My nose was an inch away from patchwork, and nobody was telling me to step back. Around me stretched row after row of quilts -- 371 in all -- at the 2008 Nebraska State Fair. White-gloved volunteers kept a watchful eye and a respectful distance.
For a quilter, it was close to a perfect experience.
I had come to Lincoln to visit the acclaimed International Quilt Study Center (IQSC) and discovered a wealth of additional quilt destinations -- including the State Fair (Aug. 28 through Labor Day this year).
The visual feast in the Devaney Center arena ranged from "best polka-dot quilt" to a mod citrus-green-and-pink quilt so bright it almost hurt the eyes, and a quilt of blocks with perfectly matched stripes.
The fair won't be the perfect addition to quilt-rich Lincoln after 2009. In 2010, it shifts 97 miles west to Grand Island so the University of Nebraska can convert the Lincoln fairgrounds into a research campus.
But Lincoln's museums and shops will remain alluring to patchwork people.
The Quilt Center wouldn't exist without the 1987 efforts of the Lincoln Quilt Guild to document the state's quilts, said Sheila Green, current guild president. A docent at the IQSC, she tells the story often.
The documentation project led to a 1991 book, "Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers." Meanwhile, collectors Robert and Ardis James wanted to donate nearly 950 quilts to Colonial Williamsburg, but the Virginia living-history museum didn't want artifacts that strayed from their 18th-century time frame. Aware of the book, the couple decided to honor their Nebraska roots, and in 1997 their collection went to the University of Nebraska, along with money to build protective storage with controlled climate and light.
The collection has grown to about 3,000 quilts. The current $12.4 million building at N. 33rd and Holdrege Streets opened in March 2008 and was funded entirely by private donations.
At fair time 2008, the international exhibit featured Korean pojagi, which are pieced and quilted wrapping cloths. The collection from the Chojun Textile & Quilt Art Museum in Seoul showed a quilting technique of tiny stitches grouped by threes.
The number three recalls "the wisdom and patience women were seen to possess in traditional Korea," perhaps thinking for three years before making a decision, says an exhibit monograph.
"The pojagi really opened my eyes to the possibilities" of international ideas, said Maureen Ose, IQSC communications coordinator. "That's what's so fun."
At fair time 2009, a feature exhibit will be "American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940," continuing through Nov. 15. The museum received complaints in its first year because it lacked a permanent American exhibit.
Now an education gallery displays traditional American quilts that might not be of museum quality, but may represent favored patterns. The museum's shop carries gifts and a few fabrics that are reproduction designs by Andover Fabrics based on IQSC quilts.
Over at the Nebraska History Museum (15th and P Streets), 400 quilts rotate to public view 16 at a time.
A few were brought early on over the trails by pioneers heading west in the mid to late 1800s, said Deb Arenz, senior curator at the museum, part of the Nebraska Historical Society. All are Nebraska-related, such as the gem by Grace McCance Snyder, a rancher's wife who was so taken by a floral petit-point china pattern that she adapted it to fabric, entirely in quarter-inch squares. She spent 1942-43 piecing it.
"This one was meant to be a quilt-show winner, and of course it was," Arenz said.
Browsing the shops
I chose three shops to visit that turned out to cover a wide spectrum of design.
"More than half of quilters are traditionalists," said Nancy Mahenski-Quick. Her shop, the Quilted Kitty, caters to them at 2295 S. 48th St.
The 2,000 bolts of fabric are patrolled by three live cats (whom I didn't meet) called the Furry Dudes, including Wally, who sends his own weekly e-mail newsletter. "We try to have fun," Mahenski-Quick said.
Calico House, 5221 S. 48th St. No. 4, goes modern with its 2,400 bolts. Said owner Janeese Olssen, who also runs the gift shop at IQSC, "I feel like the luckiest person in the world" because of the trend to modern fabric collections by "the new designers who don't know the rules."
Currently, "the brighter, lighter fabrics are the majority. But that's today," she said; it could change tomorrow.
In the Cosmic Cow at 6136 Havelock Av., owner Roxanne O'Hare stocks 5,000 bolts. The traditionals are there, as well as the bright, bold and fun, like the dozens of polka dots for quilters vying for that State Fair award.
But I spotted a more sedate treasure, as well: gorgeous taupes that are rare in quilt shops. Many of the dull, grayish browns are from Japanese textilemakers or are inspired by Japanese design, O'Hare said.
Back at the fair
My 2008 visit coincided with a "two-fer" Saturday for University of Nebraska fans: first the fair, then football at the nearby Memorial Stadium. Sept. 5 is the caution date in 2009. I found lodging far from the potential fairgrounds/stadium congestion. Despite dire warnings about game-day traffic, I had no problem arriving just as the fairgrounds opened.
More difficult was finding the quilts. The search engine at www.statefair.org produced nothing, but a map showed me the gate nearest "Exhibition Building," usually a good bet for textiles. But it contained a puzzling collection of "best of each county" exhibits -- a few quilts scattered among jams and wooden birdhouses. A fair worker directed me to Devaney, where the quilt entries are "getting to be more modern and getting to be more heavily [machine] quilted," said Jean Ang, a Lincoln volunteer for quilt causes. "There are few nice hand-quilters left."
Ang is among those who worry about the effect on volunteers of moving the fair to Grand Island. "Mounting such a large quilt exhibit is a lot of work," said Emily Snide of Fremont, Neb., a weaver and spinner who was co-superintendent of needlework and food for 18 years, through the 2007 fair.
Two or three paid employees took in the quilts, but about 40 volunteers are needed to hang them. Every day, three shifts of at least four or five people must watch for small children, forbidden food and drink near the fabric and those who are tempted to touch.
"That's a real temptation," said Ang.
Trudi Hahn Pickett retired from the Star Tribune in 2005. She lives in Las Cruces, N.M.