The American Quilter's Society Fall QuiltWeek hits town this week, running from Wednesday to Saturday, with exhibits and events celebrating the organization's 35th anniversary.

But Paducah wasn't always Quilt City, USA. Over the course of three and a half decades, it's transformed from a river town to UNESCO Creative City.

The city's journey started when Paducahans Bill and Meredith Schroeder founded the American Quilter's Society in 1984.

Inspiration struck the couple in 1983, during a visit to smaller quilt show in Tennessee where they saw thousands flock into an exhibit. Already avid collectors and publishers of books for collectors, the Schroeders seized upon this enthusiasm around the craft and, within a year, Meredith announced the group's formation. Her goal was to develop a group that "gave national recognition to the quilters and their work" and "to set the standard in the industry," according to the AQS website.

The pair hosted the first National Quilt Show at the Executive Inn downtown the next spring.

"There is no doubt that AQS QuiltWeek has impacted Paducah in many ways," said Mary Hammond, executive director of the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Paducah has witnessed tourism as a catalyst for jobs and economic growth, public-private partnership, cultural preservation and development. Quilting and fiber arts were a foundation for Paducah to become recognized as a center of creativity, a place where one can learn about the latest products and techniques in quilting - and so much more."

Over its lifespan, the AQS gathering has now blossomed from drawing 5,000 quilters its first year to spring and fall events that bring nearly 45,000 visitors to west Kentucky a year.

"I think what sometimes people forget is that it really was the quilt show that put Paducah on the map," AQS Show Director Bonnie Browning told The Sun. "I remember coming to the show for the first 10 years before the museum was built downtown and it looked like a bomb had gone off with all of the empty lots where buildings had been taken down."

In Hammond's eyes, the quilt craze coming to McCracken County led to the revitalization of Lower Town via the Artist Relocation Program in 2000, the formation of West Kentucky Community and Technical College's Paducah School of Art & Design in 2008 and, eventually, the naming of Paducah as a UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art in 2013.

The growth of AQS and QuiltWeek has also come with the legitimization of quilting as a creative act, Browning explained.

"They really helped turn the tide on quilting altogether when they started this show," she said. "Prior to this quilt show, you could have gone into any garage sale, flea market or antique store and bought a quilt for $50 or $100.

"What Bill and Meredith recognized was the artistry that quilters were putting into their work, which is why during that first show in 1985 Bill wanted to award $10,000 to that Best in Show winner. That made people look at quilts in a different way and realize that it was more than just bedding or blanket, it was art."

The Schroeders' contributions also led to the opening of the National Quilt Museum in downtown Paducah in 1991, which the U.S. Congress recognized formally as the national museum for the art form in 2008.

Those interested in seeing the finest quilts from decades of competition can visit an exhibit showcasing all 35 Paducah QuiltWeek "Best of Show" winners during QuiltWeek.

"All of those quilts were donated to the museum by the American Quilters Society. There are four quilts that the museum does not own, but we have those on loan to complete the set for the exhibition," Browning said. "It'll be hanging in order so that you can see the progression from where we started in 1985 to where we are today."

The exhibit will be at the Schroeder Expo Center, along with several others. The hall will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Friday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

For information on QuiltWeek, scheduled events or exhibits available for viewing, visit www.quiltweek.com.

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