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The Traveling Quilter: Houston Quilt Market, 2007

By Lynn Holland

A view of downtown Houston from inside the George Brown Convention Center.

It usually takes me a few months to recover from Quilt Market in Houston before I can write about the experience in a cohesive manner. There is so much to take in and then process, that it always takes a while before I can represent the experience with any justice. However, it is something I anticipate with delight and think about frequently for months after I return. Last October was no exception.

The first good sign was that we got to park in row PP at the airport. The second was being on the same plane to Houston as our friend and perennial favorite quilter, Jodie Davis. Going to Market in Houston each year is sort of our New Year’s celebration, the beginning of a new quilt seasons and exciting new products and ideas.

We arrived in Houston in early afternoon, stopping to have our traditional lunch at Central Market and buy a fancy pumpkin with warts all over it. (Try saying “bumpy pumpkin” three times!) We arrived to a quiet downtown Houston, seemingly hushed in anticipation of the big event the next day. We picked up our credentials from Bob Ruggiero, Quilts, Inc’s PR Director, and unofficial ringmaster of the Quilt Market Circus, and marveled from the giant portholes in the George Brown Convention Center’s media room at the eerie glow coming from the twilight of the exhibit floor below.
Sample Spree is the fabled pre-Market event Friday night before Market. As we started up the escalator a security person joked, “Be careful—it’s a madhouse up there.” The lines seemed longer than ever—at least 400 feet of quilters and shop owners in each direction. At about ten minutes to eight, the crowd started some rhythmic clapping, but that quickly died down. The group was quite orderly for as large a crowd as it was. When the magic hour arrived, it was like the gold rush. Everyone surged through the double doors, with the last ticket holder passing through by 8:07.
And these were the people who had tickets to get in at 8! Although Traveling Quilter does go in at the start to take photos, our habit is to stand in the overflow line (after folks with pre-admissions leave at 9, others can go in for $5 a person) because it gets us in the spirit. This year we got to meet quilt shop owners from Alaska and Pennsylvania. There was a discussion of quilting and homeschoolers, accurate fabric cutting for kits, and special events featuring food. (Think pancakes!) Behind us in line was an impromptu singing of “Happy Birthday” by someone’s newly found friends and fellow line-standers. A quilt shop husband and first-timer at Market inquired, “Is this really worth the wait?” to which he received a chorus of “You bet!” responses. We watched a few people exit, many of them with two and three tote bags full of merchandise. A fair number of newly-purchased Tutto bags rolled by us. At last it was 9 o’clock, and the second string players started in the door, one at a time. We caught a glimpse of Joyce Selin, the now-retired grande dame of Atlanta quilting who now helps her daughter buy for an Alabama shop. We passed by someone on our way in who exclaimed, “I can’t WAIT to get out of here!”

Moda had its typical crowd at the back corner, and the aisles were crowded with excited shoppers (Moda was featuring their “jelly rolls” of fabric this year). By 9:30 some of the excited quilters were camped out along the wall, sitting among huge bags of fabric and piles of goodies they had assembled. We always enjoy checking out the Spree, and availing ourselves of some of the newly minted goodies. This year we held it down, and left with just a few sets of fat quarters and some Dick and Jane books. After all, the main event was still ahead.

Saturday morning was clear and sunny. We overheard someone who must have been a vendor lament that Fedex has mis-delivered her beautiful embroidered name tags, so she was off to Wal-mart to buy plastic replacements for her people. We headed out for the convention center early, so as not to miss anything. Starbucks inside the center had become meet and greet central for market attendees. In the lengthy line were many shop owners and vendors waiting for fortification for the day’s activities.

Downstairs, the crowd was gathering, and we amused ourselves by counting the number of Tuttos that rolled by. When we got to more than 30, we stopped counting and starting sorting by color. For inquiring minds who want to know, the most popular color by far was neon green, followed by a fairly even number of purple and orange. Apparently Tutto owners want their bags to stand out, although many of them were using the bags as seats while waiting for the doors to open. The area in front of the doors below the escalators began to swell to the point where one man coming down the escalator bellowed, “I’m going to jump! It’s a mosh pit!” Luckily, he suppressed that urge and rode quietly down into the crowd.

