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The Traveling Quilter: 17th Annual AQS Show, Paducah KY

April 2001


Reviewed by Lynn Holland

We gathered beneath the steps of the Wal-Mart parking lot in a suburb of Atlanta, a gaggle of ladies and a few men, waiting for the bus. Some wore beautiful handcrafted clothing, but most of us were in standard-issue casual attire. The conversations centered on children and jobs. There really weren’t many visible clues to our identities or our important destination: we were quilters on the way to the AQS Show at Paducah. Many of us had taken this trip last year, when we drove up and back in one day. Since this required twelve hours of road time and many concomitant aches and pains, we were thrilled that there would be an overnight stop on the way up to allow us a good night’s rest. 

We checked in, were given our “trip number” to remember for roll calls, and finally boarded the slightly tardy bus. All the husbands (except mine, who went along) said goodbye, many of them shaking their heads slightly at the incredible allure of this quilting stuff. Shortly into the trip, we discovered that we were lucky to be on the road at all: One hour before scheduled departure, the sponsoring quilt shop had gotten a call saying that the original bus and driver were unavailable, and the only other driver couldn’t find day care for his preschooler! After several nail-biting minutes for Pat, the head honcho for this trip, the bus company managed to work things out, and the crisis was averted.  

The four-hour drive to Nashville was broken up by talking, doing handwork, and dozing. One group of long-time friends played serious bridge in the back of the bus, and our driver Eric popped the movie Stepmom in the VCR. Just as the final credits ended, we pulled off the freeway at Opryland and into the hotel where we would stay for the night. Before we disembarked, we sorted out the objects that had rolled away during the trip: still missing was a red spongy apple. We had found a nearly finished spool of Metrosene that no one claimed, and there was a box of Kleenex without an owner. “It came with the movie,” someone quipped. Then Pat was back with our keys, and we were on our own until Friday at 7:30 a.m.. 

That evening we ventured via shuttle to the Opryland Hotel, a spectacular complex which can only be described as part Disney World, part Riverwalk and part Mall of America. There are gorgeous gardens in the Delta area, complete with a river ride, restaurants and shops. And all of this is indoors! Should all this still not meet your needs, next door is a huge outlet mall. This was a little overwhelming for us, since we were tired and not in the mood for a fancy dinner or serious shopping. Too impatient for the shuttle and needing exercise after sitting all that time on the bus, we walked back to our hotel and had dinner there. 

The next morning the excitement was evident. Even at 7:30, some of the women were having an impromptu show and tell of the goodies they purchased at Opryland Mills, the mall adjacent to the Opryland Hotel. Numerical roll call was taken, the last stragglers located and loaded, and we were off. As City Slickers II played on the VCR, the bus passed through Tennessee and into Kentucky. Some die-hards tried to work on fabulous appliqué projects; others gave up trying to concentrate and just watched the movie. A quilter went up and down the aisles, trying to locate a class sign-up list that had been circulated earlier. “Twisted Bargello class?  Twisted Bargello class?” she queried. 

At last we arrived in Paducah. Driving into town, we saw folks lined up to get into the Kiwanis (or was it Rotary?) sponsored antique quilt show, an adjunct display in town. There were signs of the Quilt Festival everywhere: banners proclaiming Paducah as “Quilt City, USA,” churches with huge signs advertising quilters’ lunches and dinners, and tons of yard sales with quilts in them. Now everyone on the bus was excited.

The bus swing into the parking area, and we all jumped off. Our first stop was the mobile post office in front of the “Big E,” as the fabled Executive Inn is known. There we bought the official souvenir post card with a huge postmark, and dutifully addressed it to my parents. (Hi, Mom.) Then it was into the real deal: the AQS show. 

The entry area showcases Paducah and Kentucky. I think every county and tourist attraction in the western half of the state sent a brochure for the information tables, where friendly locals handed out plastic tote bags and restaurant maps. We stopped to buy a show program and to gawk at Yvonne Porcella who was sitting at a table just inside the front door at a “meet the artist” feature. Making our way through the sea of people (and it was just a half hour after opening), we went into  the first exhibit area. This was already, for want of better description, packed. However, we could see the quilts from a distance, and this was what we had come to do. Working our way through the crowds, we remembered why we wanted to come back. The quilts are truly amazing and it’s almost an honor to be in the same room with them, even if you are there with a lot of other people, too. 

As was the case last year, many of the entries were from Japanese quilters, though we didn’t see as many Japanese attendees as we had previously. The “Timeless Treasures Hand Workmanship Award” went to Keiko Miyauchi of Nagano, Japan, who entered a gorgeous appliqué medallion entitled “Blue Earth Filled with Water and Flowers.” Bernina’s award for best machine work went to Vickie Hallmark of Austin, Texas, for “Enlightenment,” an eye-popping psychedelic piece that was part Amish, part mandala. The best wall quilt came from Inge Mardal or Brussels, Belgium, a realistic beach scene called “It’s Not Summer Yet.” Hancock’s of Paducah sponsored the “Best of Show,” which was a breath-taking rendering of Celtic designs from the Irish Book of Kells by Zena Thorpe of Chatsworth, California. It is entitled, appropriately, “Magnum Opus.” These quilts can all be seen, along with a complete list of winners, at the AQS website at

Going down the aisles, we bumped into a lot of people. Literally. “Excuse me” and “I’m sorry” became the greetings of the day, and everyone seemed to make the best of the situation, with minimal grumbling. The lady with a twin stroller was certainly not Ms. Popularity due to the wide load she was driving, but then neither was I with my rolling carry-all. But in a show this busy, there are no strangers. At the end of the second aisle, a PreK  little girl tugged at me and said “Watch”, whereupon she stomped her foot three times to display her new light-up sandals. She made my day. We stopped to say hello to all the people at Electric Quilt, but didn’t linger long because their booth was so busy. Some vendors were conducting make and take mini-sessions. I stopped to check out someone hand-coloring lace appliqués with fabric dyes and also a fabric marbling set-up. 

When the crush of the show wore us down a bit, we ventured to the pool atrium area, which was sunny and roomy and full of vendors. There I bought some crazy-quilt scraps and a new goatskin thimble. Then it was on to the pool annex, for more vendors. I visited the demo of the QuiltCut, even though I own one. Many of the vendors were set up in sort of mini-stores, among them St. Theresa’s Treasure Trove, with all of its exotic fabrics and embellishments. I admired the redwork patterns at Lace Tales, but wound up  buying only another rolling carry-all. Of course, I stopped to ogle all the massive long-arm machines, knowing full well that they are out of my league. The annex got a little oppressive (after I had visited all the vendors), so we escaped out an open door and went out to the river. 

On the river, the locals had an arts and crafts market. Many charities had food and goodies, offering some respite from the heavy activity at the convention center. Since it was a sunny hot day, we had some excellent iced tea and wandered through the market along the river. That led us to the Quilt Museum where we checked out the gift shop and the children’s block contest exhibit. 

For lunch, a friend who lives in Paducah picked us up and took us away from the show area to a wonderful place called Flamingo Row, where we had a Flamingo bread stuffed with artichokes, olives and provolone. After chatting about what life in Paducah is like for the other 360 days of the year, she gave us a quick tour of the town, including the high school where she works. Trivia fact: school is in session during Quilt Festival. 

We enjoyed the break , but WE were here for the show and as much as we would have liked to stay and visit, we  had limited time, so she dropped us off at the museum. From there we walked into town, checking out all the great stuff set up on the sidewalk and everywhere. Almost every store had fabric for sale, much of it vintage. There were tons of old orphan blocks, many just $1 per block. I lingered over a set of 24 6” grandmother’s fans done in authentic 30’s prints, but managed to move on without them. We wondered where a dented lard can full of fabric had come from, and later regretted not making an offer on the whole thing. Many of the storefronts that are not occupied year-round had been leased by quilt-related businesses, who had set up shop just for the occasion. Several sidewalk sale tables of “miracle cloths” dotted the main drag, and many restaurants were doing a brisk business. After completing the downtown loop, we wandered past the gazebo where carriage rides started and ended (we read about them on the side of a porta-potty) and got a chance to wave to some quilters taking a ride. Local children offered us a free “I Love Quilting” plate for our car, and we walked back by the muraled walls that line the park by the river. 

Back in the Big E lot, we noted some clever vanity plates on the cars there. 2GR8BYS, SEW KNIT and JANEGO2  were some of our favorites. Just across the lot, we spied the sign for Quilter’s Alley, one of the year-round quilt stores in the area. A converted house, we were initially unimpressed, but once you open the door, it’s a different story. Not surprisingly, there is a very comprehensive selection of fabric and merchandise, and the place was quite busy. On the back porch, MAQS Christmas ornaments were being sold as a fundraiser, and the Rotarians (I think) were selling ice cream treats as well. 

With just a few more minutes to spend in Paducah, we did another quick sweep of the big show and saw everything we wanted to see one more time. We boarded the bus a few minutes ahead of schedule, and waited for the rest of the crew to arrive. At departure time, we were still missing a few quilters. Pat went out to look for stragglers, and most of them arrived. On any trip, someone is always last, and a round of applause broke out when the final traveler climbed the bus steps. Ready for the grand finale’, we made one more stop at the fabled Hancock's of Paducah. 

Last year we were so tuckered out that we couldn’t process the crush at Hancock's, and got back on the bus after a few minutes of cognitive overload. But this year, we managed to find the Alexander Henry “Dr. Zhivago” print that we stupidly passed up on a previous TVQ venture and quickly scooped it up along with a few other treasures.  Hancock’s cutting lines moved much faster this year, and there seemed to be more people working the tables and check-out. Our cutter confided she had been working since about 7 a.m., but that she was still having fun. After dinner at the Captain D’s and a quick run through the local Wal-Mart to check out the quilts hanging from the ceiling throughout the store, we were back on the bus and homeward bound. 

The ride home featured mostly napping and showings of “The Cider House Rules” and “How to Make an American Quilt” (don’t leave for Paducah without it). By three a.m. were back in Atlanta, tired but happy.

In retrospect, we liked the trip much better this year than last. Some of it was that we knew the drill when we got off the bus, and had an idea how to approach the day. Some of it was not being so tired to begin with, and more able to cope with a very strenuous schedule. And some of it was just learning to like the stuff that annoyed us last year. 

I am sure you have heard that the show is really too large for the Executive Inn. This is true. However, the AQS folks have done pretty well in making it at least tolerable, and the city of Paducah works hard to keep everything on even keel. There are many off-site venues now, and the free shuttle can get you to them pretty speedily. (It is a small town, after all.) What is particularly impressive is that the town for the most part does not gouge festival goers. Parking at the Executive Inn itself is $2 for the day, and $5 at the adjacent lots. The carriage rides were just $3, water and drinks were the usual dollar, and the ice cream on the back porch of Quilter’s Alley was 50 cents. Knowing how prices inflate for such annual events in cities like Augusta and New Orleans, this is quite remarkable. The good news (I think) is that the Executive Inn is expanding, which should help future quilt shows. Can we make reservation for next year yet?  

For more photos of the show, click here!


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