Sometimes travel discoveries come strictly through serendipity.
While attending a recent family reunion in southern Illinois, my new daughter-in-law, Nona Patrick, mentioned that she knew of a quilt museum in Paducah, Kentucky, that she would like to see someday. As it happens, Paducah was just a 45-minute drive from our reunion site and, since we had some extra time before driving back to the St. Louis airport (yes, three states figure into this tale), I suggested we go see it then and there — especially since Nona and our son, Grael, live in Tucson, Arizona — not exactly next door to Kentucky.
Until a few years ago, when I wrote a story on quilting theme cruises for Porthole Cruise Magazine, I would have said I had little interest in quilting and would have opted to go fishing or relaxing on the farm in southern Illinois instead. But during my research for the piece I became intrigued by quilting’s growing popularity — estimates are that there are now more than two million active quilters the U.S. alone, who spend upwards of $2 billion annually on their art — and even more impressed by the beauty and intricacy of the designs.
Quilting — a source of warm bedding and clothing dating back to colonial times in the U.S. (and centuries more in Europe and Asia) — has been described as something akin to making a “fabric sandwich” out of three layers of material sewn together, either by hand or by machine. It’s also a longtime popular folk art form, producing often colorful, intricate decoration for everything from purses to wall hangings.
At Paducah’s National Quilt Museum, which turned out to be the world’s largest museum devoted to quilt and fiber art, many of the quilts are nothing short of dazzling. Several that we saw had been named among the best 100 quilts of the 20th Century, such as the one pictured here called “Corona II: Solar Eclipse” by Caryl Bryer Fallert of hometown Paducah.
One section featured miniature quilts — amazing in their detail — while another displayed what I would call whimsical (in some cases) or novelty quilts. My favorite among those was a poignant quilt that depicted a number of condemned prisoners’ last meal requests — which ranged from everything from buckets of fried chicken to a plethora of candy and soft drinks to steak and salad (with ranch dressing) and, most poignantly of all, “no request.” The quilter noted that she took no stand one way or another on capital punishment, but wanted to provide food for thought, as it were — and it definitely does.
In a separate room, there’s even a quilt carved out of wood, made to look like fabric — a perfect illusion.
The quilts on display are rotated frequently so I can’t promise that any given one will be there when you visit. Some are part of their permanent collection and others are traveling exhibits. I can pretty much guarantee that if you’re a fan of fabric art — and it is truly art — you’ll be delighted with what you do see.
A bonus is that the museum is situated on the edges of historic downtown Paducah, which in turn lies along the Ohio River waterfront. It’s a nice area to walk around, with some good restaurants and shops.
Quilters travel from all over the world to come to this museum for educational programs and, of course, to see the quilts themselves. I’m glad we took the time to detour 45 minutes out of our way: serendipity, really.