I’m not sure why I enjoy writing about obscure quilt topics.
Overall, any writer can tell you obscure topics require hours of research. Research that can yield little to no information. Remember my blog on the quilt projects of the 1980’s? That topic fascinated me. When I began to look into it, I figured it would require a day or two of research, perhaps some follow up phone or email interviews and I could have it “in the can” within a couple of weeks.
“The Power Behind the Needle: The Quilt Projects of the Eighties” took two years to research and one heartbreakingly short week to write. These projects were such a touchstone to quilt preservation, appreciation, and quilt guilds, I just knew the internet would be awash with tons of information. In actuality, the amount of remaining data about them was so small. So very, very small. Tragically small.
I’m All About Preserving Quilt History
I’m one of those quilters who strongly believe preserving quilt history is as important as preserving our quilts and continuing to teach new quilters. What we have today, as far as techniques and traditions, was established years ago. And while none of us (at least I think) would go so far as to state we all need to return to such traditions as hand quilting everything, we all can agree this art needs to be perpetuated in our twenty-first century quilting landscape. Just as most of us (at least I hope so) can agree understanding our quilt history is important.
The backwash of this is a historic hard reality: Quilting was women’s work. And society viewed women’s work through a patriarchal filter which meant it wasn’t nearly as important as men’s. Therefore, a great deal of our quilt history was passed down by women to other women in the forms of diaries, letters, and family folklore. Quilts and other women’s textiles did not merit much else. Once women obtained the right to vote in the 1920’s, things shifted a bit. Newspapers began carrying quilt patterns and columns written by women. Books and magazines promoted the art. Yet we are still left with questions about quilts and quilters which may never be answered.
But we try to come up with solutions. We study diaries and quilts and almost anything else we can get our hands on. Which kind of brings me to this week’s topic. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to view a Zoom lecture sponsored by The Quilt Alliance and their Textile Talks.** Barbara Brackman and Merikay Woldvogel spoke about the Mother of All Quilt Shows, the Sears Quilt Show at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. (If you want to know more about this, go here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/11/03/depression-era-quilts/ and here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2021/11/10/the-problems-with-the-quilts-the-sears-national-quilt-show-and-re-inventing-applique/ ).
Which brings me to today’s blog. In case you didn’t know, Barbara Brackman*** is the Grand Dame of quilt history and quilt blocks. She began cataloguing quilt blocks on index cards in the 1970’s and all her research led to her wonderful Quilt Block Encyclopedias and EQ’s Block Base. Merikay Woldvogel wrote one of the first books about Depression Era Quilts (Soft Covers for Hard Times). Barbara and Merikay knew of each other but actually met when both were researching the Sears Quilt Show. Then they proceeded to co-write a book about the show.
During the lecture Barbara mentioned it would be nice if someone could research the history of quilt shows and how they have changed throughout the years.
I’m not sure if part of me said, “Challenge accepted” or “Gee, that does sound really interesting and since I already include quite a bit of quilt history in my blog…this sounds like a good match.” Either way, I couldn’t stop thinking about the topic. On a quiet Sunday afternoon in March, I cranked up my computer and Googled “History of Quilt Shows,” and “How have quilt shows changed?”
And got back literally nothing except information on Ricky Timms and Alex Anderson’s The Quilt Show.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I searched “First Quilt Show,” “Quilt Judging,” and various other similar topics. Still nothing. Finally I pulled out one of my secret weapons: Susan Pierce. Susan is a fellow guild member. We quilt together on most Fridays. She’s one of my good friends. She also knows A LOT about quilt history. And she did not disappoint. She pushed enough information my way that it pointed me in the directions I needed to go.
From Livestock Shows to Quilt Shows
The first thing to remember about quilt shows is this: Quilters quilted for years without any. And the large quilt shows we’re so used to now (such as AQS Paducah and Houston’s International Quilt Show) are very recent additions to the world of quilting. For years, women would spread their quilts out for others to look at or put their best quilt on the bed in the guest bedroom. These types of activities were their quilt shows. Those quilts were examined, the workmanship praised, and they were pronounced beautiful and outstanding works of art. Sometimes patterns were requested by the viewers. And this had to be enough until County Fairs came on the scene.
