Meredith Schroeder – 2013 Inductee
By Karen B. Alexander
The late 20th century quilt revival brought forth women entrepreneurs in the 1970s and early 80s who succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations at the time, theirs included perhaps. Several TQHF Honorees come to mind, the latest being Meredith Schroeder of Paducah, Kentucky.
Not all who have impacted the world of quilting internationally grew up quilting. That may come as a surprise to some. Meredith Schroeder, co-founder of The National Quilt Museum (formerly the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society) and the 2013 Inductee into The Quilters Hall of Fame, had no quilts in her family home as she was growing up and in her youth doesn’t even recall seeing anyone actually making a quilt.
“My first exposure to quilts probably came through my husband’s grandmother who was from Princeton, Indiana,” she related in a recent interview. “I actually grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania until I was three or four, then Philadelphia. We moved to Paducah when I was 15 and I graduated from high school in Paducah. My father, a construction engineer, helped build a large industrial chemical plant here in this area.”
Discovering Quilts and Quilt Books
The family into which Meredith married included many avid antique hunters. After marriage, Bill and Meredith often conducted antique shows for schools as fundraisers, eventually founding Collector Books, Inc. publishing collectors’ price guides. Due to husband Bill’s interest in antique embossed mason jars, mason jars became the focus of their first collector’s guide in 1973. Many more antique guides followed.
|Published by American Quilter's Society 1992|
It became apparent to them very quickly that quilt books were selling well and were a natural fit with what they were already publishing. Their first quilt book, Collecting Quilts, by Cathy Florence, was an enormous success and helped launch the highly popular new division of their growing publishing company.
Meanwhile, the Schroeders continued to attend quilt shows after that first NQA show. In fact, Meredith related “you could say Bill inadvertently began our quilt collection as a result of those trips. Being a hunter, Bill liked a particular duck quilt he saw.” The $1,000 price tag initially shocked them. But they did purchase it, eventually.
The Schroeder children were grown at this point. But after that first trip to Bell Buckle, members of the family began to go with them to quilt shows with the specific assignment of helping them figure out what it might take to produce such a show themselves. “Ours was a family business. We already knew how to work together; so we just started brainstorming,” Meredith warmly related. “Eventually we set a time line for starting the show. At that time, Paducah had just built a new Executive Inn with 400 bedrooms and a convention meeting center. Paducah had never had anything of that size before, so we decided we could actually do this in Paducah after all.”
|Published by American Quilter's Society 1988|
The First AQS Quilt Show
The first Paducah AQS quilt show was 1985. It’s still going strong today and has expanded to other cities as well. In that first year, the Schroeders told the Executive Inn’s meeting planners to expect 5,000 people. The Executive Director was dubious, to say the least, but 5,000 people did indeed show up! The same Director told them later that he had expected “200 blue-haired ladies.” Meredith and I both chuckled at this point in the interview at how difficult it has been for the public to shake that iconic image that “quilters are little old gray-haired ladies”. They may indeed grow gray hair after years and years of quilting, but most don’t start out old, we both agreed!
As the organizing of that first show began, Meredith would eventually enlist the help of Annette Riddle, Marty Bowne, and Klaudeen Hansen. Meredith and daughter Lynn worked on the educational angle, and education remains a favorite area for Meredith today. Eventually Marty Bowne would become editor of the American Quilter magazine and guide the magazine for almost 10 years.
A First in Quilt Show Prize Money
Offering cash awards for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Best in Show and Best Handwork was a goal from day one. “We awarded $25,000 in the first year and provided the awards money ourselves,” Schroeder thoughtfully noted. “We were absolutely the first people to offer cash awards at this level. Within a couple of years we were able to raise the money for the awards from other sponsors and offer an even wider variety of awards. We have given away over $3 million in prize money, directly to quilters, since we began AQS.”
The biggest challenge has always been rooms and space. “There really was no other more humongous challenge”, Meredith related. As the show developed and expanded to five days, the number of attendees kept multiplying until Paducah ran out of hotel rooms. “This is not a problem most convention planners have to deal with. But we enjoyed working together as a family and as a team in spite of that. Although I feel I’m a delegator by nature, I also go around and make sure things get done.”
A Community Pitches In
As the numbers increased, the options for housing got more and more creative as they started busing people in from nearby cities or housing people in private homes in Paducah. The Visitors’ Bureau itself eventually set up a “Bed & Breakfast” network, including church people. “Those who participated were free to charge, of course,” Meredith related, “but most of them wound up donating the money to the Symphony or to their churches.”
Just how does a community of this size feed thousands of people? Again, the options got creative. In one instance, four different churches chose to set up meals during the annual Big Event so that quilters had a choice between local restaurants or simple but nutritious meal where they could sit and relax for as long as they liked. Today we have many food vendors outside the convention center offering everything from strawberry short cake to turkey legs.
|Published by American Quilter's Society 1990|
The quilters also helped to transform downtown Paducah: “For the first few years, downtown was pretty bleak, so the money the influx of thousands of quilters brought in helped bring about renovations in Paducah. And more hotels eventually were built on the edge of the city.”
In fact, several years down the road, the city would eventually invest in a 40,000 square foot poured concrete floor over which a huge tent is raised each year, with the all important “necessaries” just outside the back door. Today this pavilion has added to the show’s exhibit space, though there are still many satellite exhibit sites scattered about the city.
