QuiltCon might not be as big as ComicCon, but it’s big enough to have moved into the Austin Convention Center.
The first QuiltCon took place in Austin in 2013, and after a second Austin show in 2015, the international modern quilt show and convention hit the road, taking place in Pasadena, Calif. (twice), Savannah, Ga., and, last year, Nashville, Tenn.
This weekend, the show will return to Austin for the third time, drawing thousands of attendees from all over the world.
Karen Cooper, who took over as executive director of the Modern Quilt Guild in September, has been quilting since 2002 and attended the QuiltCon in Austin in 2015. "I was scheduled to come here the first year, but we were living in Kansas at the time and got 22 inches of snow," she says.
But snow won’t stop her this year. Cooper, who now lives in New Braunfels, is expecting a few thousand attendees to descend upon the convention center Feb. 20-23 to check out 600 quilts that will be on display and attend some of the 150 lectures and classes scheduled. (Tickets cost $12 for a day pass and are available at quiltcon.com.)
Three experts came to Austin in January for the show’s judging, and Cooper said it was thrilling to watch them go through the quilts, all of which were completed in the past three years.
"I was geeking out being on that side of it," says Cooper. "I grew up in quilting. My grandma quilted, my mom quilted, my husband's mom quilted and her mom quilted. I’ve been around quilting my whole life. Our house is full of quilts."
After watching the judges go through hundreds of these modern works of art, "I had to go home and sew that weekend," Cooper says.
There are four big awards — best of show; excellence in quilting; best quilting on a frame; and best quilt without a frame — and 46 awards in all.
This year’s winning quilts will be revealed at a ceremony on Wednesday night, but the show starts Thursday and ends on Sunday afternoon. There also will be an expo, where attendees can shop fabrics and learn about new quilting tools and technologies.
Competition has gotten tough since the first QuiltCon. The Modern Quilt Guild started in Los Angeles in 2009, and there are now 210 regional guilds around the world, including the Austin Modern Quilt Guild.
Quilters as young as 8 years old have submitted pieces for this year’s show. Many quilts featured at QuiltCon in recent years have had overtly political messages about racism, inequality or even mass shootings.
"Part of what is big about our show is the design," Cooper says.
An old measure of success, for example, might be perfecting the number of stitches per inch on a quilt top, but modern quilting is more about the color and a message that you’re trying to share, Cooper says.
Each year, quilters from around the world submit quilts and travel to attend the show. This year, Cooper says, there happen to be a lot of Australian quilts. (A quilt from Tasmania won best in show in 2016, and Austin’s Kathy York won best in show in 2015.)
Guild members have been working on tree-themed quilt blocks, an individual square that can be pieced together with other squares to make a larger quilt, that they can donate at the show. The pieces will then be made into quilts to give to first responders who have been battling wildfires in Australia.
If you can’t make the show, 20 winning quilts from past QuiltCon shows will be on display at the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange, which has an exhibit running until March 15.
The quilt museum, which opened in 2011, is hosting a concurrent show from the Studio Art Quilt Associates called "Layered & Stitched: Fifty Years of Innovation," which will feature 50 contemporary works made between 1968 and 2016.
Cooper says the modern quilt movement has taken advantage of technology to share a skill that was once passed down only from person to person or from a book.
Quilters can watch tutorials on YouTube or Instagram and share their progress with other quilters, no matter where they live. But at the end of the day, quilting "is still something you’re doing personally, usually by yourself, and you’re the one touching and feeling the fabric," Cooper says.
Search Instagram for the hashtags #mqg, #modernquilt, #quiltcon or #mqg10for10, and you’ll see how the platform has helped quilters connect with like-minded fabric artists.
One piece from this year’s show that Cooper is particularly drawn to is by a 12-year-old quilter from Montreal. She submitted a quilt that, according to her artist statement, portrays two sides of her brain: one half, pieced together with black and white fabrics, represents what she feels like when she’s connected to technology, and the other half, full of color, shows what it feels like when she’s crafting or reading.
"Modern quilting is not about being perfect," she says. "It’s more about the doing."