About 9:10 the busses began to roll in. One of the first people off the bus was a woman in total Renaissance regalia, almost like something out of a fairy tale. Then it was 9:30, and the serious business was about to begin. What new products would we encounter?

One of our first stops was at Breckling Press, publishers of some of the most beautiful quilt-related books available. This year they were featuring Mother Earth and her Children, a lovely tale that originated 100 years ago, but is retold and illustrated by a fabulous quilt. We had the joy of meeting Sieglinde Schoen Smith, the quiltmaker, and getting to see the quilt up close and personal. I especially loved the numerous bugs the quilt contains. Even if you don’t have children to enjoy the book, the quilt pictures make the book worth owning. Incredible work! Sieglinde herself was a total delight and Breckling’s Anne Knudsen shared the Powerpoint and lovely vocal accompaniment done by her 12 year-old daughter, Helen. You can view this charming creation at: http://www.brecklingpress.com/mother_earth_info.htm

Other fun people we met were the ArtGirls, a sister act that has some very unique creations available at www.artgirlz.com. We also got to meet another set of sisters, Barbara Groves and Mary Jacobson of Me and My Sister Degins, who were celebrating their Sidewinder distribution by Wrights, Inc.as well as their new quilt designs. Dianne Springer and her daughter made quite the pair in festive garb which complimented Dianne’s clever new creation, “Quilt in a Cup”.

Since I am such a food-oriented person, I always check out the snacks that the vendors have available, just to see what’s what. There are always the usual Twizzlers and Raisinets, but I was on the prowl for the really cool stuff. Thimbleberries had canoes laden with saltwater taffy, while an Oriental fabric vendor offered yummy little Japanese goodies. Moda offered Granny Smith apples and ginger snaps; there were Famous Amos cookies, pretzels and animal crackers along the way. Perhaps the most stunning sign of change was the absence of Mrs. Field’s cookies at the Troy Fabric booths. For as long as we have been going to Market, Troy has had individually packed Mrs. Fields. How could this be?

Speaking of food, there was a wide range of offerings in the food court. Things ranged from caramel apples ($5) to cookies ($3) to “Southern Lady Chicken Salad” ($12). The food seemed a little pricier than before, but there was certainly something for everyone: the fabled barbeque-stuffed baked potatoes were there, along with noodle bowls, pasta, taco salad, Dippin’ Dots, pizza, nachos, panini, and Caesar salad. I ate a protein bar I had brought along, and drank bottled water.

[Quilt at right: "Evening Star" by Maria Elkins, Dayton, Ohio]

Probably the thing I enjoy most at Market (not counting all the great new products) is all the wonderful quilts on exhibit. I could spend days with the journal quilts and the fabulous dolls. It’s truly amazing what incredible art comes from fiber! The bad part is that at Market, we’re there to work, not play, so most of the attendees don’t get to spend the time they would like to with the quilts. I overheard one shop owner lament, “You know, even after all these years, my mother still doesn’t get it. She called and told me to enjoy my vacation in Houston. Is she kidding? This is physically and mentally exhausting. This is some the hardest work I do for the shop all year, and she thinks I’m on vacation!”

Hottest new products were the Sidewinder, anything with embellishment, stuff for kids and babies and clever storage. There are some interesting new rulers and ruler storage options (more on that soon), and lots of accessory and felt related products. We really liked the new Quilt in A Cup and Gypsy Gripper, the Sullivan Go-Board, and every last bit of fabric we touched!

Some years we stay on in Houston for the International Quilt Festival, which is open to the general public and is a much more retail experience. Unfortunately some personal commitments didn't allow us to stay for Festival this year, so we had to call it quits after our intense encounter with Market.

By the end of the day, our feet had given up, our brains had turned to mush, and our ability to respond to stimuli had diminished! It was time to stop and mull over what we had seen. If P.T. Barnum thought he had the greatest show on earth, it was only because he never got to Quilt Market!

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