Saturday, April 16, 2011

Destination -- International Quilt Festival: Houston

© by Russ Barnes.  All rights reserved.  Photos copyright Russ Barnes unless otherwise noted.  Re-publication permission contact


Quilting, you might gather, is a humble practice.  Warming family threads on a bed.  Grandma era arts crafting.  Is that what quilting is about in today’s world?

Hands-on Quilting
On a mission to answer such questions, I traveled with longtime friend, Karen Alexander, from Austin to Houston, 150 miles by chartered bus.  It’s Saturday, November 6, 2010.  Boarding time for the idling bus from the Austin parking lot is six o’clock in the morning.  It will prove to be a big day in the big city.


Our destination in Houston is the George R. Brown Convention Center.  Over 60,000 people come to crowd and browse this three-day event, the International Quilt Festival, the largest quilting congregation world-wide.  Has a computer or electronics convention ever drawn that many attendees?  What’s going on here?  What’s this about?

Forty-five minutes out of Austin, we travel route 71 through East Texas prairie and make our first stop at Weikel’s Bakery in Bastrop near La Grange, Texas.  Good, sweet Kolache.  You may want to try one.  Coffee?  The john is handy for mid-morning travel  -- although a bit of a line for the women’s room.  Back on bus, seats filled.  The conversation buzzes about quilting project progress and gossip around the sociable, local quilting guilds.

George R Brown Convention Center in Houston
We arrive at the Convention Center.  A sprawling palace of commerce, drama, energy, and talent.  Festival attendants tag your wrist for coming and going.  You walk through the main door.  The immensity of the place, and its bustle, staggers you in your tracks.  Color, movement, things to buy, things to see, people to meet.

Eleven football fields of space to travel through, and somehow to digest and experience.  On one level, it is like a reality TV show, American Idol on steroids, with all the excitement of judging the winners and the losers.  On another level, the quilting show is about creativity and the resilience of the human spirit with a fascinating window on feminine priorities and interests: past, present, and future.


Karen is my leader through this maze of fabrics, variegated threads, applications, appliqu├ęs, and “best of show” contenders. Karen is now a sewing machine collector and retailer. She is a sewing and quilting teacher and, of course, an enthusiastic quilter.  One of the book titles I saw at her East Austin house was, Help:! I Married a Quilter.  Requisite guidance, I assume, for her husband, Joe.

The lanes and the nooks of the Quilt Festival "walkabout" are strewn with titles -- exhibitions with names like “Piece in the Hoop,” “Electric Quilt,” “Gadget Girls,” “Log Cabin,” “Courthouse.”


As we enter the main hall, Karen calls attention to the place where one of her quilts was displayed, “entered,” in a past Quilt Festival, 2009.  Karen pointed just to the left of our entry in the main hall.  “Made my rep right on the spot with our Austin Quilt Guild as they all got off the bus,” she reports with a bit of pride and a touch of self-irony. The title of her quilt,  “Fifty Years of Love for Nancy and Harold,” was made for her parents for their fiftieth wedding anniversary.  Family is not always the subject for a quilt.  But significant human connections I found while walking around the Houston show floor drive the energy around many quilt creations.  I will get to that subject more down the page a bit.

Creation, "Mystique," by Sharon Schambers
What struck me first upon walking into the hall, is the sheer industry of quilting.  The time and attention to detail it takes.  Its specificity. Stitch-by-stitch.  Minute-by-minute.  In the 2010 show, Sharon Schambers from Payson, Arizona was “First in Show.”  Her creation, “Mystique,” shown here in my amateur photo appears super-human in dimension, conception, execution, and effort.  Sharon showed us the 3-D layers of her work: the blocks of fabric for the front, the padding, the backing, the stitching.

Sharon, standing in front of her winning piece, reported she logged 1500 working hours in four years dedicated to the making of the quilt.  She won $10,000 for her effort.


Do the math on that one at an hourly rate.  What chief executive could make a claim to have put that much effort into her corporate work?  Why this dedicated industry for this result?  What’s going on here?  What appeals about quilting?  What need wants to become fulfilled?

If the quilt show in Houston is the city’s biggest convention nearly every year -- big business -- why isn’t such a show on the radar as a significant event that it really is?  I mean where is the Wall Street Journal?  Where are the class arts-and-style sections of newspapers and magazines?

Thread -- a theme -- and Buy it at the Show
Those are some of the questions I asked myself as I began to cruise the Houston floor walkabout.  Karen began helping me with some perceptions on those questions.  So did a remarkable quilter I met at the show, Gyleen X. Fitzgerald -- with whom I conducted an audio interview. 

Stay in touch.  I formulate answers to these questions -- and raise others -- every Friday for a spell.  Let me know your thoughts, questions, reports, and experiences.  That would be appreciated by me and my “Travel with a Twist” world-wide audience.

* Coming up, the 2011 International Quilt Festival is in Houston November 3-6 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.  More information at:

* Like to see a slide show of Sharon Schamber’s work?  Go to:

* Like to see more photos of Karen Alexander’s sewing and quilting work or learn more about her, visit:

* Good video at the International Quilting Show walkabout.  The video title is “Stitchings: The Film.”  You can get information about the film at:

* If you have a relevant link you would like to be posted here, contact: