From embellished bras to museum-quality painted and sewn panels, few people are likely to look at quilts or quilters the same after attending this event.
"I think the quilting world is trying to get the world to recognize they are artists and art is sexy," said Laura Gawlinski of Andover, a fiber artist exhibiting at the festival.
"It's not your grandmother's quilting any more."
That's not to say the biennial, four-day citywide quilt-fest doesn't cover all aspects of quilting. To the contrary, it does, from the antique to the modern, through exhibits, vendors, lectures, auctions, appraisals and workshops.
The festival attracts more than 10,000 visitors, making it one of the biggest quilting events in the nation.
"What makes (the Lowell Quilt Festival) unique is that it's based in Lowell," said Betsy Abbott of Andover, who is taking part in the main juried exhibit, "Images 2006."
"Lowell is a textile town, and this honors the textile tradition," she said. "It makes people realize that textile arts are alive and well. The textile industry has gone through its troubles, but for this one week, there is something fresh and very exciting going on in textile and fiber arts. That, to me, makes it special."
Organized by the New England Quilt Museum, the only museum in the region dedicated solely to the study and preservation of American quiltmaking, the show started in 1983 at the Topsfield Fair. Since its debut, the festival has undergone quite a transformation, punctuated by the rise in fiber artists.
"Fifteen years ago, quilts were what your grandmother made," said fourth-generation quilter Signe Kaleel of Andover, who has two quilts (one traditional, one contemporary) in the main juried show.
"Now they are being juried into art shows," she said. "Fifteen years ago, when you said you were a fiber artist, people asked: What is that? Now fiber art has gone from being a cutesy craft to a serious art."
Quilting has also attracted artists who work in other mediums, like Gay Tracy of North Andover, a lauded painter who now also works in fiber. She, too, will show off her fiber work at the festival.
"It's difficult for me, it's hard," said Tracy of working in fiber. "I have been a painter for a long time, so I am used to that medium. I used to collage, so I'm used to working with fiber and paper, but I am not used to sewing.
"I'm learning a lot about how to use my sewing machine."
Highlights of this year's Lowell Quilt Festival include a juried show of nearly 200 quilts; a special retrospective exhibition focusing on quiltmakers Marilyn Belford of New York, who makes stunning, realistic portraits, and Suzanne Knapp of Lowell, who has created a number of unique quilts in both the traditional and art styles; an exhibit of quilts created in response to Hurricane Katrina presented by Laura Cater-Woods; student and community quilts created by various outreach programs of The New England Quilt Museum; and the multiartist exhibit "Quotations Beautiful from Minds Profound," in which Gawlinski and Tracy will participate.
In all, "Quotations Beautiful from Minds Profound" features eight artists from the Lowell Fiber Studio who chose quotes to interpret in fiber panels. Each artist worked his or her own quote, plus that of the others, so each installation features eight panels for a total of 64 pieces of art. Panels measure about 37 inches long by 12 to 23 inches wide.
"We have a cohesiveness, because we are a group, ... but our individual styles come out (in the panels)," Gawlinski said.
If you go
What: Lowell Quilt Festival
When: Today 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., tomorrow 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: The New England Quilt Museum, Tsongas Arena, Lowell Memorial Auditorium, Brush Art Gallery, American Textile History Museum, Whistler Museum of Art, Ayer Lofts Art Gallery, Western Avenue Studios, Lowell Fiber Studio, COOL gallery, 119 Gallery and downtown business windows.
How: Tickets are $10, available at New England Quilt Museum. For more on the event, check out www.lowellquiltfestival.org.
Quilter's paradise: Navigating the show
Tsongas Arena: "Images 2006," juried exhibition
300 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
What's there: Dramatic portrait quilts and artists revisited by Marilyn Belford; unique traditional and art quilts by Suzanne Knapp; art bras; "Open Hearts, Helping Hands for Hurricane Katrina Victims," curated by Laura Cater-Woods; community student quilts.
Lowell Memorial Auditorium: "Variations On A Theme"
50 East Merrimack St.
What's there: Antique exhibit curated by Gerald E. Roy; workshops, vendors and appraisals; gallery talks daily at 1:30 p.m.
The New England Quilt Museum: "Quilts by Paul D. Pilgrim"
18 Shattuck St.
What's there: Contemporary quilts made from antique "orphaned" quilt blocks that Paul D. Pilgrim collected over his career.
American Textile History Museum: "Quilt National"
491 Dutton St.
What's there: International juried competition of contemporary art quilts; Gallery Walk with ATHM Senior Research Associate Diane Fagan Affleck of Andover on Saturday at 10 a.m.
Whistler House Museum of Art: "Art Quilts At The Whistler III"
243 Worthen St.
What's there: Juried exhibition of art quilts.
The Brush Art Gallery: "Art Quilts: New England, New York"
256 Market St.
What's there: Juried exhibition; Quilt Workshop with Esterita Austin Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Friends Fabric Art: Art Walk, showcasing art quilts
177 Merrimack St.
What's there: Start at Friends and walk up and down Merrimack Street to see small art quilts created in response to Hurricane Katrina. Various Downtown Lowell Businesses
Ayer Lofts Art Gallery: "Small Works II"
172 Middle St.
What's there: International juried exhibit of small fiber works Thursday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
Western Avenue Studios: "QuiltArt at 10: A Retrospective of Ten Years of Challenges"
122 Western Ave.
What's there: Reception Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m.; regular hours Thursday to Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Lowell Fiber Studio: "Quotations Beautiful from Minds Profound"
122 Western Ave.
What's there: Reception Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m. Exhibit by eight artists and their interpretations of eight different quotes. . Hours: Thursday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 4 p.m.
COOL Gallery: "Stories From Everyday Objects"
338 Market St.
What's there: Textile exhibit by Ann & Sonya Lee opening today.
119 Gallery: "The Digital Atelier: New Horizons in Printmaking"
119 Chelmsford St.
What's there: Reception and book signing Friday from 5 to 7 p.m.; normal hours Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Arts League Of Lowell Gallery: "Exploring Fiber Arts: Arts League of Lowell Members Turn To Fiber"
67 Middle St.
What's there: Fiber show hours Thursday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Van Gogh's Gear: "The Postcard Show"
200 Middle St.
What's there: Souvenirs of Lowell in fiber and other media, a fundraiser to benefit the Arts League of Lowell.
Venues open festival hours unless noted.