Quilt City, USA

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 16, 2003

“You can’t make a blanket statement about these quilts,” says a visitor to the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society (MAQS) in Paducah, Ky. (pop. 26,307). And she said it with a straight face. She was standing in front of a wildly asymmetrical quilt, its sunburst of colors blazing in an intricate design made of countless careful stitches. “Each one is so … so different.”

True enough. Even a quick walk through the museum is evidence that the age-old craft of quilting has undergone a metamorphosis. Once a means of turning worn out and discarded clothes into warm blankets, quilting today is an art intended to comfort the soul as well as the body. Modern quilts may have raw edges, extraneous materials like netting or glitter, and designs that are decidedly offbeat or startlingly realistic. They may be stitched by machine as well as by hand and planned with computers as well as pencils.

“The definition of a quilt is constantly expanding,” says Sarah Henrich, the museum’s former executive director. “The only real requirement is that it must have three layers of material.”

Traditional quilting bees also are changing. Friendships once forged around a table are now frequently extended to the Internet, giving a national—even international—flavor to the once local get-togethers.

While other cities big and small—from San Jose, Calif., to Lowell, Mass.—have quilt museums, Paducah’s MAQS is the largest museum in the world built specifically to house quilts. It features special lighting and humidity control to protect colors from fading and fabrics from disintegrating and has earned Paducah the uncontested title of “Quilt City, USA.”

Perhaps the museum’s most unusual facet is its focus on contemporary quilting. Although it hosts some exhibits of antique quilts, its main mission is to honor quilts created in the last 25 years.

The museum is the brainchild and gift of Meredith and Bill Schroeder, natives of Paducah and publishers of price guides for collectors. In 1984, they happened upon a small quilt exhibit in a school gymnasium.

“There was a delightful little quilt filled with ducks, and it was just hanging across a rope. It deserved better,” Meredith recalls. The duck-quilt became the start of their private collection.

That year, the Schroeders founded the American Quilter’s Society (AQS), which now has 60,000 members. And in 1987 they began work on their nonprofit museum. The museum became a reality in 1991—13,000 square feet of exhibit space with room for 100 to 150 of the world’s best contemporary quilts. One gallery displays quilts from the museum’s permanent collection; the other two feature traveling exhibits.

The museum and the activities of the quilter’s society have had an enormous impact on Paducah, a town otherwise best known for the decorative murals on the floodwall overlooking the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

Every April, the society hosts a quilt show that draws 35,000 visitors. “The whole community becomes involved,” says Sheree Dawn Roberts, an award-winning quilter and designer of wearable art.

Residents rent out spare rooms to visitors since motels, B&Bs, and campgrounds are sold out for more than 60 miles in all directions. And churches hold fund-raising suppers since restaurants are swamped.

Janie Donaldson relocated from Wisconsin to co-host Quilt Central, a nationally syndicated TV series that airs on PBS stations. “Quilting is popular because it is not only practical but also creative,” she says. “So it fits and satisfies two things we need in our everyday living.”

It also stitches communities together.