Fall 2014 Newsletter


What do People magazine, Connect Four, The Godfather II, and International Quilt Festival all have in common? Aside from being thoroughly entertaining, each also turns 40 this year.

Yes, the upcoming fall Quilt Festival in Houston marks the show’s 40th anniversary, and concludes the latest decade—while commencing the next—in Quilt Festival’s fascinating history.

The story begins in, of all places, Texas politics in the early 1970s. Festival Founder Karey Bresenhan ran a hard-fought, but ultimately, unsuccessful campaign for a position in the Texas legislature. And in an effort to repay her campaign loans—many of which she received from family friends—Bresenhan and her mother-in-law decided to open an antique store in Houston, named Great Expectations after a favorite Dickens novel (and, it turns out, a bit of happy foreshadowing of things to come).

Bresenhan’s mother, Jewel Pearce Patterson, and many other family members were avid sewists and quilters. So, naturally, when looking for items to adorn the empty walls of the antique shop and give the place a more “homey” feel, she thought to hang old family quilts in the space…a simple and fortuitous move that sparked some unexpected interest.

“Pretty soon, I had more people inquiring about buying the quilts on the walls than the antiques in the store!” Bresenhan recalls. “But in one of those ‘a-ha!’ Moments, I saw that there was a real interest and a need not being fulfilled. So, I simply adopted a new business plan!”

And, so, Great Expectations Antiques quickly evolved into Great Expectations Quilts, and began offering not only quilts for sale, but also fabric, books, notions, and patterns. The store relocated several times over the 30 years of its operation—and expanded to offer classes from both local and national quilting instructors—before closing its doors in 2003.

But going back to 1974…at the end of her first year of business, Bresenhan decided to throw a “thank you” party for Great Expectations customers. Expecting a modest turnout of people coming to look at the quilts on display and shop from the single exhibitor who had been invited for the event, she was shocked to see hundreds of women lined up around the block (many pushing strollers) in what is often referred to here in Texas as a “Blue Norther” (that’s Texan for a fast-moving cold front).

By the end of this “small” thank-you party, more than 2,500 people had
come through the shop’s doors, cementing the occasion as the first official Quilt Festival.

“That’s when I really knew that quilts and quilting held a powerful attraction not just for me, but for so many others,” Bresenhan says. “It was very clear to me that Houston needed a quilt show. And I asked myself, ‘Well, why not?’”

Over the next few decades, International Quilt Festival was forced to change locations (and extend show days) several times to accommodate the growing number of quilts on display, exhibitors offering goods for sale, and, of course, the ever-increasing attendance. Festivals were held at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, several church gymnasiums, the beloved Shamrock Hilton Hotel, and the Albert Thomas Convention Center.

“A lot of our longtime attendees still come up to me and fondly recall those years we were at the Shamrock Hotel, when the quilters would just take over,” Bresenhan recalls. “You could go down to the lobby at 3 a.m. and see quilters in their pajamas, sitting up, working on their projects, and just having the best time laughing with friends—some of whom they might have only met a couple of hours before!"

In 1987, Festival moved to its current home at the George R. Brown Convention Center, where it served as the venue’s very first public show. The Center itself was then 40% smaller than its current size, but as the facility has grown over the years, so has Festival, which is now the only show to regularly take up all three levels of the Convention Center.

Today, International Quilt Festival attracts more than 60,000 people from around the world to Houston each year for its fall edition. Attendees travel from close to 40 different countries, and the show is regularly ranked as one of Houston’s largest. And as many of you know, the very word “Houston” has become synonymous with the “big show” within the quilting world…and that’s the part that still thrills Bresenhan the most.

“After all these year, I still get very, very excited on opening day to see all of those quilt lovers come streaming through the doors with smiles on their faces. Many of them have saved up all year to come,” she says. “I may not have made it to the hallowed halls of the State Capitol building in Austin, but I found something much more rewarding and exciting with my life. After all, how could you not love quilts?”

40 years in the making... International Quilt Festival celebrates its Ruby Jubilee!













1985A - Photo by Richard Cunningham
1985B - Photo by Richard Cunningham

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