By Kathryn Lemmon
For 30 years I've kept the quilts my grandma made by hand during the "thrifty" 1930s and '40s. I can't help but smile when I see the feed sacks she used for backing. If there was any doubt about what she'd used, pig silhouettes in red give away the original purpose.
Quilting fabric is not a new idea. For centuries Asian cultures reasoned two or three layers stitched together were warmer than one. Later, medieval knights discovered quilted garments added protection and warmth beneath rough metal armor.
Today the epicenter of quilting is Paducah, Kentucky. The town of 25,000 has the nickname "Quilt City, USA."
Unlike some other small towns that struggle, Paducah is thriving. City officials prudently offered incentives to artisans willing to relocate into the downtown area. The plan worked and played a major role in keeping their town vibrant.
The best-known attraction is the National Quilt Museum, which opened in 1991 under a slightly different name. Anyone who visits should expect to be surprised, and nearly everyone is. The phrase "fiber arts" will take on profound new meaning, and words such as "masterpiece," "breathtaking" and "phenomenal" are commonly heard in this museum. No wonder it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire state.
The museum staff gladly welcomes both those who stitch and those who can't thread a needle. Many a reluctant non-quilting spouse has agreed to stay an hour and happily stayed two. The museum might more aptly be called an art gallery.
The quilts are arranged like works of art under skillfully positioned lighting to best display the intricate stitching and color variations. Even the 30,000-square-foot building was specially designed to present the quilts in the best possible fashion. The lobby has large stained-glass windows done in popular quilt patterns. Paducah has become a much-anticipated pilgrimage for avid quilters.
I thought about the concept of time while staring at a quilt made of swirling shades of yellow and aqua. They take on an even greater significance in today's hurry-up world. A typical quilt can take months or even be a yearlong commitment.
Fiber art examples from their permanent collection as well as regularly changing touring and thematic exhibits are on display. Past exhibits have explored common patterns such as the Kentucky Log Cabin or the Double Wedding Ring. Other changing exhibits round up types of quilts such as pieced borders, scrap materials or miniatures.
The quilt museum is also a hands-on place of learning, and they organize "quilt challenges" to stretch the limits on traditional patterns. Here participating artists must think creatively since the competition is daunting, and judges face as much challenge as the quilters. Workshops and all things quilt-related keep the institution lively.
There is even a wooden quilt on display. According to Frank Bennett, CEO of the museum, "We're very pleased the quilt 'Floating,' created by artist Fraser Smith, is part of our collection and on permanent display."
"Floating" is made of carved basswood and is amazingly realistic. Smith makes wood sculptures that mimic fabric and leather. An Internet search will provide more information and images on his unique medium.
Because of the quilt museum, fabric stores and quilting stores have sprung up in Paducah, so visitors who are passionate about quilting should allow time to browse. Here they can find vintage fabrics and retired patterns that are not easily available elsewhere.
Even the most serious fabric junkies need to eat eventually. Flamingo Row brings tropical flavors of the Caribbean to Paducah, which is somewhat unusual in Kentucky. Another option is the Kirchoff Deli and Bakery, whose specialty is a tasty cranberry walnut bread. If the weather is fine, it's fun to grab snacks from the deli and head to the river for a picnic.
As a result of the 1937 flood, flood walls were built in Paducah, and today the murals that adorn them are another must-see. Similar to quilts, the murals transform something purely functional (and usually boring) into art. As an art form, they deserve more than just a quick drive-by. The murals were created by artists Robert Dafford and the Dafford Murals team. In addition to here and in other American cities, their work can be seen in England, France and Belgium. The murals depict snapshots of life in Paducah past and present. The paddlewheel riverboat scenes were my favorite.
WHEN YOU GO
The museum is located at 215 Jefferson St., Paducah, Kentucky. The website is www.quiltmuseum.org.
Should you visit in mid-April you'll be there for the annual Dogwood Trail celebration. The event began with a two-block area began in 1964 but has expanded into a 10-mile tour of lighted dogwood trees and flowering gardens.
Kathryn Lemmon is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.