Depending on who you ask, which county had the first fair is up for some serious debate. York, Pennsylvania had one in 1765. The Franklin County Fair is the oldest, continually operating fair. It’s been held in Greenfield, Massachusetts since 1848. The Topsfield Fair (also in Massachusetts) began in 1818 as a cattle show. No matter which fair you believe is the oldest, it’s safe to say county fairs were major events by the mid-nineteenth century. While most of these events began primarily as livestock shows, it didn’t take long for the fair officials to implement categories specifically for women to enter. And one of these categories was quilting. The county fair quilt shows were more than just an opportunity to win ribbons; it was a chance to see other quilts, examine what new techniques others were using, and come away with great ideas for your next quilt. Like today, you may have agreed with the judge or thought the judge needed glasses, but a good quilty time was had by all. These quilt shows are the first recorded quilt shows in America.
State fairs weren’t an event until 1841, when New York held its first state fair in Syracuse. Other states soon followed, with Texas holding the record for the largest state fair and Illinois having two state fairs. Forty-eight of our states and the District of Columbia currently have state fairs. In many ways, these state fairs mimicked county fairs, except they were bigger, had more attendees, and anyone in the state could enter any of the categories – including quilting. The state fairs offered a larger venue for quilters. Quilters from all over the state could enter their projects. Yes, it took some time for them to get their quilts to the state fair location, but in one way state fairs generally differed from county fairs – the prize winners took home cash. That, in and of itself, was enough to motivate many quilters to finish their quilts, pack them up, and get them to the fairgrounds on time. Ribbons and bragging rights are one thing, but cash is the great incentivizer.
The First Large, Well-Documented Quilt Shows
At this point, quilt show history gets hazy. While county and state fairs continued to have a quilt venue and listed the winners with pictures of their quilts in the newspapers, other quilt shows (if there were any) didn’t even have this amount of publicity. As a matter of fact, when I began researching quilt shows apart from what the fairs conducted, I came away with a myriad of dates. One resource stated the first quilt show (all of these are separate from those at the fairs) was in 1975. Another said 1978. However, I think there were at least two large quilt shows prior to the Seventies. One of these I know very well – The Sears Quilt Show at the 1933 and 1934 World’s Fair.
I won’t rehash everything here about the Sears Quilt Show because I wrote two fairly exhaustive blogs about them and the links to these are listed above. The Sears Quilt Show remains the Mother of All Quilt Shows. Attendance topped out in the thousands, and it awarded $7,500.00 in cash prizes. The grand prize winner not only took home a ribbon and bragging rights, but also $1,000, which in the middle of the Great Depression was worth $18,014.27 in today’s money. Although Sears gave quilters a tight deadline (the show was announced in January and the deadline was May), they did award local and regional winners as well as the grand prize winners at the Chicago World Fair. This show also still holds the record for the number of quilts entered – 24,000.
The second large-ish quilt show was The Detroit News Quilt shows. And this wasn’t so much one show, as it was a series of annual shows. If you remember earlier in this blog, I mentioned women received the right to vote in 1920. The right to vote gave women more than just power in the voting booth. It gave them a voice. Entrepreneurs, newspapers, and elected officials with an ounce of forethought realized the 19th amendment was simply the tip of a very deep iceberg. Women would become a market group, voting bloc, and readership in their own might. The Detroit News realized this and in the 1930’s hired Edith B. Crumb as the editor of their Beauty in the Home section. As soon as Ms. Crumb settled in, she started the Quilt Club Corner in 1932. For a small fee, women could join the club. Membership included having your letter to Ms. Crumb read aloud by her on WWJ, a popular Detroit radio station. The club also produced a list of members for their membership which included addresses so members could correspond and meet. Best of all, it allowed members to enter their quilts in a show. The first of these shows was held November 17-19, 1933. This show attracted over 50,000 viewers and had over 1,000 quilts entered. Word quickly spread to quilters outside of Detroit and Michigan. The second Quilt Club Corner show was held October 12-14, 1934, and was “a greater success than the first show.”
