For a city that defines itself by its energy sector and medical center, it's surprising to learn that the second biggest convention in Houston has nothing to do with either. A quilting convention beats out museum, some oil, car and trade shows, bringing in more than 50,000 people every year to talk fabric, stitching and thread.
Only the OffShore Technology Conference which drew 78,150 attendees in 2011 and more than 67,000 in 2010 is larger.
On Wednesday night, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with the Cinema Arts Festival Houston and Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), screened the Houston premiere of Stitched, a film that weaves together the stories of three controversial artisans as they prepare to submit entries for the 2010 International Quilt Festival in Houston. (Another screening is set for 7 p.m. Thursday night.) The world premiere was in Cincinnati in April.
The quilting world is full of quirky friction between traditionalists who still view the quilt as a craft whose end product is meant to accessorize a bed or be wrapped around a baby, and art quilters, those who are first and foremost artists and have found fabric and thread to be their primary expressive medium and whose work belongs on a wall, to be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. With an estimated 21 million quilters in America, there are bound to be strong views and diverse opinions.
There is even a quilt superhero: Quilt Man, the Fabric Enforcer and his sidekick Bobbin Boy.
Within this quilt feud are colorful stories, zany personalities and hilarious tidbits captured endearingly by director Jenalia Moreno, producer Nancy Sarnoff and director of photography Thomas Gandy. None of them quilt, but they were intrigued by the rich and passionate quilting crowd that enlivened Houston post hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Stitched also includes footage from the quilt show in Paducah, Ky., the town's main visitor attraction. Paducah is also home to the National Quilt Museum. But the Houston show is the biggest quilt party, encompassing the equivalent of 11 football fields and it feels more like a circus than a convention.
As the movie says, every stitch has a story.
Considered one of the 30 most influential quilters, Illinois-native Caryl Bryer Fallert now lives in Paducah where she runs a bed and breakfast as part of her Bryerpatch Studio. She was first to win a major prize with a sewing-machine-made quilt, causing quite a stir with traditionalists.
"When you are movie star, you get your name in lights," Fallert said with a lighthearted tone in the film. "When you are textile designer, you get your name on the part of the fabric that they cut off and throw into the trash."
Fallert mentored Hollis Chatelain, who won the Viewer's Choice Award with her painted quilt, Innocence. Inspired by her work as a Peace Corps volunteer, her quilt juxtaposed an exquisite portrayal of a boy with ghostly images of joyful living and hardships endured by children. The work's emotional content and commentary is quite strong and is part of the "Imagine Hope: Awareness Through Art" collection.
"You can't wrap a baby in that!" commented one of the traditionalists on the film referring to a quilt by Rochester art quilter Randall Cook. I Remain was painted using dyes, another no no in the world of quilting. But most shocking was the striking nude model with a "perky butt" turning heads as if passersby were looking at soft porn and not a work of art.
Cook learned techniques from Chatelain. Stitched traces his transition from losing his job as a business analyst to finding creative inspiration in this craft.
The documentary masterfully weaves the quilters' personal stories, turning what most would think to be an antiquated craft into a fascinating behind the scenes look at the quilting world and its struggles with expanding its boundaries.
As for the trio responsible for Stitched, the Houston roots are strong. They have ties to the city's culture as graduates of the University of Houston and from their work in journalism (both Moreno and Sarnoff are Houston Chronicle reporters, Moreno and Gandy are married). This marks their first attempt at crafting an independent documentary.
Working under a fiscal sponsorship model through the Southern Documentary Fund, the majority of the cash was attained through crowdsourcing platforms like IndieGoGo, Kickstarter and RocketHub. Moreno also received funding from the Houston Arts Alliance through the Individual Artist Grant program.
A three-minute version of Stitched won second place in Aurora Picture Show’s Extremely Shorts Film Festival in 2010 and a grant from the Austin Film Society.
When asked whether the process of filmmaking affected her marriage to Gandy, Moreno responded, "it was intense, especially during the editing stage." Like most projects, the film was created in the editing room. But it wasn't strenuous on their relationship, Moreno noted.
Did Gandy agree? When prompted by an audience member, he emphatically responded, "Yes I do!"
Moreno is planing another documentary focusing on the mariachi culture centered around the yearly Guadalajara Mariachi Festival.
Quilt Man, the Fabric Enforcer, and his sidekick Bobbin Boy:
Stitched will have a final screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Thursday night at 7. General admission tickets are $10. MFAH members, members of the Houston Cinema Arts Society, members of the Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP), students with ID and seniors receive a $2 discount.
A panel discussion on quilting will follow the screening with Bob Ruggiero, PR director for Quilts, Inc. and coordinator of the International Quilt Festival; and Libby Lehman, a renowned quilter and author.