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The show at QuiltCon 2020 showcased over 600 modern quilts.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Dackson.

The Modern Quilt Guild held its annual convention, QuiltCon, from February 20-23 in Austin, Texas. QuiltCon 2020 was the third held in Austin, but this year saw major shifts in the worldwide organization’s leadership, with a new Executive Director and Chair of the Board of Directors. New trends in the vendor hall encouraged handwork and support for independent fabric printing businesses, reflecting broader trends in the quilt community towards a renewed focus on slow quilting, and quilts in the show demonstrated growth and experimentation as the MQG enters its second decade as an organization.

“I thought it was a great week for me and the association, simply because we all came together to celebrate modern quilting,” said Executive Director Karen Cooper.

Leadership changes

QuiltCon 2020 was the first overseen by Cooper who started her new job in September, 2019. Cooper, who came to the Modern Quilt Guild with over 20 years of experience in the non-profit sector, saw QuiltCon as an opportunity for MQG members to get to know her. “I had the chance to meet so many people, and they had the chance to get to know me a little bit,” she said.

Busy vendor booth, like Brooklyn Haberdashery, show QuiltCon’s high attendance numbers.

One of Cooper’s key tasks at QuiltCon was introducing speakers to the audience. She started each introduction with a fun fact about herself, including that during QuiltCon set up she walked a remarkable 25,000 steps in one day.

This year also marked a transition in the Board of Directors, with new Chair Heather Kinion beginning her term in January after serving previously as the MQG’s Region 3 Representative and as Past President of the Chicago Modern Quilt Guild.

Kinion was confident that the MQG’s smooth leadership transition would be reflected at QuiltCon 2020. “We have three new staff members since the last QuiltCon who were replacing three staff members who had left since last year,” Kinion said. “Our new Executive Director, Karen Cooper, has extensive experience running multiple QuiltCon-sized events each year.”

Kinion added, “I had no worries heading into this QuiltCon that it would be anything short of a successful event.”

While this year’s QuiltCon did not meet the record-setting attendance seen at QuiltCon 2019 in Nashville, Kinion noted that attendance came close to that record and that she and the rest of the MQG’s leadership are “very pleased with high attendance and participation in this year’s QuiltCon.” Cooper said the unique attendee number for QuiltCon 2020 was 8,934 which is the event’s second highest attendance figure ever. This high attendance figure points to a steady demand for QuiltCon to be an annual event, after the organization recently transitioned from being held every other year.

Japanese fabrics, notions, and sashiko supplies were a hot trend in QuiltCon 2020’s vendor booths.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Hopper.

Vendor trends

QuiltCon 2020 featured over 125 vendors and booths primarily focused on selling quilt fabric, notions, and tools. This year’s top trends focused on handwork, Japanese fabrics and tools, and handprinted textiles.

Embroidery and hand quilting had a substantial presence in this year’s vendor hall. Thread vendors including WonderFil promoted threads with heavy weights, wool thread, other threads used in embroidery. They also launched a new line of perle cotton thread in collaboration with fabric designer Alison Glass.

No handwork technique was as heavily represented as sashiko, a traditional Japanese style of stitching that translates into “little stabs.” Primarily intended for mending clothing, sashiko has become increasingly popular as a decorative stitch in the quilt industry. Vendors including Brooklyn Haberdashery, Bunny’s Designs, and Super Buzzy all sold sashiko thread, needles, and pre-printed sashiko pattern panels, with the new sashiko thread line by Lecien for sale by many vendors.

New perle cotton collection from Alison Glass and WonderFil.
Pre-printed sashiko panels can be made into pillows, like these Lecien panels for sale at Brooklyn Haberdashery.
Hand sewing and sashiko supplies for sale at the Brooklyn Haberdashery booth.

QuiltCon has frequently been a great place to source Japanese fabrics, but this year Japanese fabrics were more popular than ever. Along with merchants carrying dozens of bolts of Japanese fabrics, Japanese notions were also available. Tulip and Little House brand notions from Japan were particularly popular.

Fabric is always the star of the show in QuiltCon’s vendor hall. This year saw a noticeable increase in the number of booths dedicated to small batch hand printed textiles. A booth shared by The Small Circle and Sara Parker Textiles sold hand printed yardage as well as products made with those textiles including pin cushions and sewing organizers. Brooklyn Mojo also combined sales of hand printed yardage and products, primarily focused on bags. The sister-owned company Reprint + Repurpose, specializing in up-cycling thrift store fabrics with their own added prints, was so popular they sold out of the inventory they brought to QuiltCon.

Fabric bundles by Sara Parker Textiles.
Brooklyn Mojo sold bags and printed fabric.
Reprint + Repurpose sold out of their hand printed fabric inventory.
Peter R. Byrne’s Best in Show award-winning quilt “Starring You.”

These vendor trends all point to a broader movement in quilting that prioritizes slowing down through handwork over the rapid production of quilts, and supporting small and environmentally friendly small textile printing businesses.

Show trends

Showcasing over 600 quilts, the QuitlCon 2020 exhibit hall aims to feature the best of modern quilting. As the Modern Quilt Guild has grown over the last decade, so too have the quilts in each year’s exhibit. This year, quilts featured unusual or experimental techniques, political messages, humor, and an increase in piecers quilting their own quilts.

