LOWELL -- "Outrageous."

Charles Kempton stood in the middle of Tsongas Arena with his mouth agape.

It wasn't a hockey goal, guitar riff or the sight of Mark Wahlberg that stopped the New York man in his tracks. It was the intricate beauty of Grace Unfolding.Art Quilts Lowell 2009

Women of Color, a 70- by 51-inch work by Grace Errea of Laguna Niguel, Calif., is one of dozens of quilts on display at the Tsongas Arenathis weekend as part of the Lowell Quilt Festival. (SUn/ TORY GERMANN)

"This is all hand-done and breathtaking," he said of Betty Ekern Suiter's traditional quilt that took first prize yesterday at the Lowell Quilt Festival.

Although a majority of the fabric junkies in attendance were female, a few men like Kempton slipped in with their wives to marvel over these masterpieces from across the country. From the blue-water ripples of Margot Stage's Jane's Island at the Arts League of Lowell Gallery, to the out-there cartoony purple

Art Quilts Lowell 2009
splash of Pam Rubert's Traffic Jam at The Brush Gallery, quilts and the people who love them were out in full force.

During the Great Depression women knitted old shirts, blankets and fabric remnants into quilts to keep their children warm. Now advanced computerized-machines produce quilts that are less about preserving body heat and more about making statements.

"I'm amazed that people can use the fabric this way," said Eileen Byrne, executive director of the Brush Gallery, where a nationally juried show of artistic quilts is on display.

A landscape of a tiny Maine town hangs across the wall from a female torso made of feathers, plastic and fabric. Log cabin quilts, these are not. The fresh take on an old theme is why veteran festival-goers like Betty Warner come here.

"Fiber art can be fine art, and that's more true here," said the Simsbury, Conn., woman who came down for the weekend with her sewing circle. She makes the pilgrimage to Lowell for the "opportunity to see contemporary quilts and to be around like-minded people."

At Tsongas Arena where the bulk of quilts were hung and vendors hawked fabric and $18,000 quilting machines, Wendy Sikes of Stoughton and Marie Fowler of Canton were stocking

Art Quilts Lowell 2009
up on fabric for the rest of the year. An old quilters motto: "Whoever dies with the most fabric wins," was on their minds.

"I took the day off from work," said Sikes, who favored the Lowell Quilt Festival over a day at the beach.

"Every year I say, 'I'm going.' I don't care if I go anyplace else all year."

Even though it was a pitch-perfect beach day, Sikes wasn't alone in her enthusiasm.

Chrissy Inge, marketing manager for the New England Quilt Museum, said attendance yesterday and Thursday trended upward. More than 7,500 people are expected to blanket the city before the festival ends tomorrow. Busloads of Canadians mixed with day-trippers from New England and New York is proof that this pure American craft has not lost its pull, Inge said.

Art Quilts Lowell 2009

An admirer gazes at Betty Ekern Suiter's Grace Unfolding, which won Best in Show in the traditional category. SUN photos / TORY GERMANN (SUN photos / TORY GERMANN)

"We've gotten the word out more broadly. The time is right to quilt. Whenever there is an economic downtown, people turn to quilting."

The Lowell Quilt Festival continues today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.