The shows continued for several years. Ribbons were awarded as well as cash prizes (first prize garnered $25). The show expanded categories to include Juvenile Quilts as well as applique quilts. These shows were hugely successful. However, they ground to a halt in 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ms. Edith Crumb met with some of the members of Quilt Club Corner and formed The Detroit News Needles for Defense Club. Everyone who knew how to use a sewing machine or needle and thread was invited to join this new club and members of the Quilt Club Corner were given a special invitation by Ms. Crumb to join. The Quilt Club was disbanded for the duration of World War II.
After the War, it did not return.
Post World War II and the Bicentennial Quilting Re-Birth
Post World War II, women once again found their position in society shifting. During the War, women took the place of men in factories and farms, as men enlisted or were drafted into the Armed Services. When the war was over, and men returned home, things did not go back to the way they were prior to 1941. Many women remained in the workplace. Quilting dipped in popularity because there wasn’t a lot of spare time for it. While county and state fairs still had quilt venues, it wasn’t until our Bicentennial Year that quilting regained a renewed interest.
I explained much of what happened in to quilting in the Seventies here: https://sherriquiltsalot.com/2022/06/18/those-groovy-1970-quilts/. The 1976 United States Bicentennial renewed an interest in many folk arts and quilting just happened to be one of those. New quilters were abundant and as the Bicentennial festivities drew to a close, they realized two important things. First, they wanted to continue to quilt, because they loved it. Second, they wanted to form groups which would meet to continue to foster quilting and teach new quilters. As a result of this second idea, quilt guilds were formed throughout the Seventies, Eighties, and beyond.
Here’s when I believe quilt shows as we know them today began to come into play. When the guilds first formed, they met to teach and promote quilting skills. However, what many non-guild folks may not realize is a guild is run much like a business – even though the majority of guilds are registered nonprofits. The guild needs money for office supplies, hospitality supplies, etc. Membership fees cover part of these expenses, but most guilds learned rather quickly a bigger fundraising event was needed to sustain their bottom lines. Quilt shows, by necessity and by choice, became the defacto means of keeping the guilds’ bottom lines in the black. They also served another purpose. Quilt shows became a way of demonstrating to the community how important quilts were and how the local quilt guild helped their community (since most guilds have a charitable outreach of some kind). Members were encouraged to display their quilts and ribbons were awarded. Thus, the local quilt show was born. Today, we’re used to hearing about local guild shows on a consistent basis. The earliest of these shows was recorded in 1978 by the East Bay Heritage Quilters. Props must be given to a guild which was founded in June 1978 and held a show in October of that same year.
While the Seventies and Eighties birthed literally hundreds of local quilt guilds and their shows, a national awareness about quilts still lingered from the aftermath of the Bicentennial. So much so, there were several national quilt shows held during this time, including Jonathan Holstein’s and Gail van der Hoof’s 1971 Abstract Designs in American Quilts, which drew major attention to quilts. Quilts were hung vertically, presenting them as works of art, rather than domestic necessities. Their prominent display in New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art drew thousands of viewers. From these national quilt shows, three other folks formed national/international groups and developed what I call the “Big Three” of the quilt shows we’re familiar with today.
In 1975 Karoline (Karey) Bresenhan formed the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Texas. If you’ve read my blog on the Quilt Projects of the Eighties, you may recognize her name. Hot on the heels of the success from the Texas Quilt Project and growth spurt of Texas quilt shops and guilds, Karey decided to form both the International Quilt Market – which features vendors from all types of sewing and quilting goods manufacturers – and the International Quilt Festival, a four-day event which eventually drew quilters from all over the world. This show has numerous categories and awards both cash prizes (ranging from $12,500 to $1,000) and ribbons (not to mention serious bragging rights if you come home with a ribbon attached to your quilt).
Also in 1975, the Mancuso Shows were born. Peter and David Mancuso formed the Mancuso Show Management from David’s antique shop in New Hopes, Pennsylvania. Originally the brothers wanted to host a series of antique shows, but soon found out that quilts and quilt-related textiles were the items which drew the most attention. They have now hosted over 300 QuiltFest shows, which awards cash and ribbons to the winners.