Eventually the owners tore down the Executive Inn. I guess we “wore them out,” Meredith chuckled. “The downtown area is suffering from fewer tourists as a result. We’re working on getting a replacement hotel. It’s a big challenge. There aren’t a lot of people investing in hotels in smaller-population cities these days.”
The Dream – The Museum
|With husband Bill in 1991 at groundbreaking for the future museum.|
When asked about the building of the museum, Schroeder was quick to answer: “The idea for the museum was present from the beginning.” In other words, from that first year, the Schroeders offered the winners a choice. They could keep their winning quilt or they could take the cash award. If they took the cash, the quilt was added to the growing museum collection. “There are only four best of show quilts over the almost-30 years that we do not have in the collection,” Meredith shared. “One quilter won twice and chose to keep both of her quilts, but most of the winners accepted the cash” and the prestige of having their quilt in the collection.
Some might romanticize the owning and running of a quilt business, I suggested, asking her: Do you think running a quilt-related business is any different from running any other business? “Yes and no”, Meredith answered, chuckling. “There are a lot of advantages and a lot of drawbacks. This is a 24/7 job. Everybody in the family contributed ideas, so working together as a family is a big reward. We’d go on “vacation” and come back with all kinds of new ideas, since we never really leave the job. Mostly we’d talk and read a lot about business whenever we left Paducah.”
There were setbacks along the way: “In 1996, our house burned during the show. We were taking down quilts on Sunday night and the fire chief called. There was a big electrical storm and lightning struck our home. One year my mother died right before the show opened, and last year (2011) we had a flood, so we could not get to the convention center. It was completely closed off to us by the large floodgates. That Sunday night, we moved everything from the convention center to the pavilion and began looking for somewhere to have classes, vendors and some exhibits. We found empty buildings at the mall for vendors and used a church for the classes and exhibits. They had to add electrical wiring to the buildings at the mall. It took all night long, yet we were able to open on time the next morning. In spite of it being Easter Sunday, the churches gave us tours of their buildings and worked with us all day, helping us to determine possible exhibition spaces and teaching spaces. It was pouring rain all day. We had to limit vendors to one booth, not two. Some vendors were upset, but we had no choice but to let the show go on in a way that could include all vendors.”
Big Business and Quilts
Some in the quilt world have questioned the “marriage” of “big business” and the “old community tradition” of quilting. But is the idea of “big business” really new in the quilt world? After all, direct-mail marketing of quilt patterns via newspaper ads and sale of fabric and quilt kits that arose from that have been around for at least 100 years. However, time and technology have definitely brought more changes to the world of quilting.
When asked if she was now seeing more male influences in the quilt business world today, compared to 15-20 years ago, Schroeder replied “I see the influence of men most dominant in the mechanical side, the technology, the sewing machines and other tools - the machines that do the programmed sewing. I think it takes both men and women to run a successful quilt business. And I don’t have any problem with male ‘celebrities’ in the business. It just brings more attention to quilting, which is a good thing for the industry.”
“Other changes have occurred,” she added. “The fabric industry has exploded, plus the social media on the Internet. Being from a different era, I find the social media amazing, but it’s positive that people want to find new ways to communicate. The bottom line is to make communication easier and faster, and to make more information available. If you’re the least bit interested, you can find whatever you want. And yes, we’re printing e-books and preparing manuscripts for iPads. We’re also really excited about our new fiction series by Ann Hazelwood*, which has been well received.”
The Emergence of The Modern Quilt Guild
and the Future of Quilting
When asked about the new “Modern Quilt Guild” movement and just what it is they want, Schroeder’s insightful reply was, “The new modern quilt movement is spectacular. I’m sure they will listen to a few ideas from our older quilters but they don’t necessarily want to be restricted by some of the rules that we have placed on people, to do things a certain way. They want to create beauty without too many rules. Today’s quilts are covered with quilting, but my perception is that the modern quilters are more interested in design, not so much the “quilting” elements. We (AQS) will be the sponsor for the ‘best of show’ this February at the first international gathering of the Modern Quilt Guild to be held in Austin. I will be there and I am looking forward to it. Each event has its own personality. Houston is more of a market, where ours is more of a ‘show,’ with the quilts on center stage. The Modern Quilt Guild will make their own mark as well.”
As to the future of quilting, Schroeder concluded, “The financial problems in our country may cause a cutback on hobby spending or discretionary spending; but I feel these hobbies are passions and people will find a way to feed their passions, even in difficult times.”
As Meredith Schroeder stands at this pivotal point in her journey, she looks back and looks forward with thanks and excitement at the new adventures ahead. “It’s been a fantastic journey, with lots of twists and turns along the way. It’s nothing I would have imagined when I graduated from high school. When I married and had three little kids running around, and Bill was working in a chemical plant, I never would have imagined that we would be running international quilting shows from Paducah. I give the Lord tribute, since I believe He guides our steps.”
As her own future, Schroeder says, “I’m in the process of hiring someone to take over the reins of the business now and we’re working through the transition. Once again it is a time of new beginnings. And as far as a personal goal, I’ve made a quilt, which I want to finish before the induction ceremonies at the Hall of Fame this summer!”
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*Ann Hazelwood has written several books for the American Quilter’s Society including “100 Things You Need to Know If You Own a Quilt,” “100 Tips from Award-winning Quilters” and “100 Sweet Treats by and for Quilters.” “The Basement Quilt” is her first work of fiction.
** This article is based on a phone interview conducted November 2012.