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The Traveling Quilter: Houston Quilt Market and International Quilt Festival, 2005

By Lynn Holland
What is going to Houston really like? “ friends ask me when I tell them that I just used my hard-earned annual leave to spend several days walking around a gigantic convention center. Only the quilters find it of interest—my other acquaintances dismiss this revelation with “oh, really,” and move on to other topics. But the question did get me to thinking—What IS market really like? 

It’s sort of like Festival, for those of you who have been, but more serious. Once your hobby becomes your job and a source of income, all the great new stuff is scrutinized through different eyes. But let me begin at the beginning.  

For those unfamiliar with this annual event, Fall International Quilt Market is always held in Houston, Texas, sponsored by a parent company known as Quilts, Inc. It is the largest single convention held each year in the city. Market  is scheduled in late October, the week before the above-mentioned retail International Quilt Festival, where thousands of quilters jam themselves elbow-to-elbow to see quilts and buy fabric. Market is the wholesale trade show event of the year for quilt shops and other quilt business-people from around the world. To do a little international name-dropping, we see Kaffe Fassett and Liza Lucy there each year, along with Eleanor Burns, Nancy Zieman, Kaye Wood, Jodie Davis, Carol Doak, and many other celebrity quilters who don’t seem to mind that they’re little known outside the textile microcosm. All of us are there either to sell or to buy, or to learn through offered classes how to do one or both better. 

Since quilting is not our only livelihood, the trip to Market is also our “vacation.” We usually arrive in Houston on “Sample Spree” Friday, the day before the Market actually opens. We meet our son and daughter-in-law, who live in Austin and work for the company, in the city, and all check in at Sara’s Bed and Breakfast in the trendy Houston Heights district. After leaving off our bags and greeting innkeepers (and after several stays, friends) Bob and Connie McCreight, we head to the cavernous George Brown Convention Center a few miles away. We stop in at the media room to pick up the press passes which allow us access to the exhibit floor and, if we’re lucky, chat for a few minutes with Bob Ruggiero, Quilt, Inc.’s Public Relations Director, and his friendly staff. We also like to stop and peer through the giant porthole style windows that provide a dramatic view of the activity on the massive exhibit floor.  

There was some concern last year that, because the giant convention center in downtown Houston was used temporarily as an evacuee center for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the quilt show might be delayed or even cancelled. By the end of October, however, most evacuees had been resettled in homes or hotels, and the show was on. 

Once we head down below to the show floor, the back delivery dock bays are wide open, and construction crews are hard at work. Last year we were there early enough to watch one of the fabric vendors construct a mini-city, complete with trompe l’oeil buildings. A massive packing- peanut spill was being handled by a ride-on vacuum cleaner, and one vendor was worrying over her inventory that the airline had bumped to a later flight. There is an air of both tension and fun because it’s almost showtime.  

The fabled Sample Spree is Friday night. It is enormously popular, and tickets sell out early in the fall. Those who don’t get tickets can show up at the door and hope to be allowed in as folks leave, which usually starts to happen about 9 p.m. We always procrastinate and wind up waiting in line with several hundred of our soon to be friends and fellow quilt businesspeople. This year however, instead of taking surface streets from Sara’s to the center, we hopped on the freeway. Bad idea.  

Although there must be a way to get to the convention center by freeway from the Heights, we couldn’t figure it out. We did, however, get a fine tour of the south downtown neighborhoods, including, I think, the Rice University area. Anyway, we eventually gave up and missed Sample Spree. From what I saw later, I’m guessing that silk roses were a big item because lots of vendors were wearing them on Saturday morning! The other rumor that was buzzing was that there was a stampede to the Moda booth when the doors swung open. Though we missed it in 2005, previous visits have lived up to its reputation for being something of a free-for-all, with vendors giving away or selling cheaply samples of their wares, trying to create a buzz they hope will carry through the next couple of days. 

Saturday morning when the show opened we joined many other eager folks at the convention center. Even though it was a bit cool, we went outside to drink our cup of Starbucks. Outside with us was someone who must have been a first timer because she commented to her friend on the phone “this thing must be fairly large.” 

Waterfront I, by Kathy C. CurryWe usually have a loose plan of attack for Market: try to look at everything, from dozens of fabric companies, sewing machine and long-arm dealers, notions purveyors, publishers, and other textile-related businesses, on the first day (some of the vendors call this “Lookie Lou Day.”) We then go back to Sara’s to pow-wow, compare notes on new or particularly charming products, and make our decisions. Saturday dinner is almost always at Chatters, a delightful Mediterranean fusion restaurant in the Heights, although sometimes we seek out some good Tex-Mex or other cuisine in the neighborhood. Sunday morning early, when the doors open again at 9 a.m., we make a return trip to place orders and re-visit any necessary vendors to ask questions or eliminate concerns. We also always make it a point to visit our good friends Penny McMorris and Dean Neumann, and their fantastic staff and volunteer booth helpers, and talk for a while about what might be coming next from their very innovative company. 

One of the huge bonuses of attending Market is that the quilt exhibits are fairly quiet. The hubbub of the vendor area is contrasted by the hush of the quilt exhibit and not too many people trying to view the fabulous quilts. This year the quilts were exquisite as always, ranging from traditional to over-the-top contemporary. We went on a tour of an English quilt exhibit led by Kaffe Fassett, and the journal mini-quilts held our attention for nearly an hour as we peeked into the private lives of quilters through their fabric diaries. Looking at a large quilt show in this relaxed manner is quite a change from the crowded conditions of most of the popular quilt events, where tripping over other peoples’ feet is part of the fun. For a selection of the hundreds of quilts on display, go to our Planet Patchwork flickr site.

After a respite and some picture-taking, we return to the vendor area refreshed to resume the brutal buying battle. Because we are talking business here, we try to stay focused. To help us have fun, however, I have my own little “awards” like best fabric manufacturer display and best snacks.  In 2004, the big winner was QNM who gave out giant frosted cookies shaped like birthday cakes. Last year Springs Fabrics’ King Kong took both categories. After all, Kong himself was there to hug the shop owners AND give out custom King Kong bags of popcorn.   

Boundary, by Susan Else, Santa Cruz, CaliforniaAt Market we always find one or two creative new products that we want to carry in the Planet Patchwork store. Last year we found the Quilter’s Fabricalc, and the two years before we found the Tutto machine-on-wheels. Last year we also discovered Helen Gibbs’ very fine instructional DVD and book on ribbon embroidery and are now carrying these items in the store. Sometimes it takes us a little while to get organized with arrangements with the vendors, especially if it’s a brand-new product. Market comes at the beginning of the holiday buying season when we’re trying to handle the large increase in sales that comes at that time of the year. 

Some years we stay over for the first day of Quilt Festival, which has a very different atmosphere. It is geometrically more crowded than Market, so much so that most of the men’s rooms in the building are converted to ladies’ rooms, and the floor has a different mix of vendors. Gone are the big fabric companies trying to sell bolts to quilt stores, and the big distributors, such as Checker and Quilter’s Resource, with their thousands of miscellaneous items. Their space is taken by smaller retailers, and the focus changes to individual transactions with the thousands of eager quilters who attend. We often find additional products we want to carry at Festival, and enjoy the different and more personal feel of the quilt shops and mom and pop vendors who fill the hall. Festival also has large areas devoted to sellers of embellishments such as beads and buttons, as well as a number of very popular jewelry booths. 

This year will be our fifth year of attending Quilt Market, and we never seem to lose our sense of anticipation and excitement. We have our plane tickets and Sara’s reservations for 2006, and will be back in the center of the quilting universe in less than a month! 

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