This year’s award-winning quilts were almost all quilted by their piecers, instead of quilted in collaboration with a longarm quilter, a noticeable shift from previous years. The Best in Show and Best Machine Quilting, Frameless awards both went to relative newcomer Peter R. Byrne who quilted both of his quilts. A retired hair dresser and the first man to win QuiltCon’s Best in Show award, Byrne has only been machine quilting since 2017, though he has been making quilt tops since 2009.

Byrne was recognized for his machine quilting, but one stand-out trend in the show was quilters combining machine quilting and hand quilting in the same piece. Hand quilting techniques also pushed boundaries of hand quilting by including large X’s, plus signs, embroidery stitches, and sashiko techniques instead of focusing on the more traditional running hand quilting stitch.

Detail of “Sakura Breeze” by Lorena Uriarte.
Detail of “Zenith” by Cassandra I. Beaver.
Detail of “Tar and Cinders” by Laura Loewen.

Playing with perspective was popular in piecing at QuiltCon, with many quilts featuring 3D illusions or secondary shapes. Many quilts were also finished in interesting ways, including with facings, pieced bindings, and even one binding that included prairie points.

“Bauhaus Betty” by Whitner S. Kane.
“Quiltropolis” by Betsy Vinegrad.
“Patience & Instinct” by Heidi Cronce.

The trend of quilts with a political or social message has always been strong at QuiltCon and continued at this year, with a strong presence from the Social Justice Sewing Academy in the youth category, some quilts in the text-themed charity category tackling political issues, and quilts scattered through the show that featured political messaging. But this year also saw an increase in quilts with a sense of humor, including the quilt “To All the Plants I’ve Killed Before,” a quilt dedicated to David’s black and white sweaters on the Canadian comedy show Schitt$ Creek, and the People’s Choice award-winning quilt “Bob” which was inspired by a drawing made by quilter Patti Coppock’s grandson.

“Bathroom Quilt” by Lynn E. Stuart, a quilt with a message about the problems of strict gender binaries.
“Bob” by Patti Coppock, winner of the People’s Choice award.
“To All the Plants I’ve Killed Before” by Emily Watts, 1st Place in the Me & You Fabric Challenge.
“I AM NOT PERFECT AND THAT IS OK” from the special exhibit of quilts by keynote speaker Victoria Findlay Wolfe.

Keynote lecture

The keynote lecture for QuiltCon 2020, delivered by renown quilter Victoria Findlay Wolfe, offered attendees inspiration and positivity. Through telling the story of her personal quilting journey from quilting with her grandmother as a child in rural Minnesota to becoming a studio quilter and quilt shop owner in New York City, Findlay Wolfe encouraged quilters in the audience to focus on their own personal growth and see the connections we share instead of focusing on our differences.

“It’s so easy for us to go to what we don’t like instead of what we do like,” Findlay Wolfe said of quilt aesthetics. But like much of what she discussed on her personal journey, this sentiment can also be applied to the broader quilt community which can sometimes feel divided by aesthetics instead of connected by a common passion.

Findlay Wolfe also called for kindness and joy in the quilt community, receiving a long round of applause after saying, “There are no quilt police – there are rude people.” Focusing on what she called “extreme fun” in quilting, Findlay Wolfe encouraged quilters to examine their motivation behind making quilts, from healing and celebrating life, to making a political statement, saying, “If I want to make a political quilt, I’ll make a political quilt.” As she ended her keynote speech, before receiving a long standing ovation that brought tears to her eyes, she said, “Hopefully all of that brings you joy.”

Looking forward

At future QuiltCon events, the team organizing the convention plans to pair the theme of their special exhibits with the location. Board Chair Heather Kinion said, “As the modern quilt movement and the MQG have grown, staff are excited going forward to try to tie some of our special exhibits to the unique places where Quiltcon will be held, including working with the Clara Ford Foundation for next year’s event in Atlanta.”

With next year’s QuiltCon in a city where the African American population is approximately 54%, working with the Atlanta-based Clara Ford Foundation, which was established to “promote, preserve, and celebrate the art of African American quilting” is a fitting match. QuiltCon 2021, held February 18-21, will also feature a special exhibit and keynote lecture by Latifah Saafir.

“I am excited about Atlanta–we have some exciting exhibits planned, it is a great city, and we expect attendance to be incredible based on the ease of travel to the city” Cooper said. “It has a great international airport for our non-US members as well as is a direct flight away from most airports in the US.” The location for QuiltCon 2022 – to be held in Phoenix, Arizona – was also announced this year.  

Laura McDowell Hopper

Laura McDowell Hopper

Social Media Manager and Staff Writer

Laura is our Social Media Manager and Staff Writer. Her work has appeared in Quiltfolk, Curated Quilts, Modern Patchwork, QuiltCon Magazine, and more. She is also an award-winning curator focused on textile preservation, an avid quilter, and a volunteer on nonprofit quilt boards. Laura believes that every crafter has an interesting story to tell, and she is committed to telling those stories elegantly and rigorously. She lives near Chicago, Illinois.

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