic as I realize I can't find my credit card. I try to remember where I used it last and realize that it was on my gasoline run the night before. I stuck it in my coat pocket and it is not the coat I am wearing today. The booth owners kindly set aside my purchase.

(Note: the next day, this same booth is the victim of a brash shoplifter. She actually tries to steal an entire bolt of fabric, but they follow her and call security. To prosecute, they will have to come back from Pennsylvania to testify.)

With no money, I go back to the quilt show. I am looking at a display of antique tops when an older quilter remarks, "Gee, if I'd known they wanted unfinished tops, they could have had mine." I nearly lose it.

By 4, I am running out of energy and sit chatting with some friends before heading home. I hate the thought of driving through Richmond during the rush hour. By 4:30, I decide I better go or I will fall asleep in the lobby. Imagine my undelighted surprise when the radio immediately informs me that it is snowing in Richmond!! Within 10 miles, I see the first flakes and soon after, visibility drops to zero, especially when I come anywhere near a truck. I arrive home safe but with fingers welded to the wheel.

Friday morning I am off early again, make all the right turns and get a parking space right outside the door. I know it is going to be a great day! I retrieve my purchases from Thursday, meet my friend from Scotland and began hitting the vendors in earnest. Our area has two nice quilt shops but the number of new fabrics every year far outstrips their ability to keep up, so this is my chance to find pieces not otherwise available to me. I do my level best to buy them all.

The hotel can't seem to get the hang of feeding us all at lunch. They set up an outstation with barbecue, chips and drinks or you can go through their cafe line - the drinks have vastly different prices in the two locations which kind of irritates me. Then there is no place to sit and no place to throw your trash. There are, however, great water stations all over, the restrooms stay clean and the staff is always polite and friendly.

The rest of the show is beginning to suffer from its own success. Thursday and Friday the place was totally mobbed and the heat in the small vendor mall was unbearable - literally. People were going in, staying 10 minutes and leaving. By Saturday, they finally got the hang of the environmental systems and cooled it down. You just want to scream. The show is in four hotels. I skip Vintage Clothing and Fiber Art. The shuttle buses were running very slow - it sometimes took 45 minutes to get around from one hotel to the other - that's a lot of wasted time. (It's about an 8-minute drive - tops)

Wearable Art is at the Williamsburg Lodge. I hate to give up my space, but figure I would lose far too much time to the shuttle. I just plan to spend the rest of Friday afternoon over there. The clothes seem more normal to me this year. Am I being gradually brainwashed? I see several outfits I can actually picture someone wearing. I do wish the Hoffman Challenge fabric wasn't always so LOUD. It makes the pieces all look alike and the orange from last year would be hard for almost anyone to wear. One clever contestant made a cape, subtle and turquoise on the outside, lined with the challenge and other spicy fabrics inside. Talk about a split personality!! But it worked.

The vendors - well, they were great as always in both locations (I don't do the other 2 shows). I just counted and I bought 46 yards of fabric - mostly in 1/2 yard pieces. One booth had this spectacular new Australian fabric line. I totally fell in love. It's cute rather than beautiful but WOW! It's so different - can't wait to figure out a special quilt for it. Never could find the Atlantis line by Rose and Hubble. But I certainly bought enough other things. It will take days to get it all washed and dried. No new books or tools, but did get some new MQ stencils.

Friday night, I meet with my online friends at the nearby Chinese restaurant. We do more laughing than eating and I am totally, completely, tired by the time I pull into my drive at 9 p.m.

Saturday morning I have a class at 9, which means leaving my house even earlier. Unhappily, it is a disappointment. The teacher is charming, has a lovely accent and does beautiful work, but (a) her flowers are not, as advertised, all that realistic, and (b) her class teaching methods are disjointed and very hard for me to follow. Her sample in the Teachers' Hall has just the realistic look I had hoped to learn but that isn't what we do in class. I leave early with another friend. I may still try this on my own but not with her methods.

Left to my own devices, I would probably have gone home, but my friend has just arrived, so we go back to the main show. I manage to find a small number of additional purchases. I like to think of it as my effort to keep the economy healthy. After two hours, I beg off and head for home. My trunk is nearly full and my wallet is empty. So is my internal gas gauge. But my mind - despite being tired, is awhirl with colors and techniques. I can hardly wait to see what happens when these great inspiring quilts percolate in my subconscious.


Carol Miller has been quilting since 1979. She teaches and runs the VCQ Online ( www.vcq.org ) site for her state guild. She can be reached at webmistress@vcq.org .


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