Paducah wasn't always Quilt City, USA.
The city's journey to becoming a UNESCO Creative City started 35 years ago when Paducahans Bill and Meredith Schroeder founded the American Quilter's Society.
Inspiration struck the couple in 1983, during a visit to a 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 and the city hasn't looked back since.
"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 three and a half decades, the AQS gathering has now blossomed from drawing 5,000 quilters its first year into 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 creative and experiential learning now has a presence year-round with studios such as Ephemera of Paducah that draw students from around the country for multi-day classes," she said. "The national and international publicity and exposure Paducah has gained from being a Creative City is phenomenal - further spreading the message that Paducah is a destination worthy of note."
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.
Now with members in over 80 countries around the globe, AQS hopes it can continue to push the art of quilting to the world and bring its quilters together in the spirit of creativity and camaraderie.
"Our challenge is to not do exactly the same thing every year. While the format may be similar, we have to find new activities and ways to keep the quilters engaged and involved," Browning added. "Coming together to see each other's work and celebrate it pushes everyone forward."