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97 girls for every three guys, cat power & theft worries: Inside the International Quilt Festival

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Sue McCarty, Harmony Within Whitney Radley
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Leslie Hall, Out in the Garden Whitney Radley
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Deborah Herring & Judy Kriehn, Pop Top Paisley Whitney Radley
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Charles Phillips, male quilter Whitney Radley
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Deborah Kemball, Euphoria Whitney Radley
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Barbara Shrout, Patriot's Dream Whitney Radley
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Where can you go this weekend to find more than 60,000 people, with a male-to-female ratio of something like three to 97, viewing millions of dollars worth of fine art?

Look no further than the George R. Brown Convention Center, which the annual International Quilt Festival 2011 will take over through Sunday. The Houston Fine Art Fair and the Texas Contemporary Art Fair have nothing on quilts.

Crowds are thick and parking is a premium, but that doesn't deter quilters from all over the states who make the pilgrimage to admire, glean inspiration and gather supplies.

 Men pass the time in the "Husband's Lounge," watching television. Women wear white gloves to showcase their handiwork. 

There, you'll find quilts that you could have never imagined: Quilts depicting birds, portraits, cats ("Cats always do well," said Bob Ruggiero, director of publications and public information for fair organizer, Quilts, Inc.). Trees and beaches, mountain- and cityscapes, unicorns and knights in shining armor. I even saw a craft beer-drinking praying mantis.

Quilts adorned with rusted bottle caps, Swarovski crystals, glass beads; sewn from ikat, silk, trash bags, cotton screen-printed with portraits of grandchildren.

Traditional Americana quilts. Geometric patterns. Festive holiday quilts, Picasso-inspired pieces. Photo-realistic pieces of architectural marvels, which were unpopular — "Show me some quilts," said one elderly passerby. "That's a waste of time," exclaimed another as she swatted the air.

Though some viewers dismiss some styles, Ruggiero says that there is no rift between traditional quilters and contemporary ones.

"It's just an easy story for the press to pick up on. They're not at each other's throats," he explained. "Even if traditional quilters don't like the avant-garde quilts, they know that they are important. Avant-garde quilters know that the traditional ones hold up the historical importance of quilting. And by no means are traditional quilts easier to put together."

Men pass the time in the "Husband's Lounge," watching television. Women wear white gloves to showcase their handiwork. The threads on the back are of particular importance: They indicate the skill of the quilter.

Deborah Kemball, a quilter from Santiago, Chile, talked about her piece called Euphoria. She stitched its orange silk flowers through tears as she watched the trapped Chilean miners emerge from underground. Kemball lamented the recent theft of her piece Beautiful Botanicals, which was stolen from a booth in Utah.

 She spent 600 hours working over eight months, using 15,000 yards of metallic thread to illustrate a Japanese garden. 

There was a special juried show, with more than $100,000 worth of cash prizes. Sue McCarty from Roy, Utah, won first place with a piece entitled Harmony Within. She spent 600 hours working over eight months, using 15,000 yards of metallic thread to illustrate a Japanese garden.

"It's about love and relationships, and harmony within a marriage," McCarty said. She says that the quilt itself is much too stiff to actually sleep under.

While leaving the festival, I met Charles Phillips, who asked for help adding time to his parking meter while his wife shopped inside. But he is the quilter in the pair, who drove down from Michigan for the show. Phillips worked in the construction industry until he was 80, and has since created a commercial quilting company which keeps them busy in retirement.

The International Quilt Festival 2011 turns stereotypes upside down.

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