In 1983, Meredith and Bill Schroeder headed out to a national quilt show in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The Schroeders, who were avid quilt collectors, were not surprised at the number of quilts – 400 – hung in the exhibit hall. What did grab their attention was the number of spectators who poured into see the quilts. Thousands of enthusiastic folks lined up each day and paid to view the quilts. Delighted in the eagerness of the attendees, Meredith formed the American Quilters Society in 1984. By 1985, AQS held its first show in Paducah, Kentucky. To me what is unique about this, is the town of Paducah. During the week of the quilt show, the city literally turns into Quilt City, USA. Quilts are hung everywhere – even gas stations. An average of 37,000 folks attend this event and both cash awards and ribbons are awarded. The cash awards in the Paducah AQS show are a bit different. There are straight-up cash awards and then there are purchase awards. Purchase awards mean your quilt is purchased by the show for future exhibits. The Best of Show Winner is a Purchase Award. While the winner may go home without his or her quilt, they pocket a substantial sum of cash and have the honor of knowing their quilt is now hanging in the National Quilt Museum (also founded by the Schroeders and named the National Quilt Museum by Congress in 2008).
These three large shows are juried shows (meaning you must send in photograph of your quilt for acceptance before it’s hung in the show). They also have great vendor malls and classes are available to take during quilt week. Most local quilt shows are not juried, but many do have good vendor malls, and some offer classes.
The In-Between Quilt Shows
There are a couple of quilt shows which fall between the definitions of a “small, local show” and one of the Big Three. The two I’m specifically thinking of are Road to California and the Sisters Quilt Show.
Road to California was purchased by Carolyn Reese in 1991. Prior to Ms. Reese’s purchase, Road to California existed as a small, local-ish quilt conference in Anaheim, California. She changed the dates, pulled in well-known judges, and developed a fantastic vendor mall. The result is an outstanding quilt show, attended by more than 42,000 people.
The Sisters Quilt Show is much smaller than Road to California, but it is held completely outdoors and is completely free. This show generally attracts around 10,000 people and the buildings in Sisters, Oregon serve as the backdrop for nearly 1,400 quilts. There are no categories. There is no judging. This is just an unabashed display of gorgeous quilts – of every color and every type — for your viewing pleasure. While this show is only for one day (the second Saturday in July), there are lots of quilting events throughout the week, including classes taught by well-known quilters.
There are other (literally hundreds) of “in-between” quilt shows like these all across the United States. Nearly all of them (such as the Vermont Quilt Festival and the New England Quilt Festival) are off-shoots from the Bicentennial’s quilt revival. Most have vendor malls and award both cash prizes and ribbons.
What Does the Future Hold for Quilt Shows
The “Big Three” will soon become the “Big Four”
While the “Big Three” continue to hold ground as the most well-known quilt shows, there’s an up-and-coming fourth player in the national quilt show realm: QuiltCon.
QuiltCon is the largest, modern quilting event of its kind and it’s produced by the Modern Quilt Guild. It is a juried show with twelve judged categories, special exhibits, and a vendor mall curated especially for modern quilters. It’s only 10 years old but it’s drawing in thousands of spectators and is hanging outstandingly beautiful quilts. My prediction is the “Big Three” will become the “Big Four” soon. I am proud and happy that my state’s capital – Raleigh, North Carolina – is QuiltCon’s 2024 host.
COVID still somewhat alters some quilt shows
For all the quilting quilters did during lockdowns, I still find the ugly backwash of the virus present. While the large quilt shows and most of the in-between ones are up and running full speed ahead now, many of the smaller, local shows are gasping for breath. Post-COVID, some guilds found their membership gutted, and no longer have the number of people needed to organize a show. Some good information was garnered during this time. Several organizations tried the virtual route – the quilts were displayed virtually and there was a virtual vendor mall. And while there were varying degrees of success, over all this virtual picture was pretty dim. Quilters like those in-person shows.
Quilt shows have come a long way from side exhibits at county fairs. After enjoying a nearly dizzying height of popularity in the Thirties and then falling into near obscurity only to enjoy a re-birth of it again after the Bicentennial, they have grown and changed to reflect quilters and their love of quilting. And personally, I’ve enjoyed falling down this quilty rabbit hole of obscure information about one of the hottest topics for any quilter. Please take a few moments to read the additional notes at the end of this blog.
