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Covered up in quilts: Quilting fanatics eagerly await dazzling array coming to WCU

Noreen Gay doesn’t have a moment to spare these days. She’s busily finishing the final stitches of a quilt she plans to enter in the Smoky Mountain Quilters Guild show barreling down in a mere two and half weeks — so busy, in fact, she’s hauling it around on the backseat of her car when she runs errands, in case she has a few spare minutes to put to good use.

“Sleep? What’s sleep? Cook for my husband Bill?  He’s on his own,” said Gay, a member of the Smoky Mountain Quilters Guild.

“It’s crunch time,” agreed Cindy Williams of Franklin, president of the Smoky Mountain Quilters Guild.

More than 1,300 people are expected to visit the Stars Over the Smokies quilt show coming to Western Carolina University June 7-10. For many quilting fanatics, it will take every bit of the three-day show to soak up the quilts on display.

“I could spend three hours today and come back and spend another three tomorrow and see things I didn’t notice before,” Williams said.

Viewers peruse the quilts on display wearing a single plastic glove on their right hand, given out at the door so all the fondling doesn’t soil the quilts over the course of the show.

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Quilting has evolved from a necessity — piecing together scraps of fabric for warm blankets because entire bolts of cloth were too costly — to an art form today.

“There has been a metamorphosis in quilting in the past 10 years,” Gay said.

Many quilters have their own personalized style. Some fancy the traditional, heirloom quilt patterns, handed down through the generations for centuries. Others create their own patterns, sometimes in the traditional vein and sometimes, as Gay describes herself, “out of the box.”

Creating your own patterns comes with some risk, but like any artistic endeavor, risk is inherent.

“All of them end up being risky. Even a traditional quilt, if you choose the wrong color, it won’t pop like it should,” Gay said.

Serious quilters usually have multiple projects at various stages of completion in their queue at a time.

“You get tired of looking at blue, you get tired of making triangles, so you go to a different project and you come back to that one,” Williams said.

Sadly, some quilts are destined to linger in those half-finished forms for years, the quilter unable to get up the gumption to finish. It’s such a common ailment, these unfinished projects are universally known in quilting circles as “Unfinished Objects,” or UFOs.

Quilters tormented by their own UFOs periodically have the chance to pawn them off on another quilter at UFO swaps. Hidden from sight in a brown paper bag, quilters bring in a UFO they don’t want anymore and go home with someone else’s UFO. The catch: you’re obligated to finish whatever UFO you pick from the bunch.

Personally, Gay has banished UFOs from her life.

“I’ll throw away UFOs that I hate,” Gay said. “I only have ‘X’ amount of quilts in me at this age, so I am going to work on what I like.”

Nancilee Dills of Franklin has sworn off UFOs as well. But for her, that means committing herself to giving every quilt in her ongoing repertoire a little love and attention on a regular basis. She keeps a spreadsheet of all her projects and won’t work on one more than six or eight hours without rotating to the next.

It’s no small feat — she has about 30 quilts in various stages, each neatly organized in clear plastic bins, labeled on the outside and with the requisite patterns, tracings and fabric squares contained within, making it easy to grab her quilting project du jour.

Quilting can be obsessive, as many of the quilters in the Smoky Mountain Quilt Guild have learned the hard way.

“We’ve now had two ladies burn pans quilting,” Williams said, imparting the stories of two quilters who got so absorbed while dinner was on the stove they almost burned the house down.

Most quilters have dedicated a room in their house to their endeavors. Mary Ann Budhal, a quilter with the guild in Jackson County, converted her son’s bedroom into her quilting hideaway. Once his old dresser drawers and closet got stuffed to the gills, she had to buy shelving units to hold all her fabric stock and UFOs.

Budhal specializes in miniature art quilts, intended as wall hangings rather than bed coverings or throws. The quilting pieces are tiny — some just a quarter of an inch — with hundreds of them in a single quilt.

With that many pieces in play, Budhal toys with her designs and color palettes on a project wall, a large piece of foam covered in flannel that she can tack pieces up on.

She’s lucky to have a live-in sounding board for her design process. Her husband is a painter and former art instructor at Western Carolina University and willingly offers up his take on a pattern — rather than the typical “looks great to me, honey” answer most women when get pressing their husbands to weigh in on this-or-that shade of burgundy.

But the perk comes with a downside.

“If it weren’t for him and all his pictures we have hanging up, I might have room for more quilts,” Budhal said.


The final throes

Last week, Williams and Gay spent two hours studying the great hall in the University Center where the quilt show will be held, measuring and calculating just how they will fit all those quilts into the space.

Williams will take the dimensions home and plug them into a computer program to come up with a floor plan.

“This will take me untold hours,” Williams said.

The guild had new racks built for this year’s show, fashioned from PVC pipes that fit into sturdy custom-made metal bases.

“Our old racks took screw guns and screw drivers and hammers and nails — and men — to put them together,” Williams said. “These are heavy but they are simple.”

About half the quilts being entered in the show will come from the 150 members of the Smoky Mountain Quilter’s Guild in Macon and Jackson counties. The other half are trickling in from around the country.

Budhal’s living room is rapidly filling up with quilts being mailed in from far-flung locations ahead of time. Not all quilters entering their work will be so lucky to have them finished ahead of time, however.

“They will be sewing on the binding as they approach campus to turn them in,” laughed Budhal.

While some quilts in the show are masterpieces, it will run the gamut from beginners to master quilters.

“We want a show that covers every level of experience,” Williams said. “Quilters want to see everything. You never know what you are going to learn. I have been quilting 30 years and I learn something new at every show.”

This is the first year that the guild will stage its show in Jackson County, and the community has embraced the big event. There is a quilt block planted on the lawn of the historic courthouse in Sylva. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce has a quilt display in its visitor center. And many of the downtown Sylva merchants have incorporated quilts into their storefront windows.

Additionally, WCU has an art quilt exhibit at the Fine Arts Center and a vintage quilt exhibit at the Mountain Heritage Center.

The quilt show is being held in conjunction with the North Carolina Quilters Guild Symposium. This year marks the farthest west it has ever been held in the state.

So far, 250 people have registered for the symposium, which includes two days of classes with renowned national quilting instructors, lectures and socials.

Williams began lining up the quilting instructors more than two years ago, an early start that helped land some of the biggest names in quilting. That is certainly part of the draw, but so is immersing one’s self in all-things-quilting for three days.

“No telephones, no televisions, no children to feed, no husbands to — deal with. You are with your peers and like doing what you like doing,” Williams said. “It can be very intense. But everybody comes with the spirit of friendship and happy to be here.”


Want to go?

Stars Over the Smokies quilt show and symposium hosted by the Smoky Mountain Quilters Guild will be held June 7-10 at Western Carolina University.

The major quilting event will feature a quilt show with more than 350 quilts and 24 vendors.

Hours are 3-7 p.m. Thursday; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday. $5. Located in the great hall of the Hinds University Center.

Additionally, WCU has an art quilt exhibit at the Fine Arts Center and a vintage quilt exhibit at their Heritage Center.

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