Until next week, Remember, the Details Make the Difference!
Love and Stitches,
**Quilt Alliance is located in Asheville, North Carolina. Once a week they offer a free Zoom presentation about some historical aspects of textiles. Quite often the program concerns quilts. If you log into their website, you can sign up for an email notification about the Zoom programs.
***Barbara Brackman is part of a YouTube Channel called Six Know-It-Alls and a Quilt. Six well-known quilters discuss quilts and textile history. This is a wonderful YouTube Channel, especially if you like quilt history. The ladies are knowledgeable and hysterically funny at the same time.
****Those of you who have read my blogs about the Sears Quilt Show (and if you haven’t, this footnote will make absolutely no sense) remember the grand prize winner of $1,000 was Margaret Caden. The winning quilt was titled “Star of the Bluegrass.” And to be honest, there was nothing super-spectacular about the quilt (even by 1930’s standards). It was a star quilt, done up in the particular minty-ish green so popular during the Depression Era. The technique which made the quilt stand out was the “stuffed” (trapunto) leaves in the blocks adjacent to the stars.
To be honest, this quilt has a pretty shady past. Margaret Caden was a professional quilt maker. She and her sister, Anna, owned a needlework/quilt making business. They employed seamstresses to make the quilts they sold, including Star of the Bluegrass. Margaret herself didn’t put a stitch in the quilt. She paid her seamstresses to make the quilt and offered them none of the prize money as a bonus. And after the quilt was complete, she didn’t follow the standard procedure for acceptance in the contest. Quilts were to be shipped to a regional Sears in the quilter’s area. At that Sears, they would be judged. The top three would then move onto the Chicago World’s Fair.
Margaret Caden didn’t do this. She shipped hers directly to the Chicago Sears for judging. She probably did this for a couple of reasons. The particular quilt design of this star and then a relief area was very well-known, well-used, and well-loved in Caden’s home state of Kentucky. As a matter of fact, most antique quilts with this design (especially if they were made from silks) have a Kentucky province. To have this quilt in the Kentucky (or surrounding area) Sears wouldn’t be in Caden’s favor. There were probably a dozen similar quilts in that particular contest. However, it wouldn’t be viewed as “common” in Chicago. It would stand out. And since the quilt pattern was so common in Kentucky, it’s unlikely Margaret or Anna Caden even designed much, if any, of the Star of the Bluegrass. In fact, it was a Mountain Mist quilt pattern. Few, if any, changes were made.
Beside the $1,000 cash award, a nifty ribbon, and bragging rights, the Grand Prize Winning Quilt would be gifted to the First Lady of the United States, which at this time was Eleanor Roosevelt. There are pictures and articles about Mrs. Roosevelt receiving the quilt. Meanwhile, Margaret Caden went back to Kentucky and monopolized on her big “win.” Pictures of the Star of the Bluegrass were everywhere, so the Caden sisters made quilt kits (for the quilter) and completed quilts (for the non-quilter) in the exact same colors as the winning quilt. Hundreds of the Star of the Bluegrass quilts soon populated Kentucky’s homes – not to mention out-of-state sales.
Meanwhile, the original Star of the Bluegrass, which was supposed to be residing in the White House, disappeared. We know Mrs. Roosevelt received it, and then it literally vanished. The Roosevelt Family has been asked repeatedly through the years if any family member has it, or do they remember ever seeing it. The answer to both questions has always been, “No.” It’s not in the Roosevelt Presidential Library nor White House Repositories. It wasn’t listed in the items Eleanor took with her when she moved from the White House after her husband died. It is thought, if Mrs. Roosevelt had knowledge of the quilt’s “shady” past and monopolized future, she would not have displayed it. Instead she may have packed the quilt away for a while and then gave it away to someone who helped her in the White House when she moved.
We will probably never know. More than likely the quilt was tossed a long time ago.
From time-to-time we do hear that the Star of the Bluegrass has been found. Each time this happens, it turns out the quilt either came from a kit or was one the Caden sister’s needlework company produced. The closest we’ve ever came to the actual quilt was a few left over “stuffed” leaf blocks one of the seamstresses kept as her own souvenir.