Location: The festival is held over four days and is unusual in being located across four towns. The majority of exhibitions (around 12 sites), and the main shopping area, are located in Sainte Marie aux Mines which is a small town known for hosting various conferences such as a large mineral and gem show. The other three locations are even smaller: Sainte-Croix-Aux-Mines (4km from Sainte Marie aux Mines, hosting four exhibitions), Liepre (4km further on from Sainte Croix aux Mines, with three exhibitions) and tiny Rombach-Le-Franc which is 1.5km from Liepvre and had just two exhibitions. The show is open each day from 9:30am to 6pm and does not follow the French customary lunch closure. The venues are a mixture of churches, schools, church halls and dedicated event spaces, plus temporary marquees for some of the shopping area. When you get your tickets, you are given a programme which is available in English. The programme has maps of all four towns giving a general idea of the exhibition locations (not a very exact location and we had to hunt for some of them). The locations themselves are numbered and signposted by number from nearby roads, and marked with large banners outside the entrances which also display the number. Be prepared for a lot of walking in Sainte Marie aux Mines where the venues stretch from one end of the town to the other. I am not disabled so I can't comment fully on access, but it seemed like a less-mobile person would perhaps not be able to visit everything due to all the walking, frequent short flights of stairs up to entrances, some venues being crowded or having access obstructed by church pews or temporary display stands.
Accommodation: I started planning my trip in late May so about three and a half months ahead, and already found that all accommodation near to Sainte Marie aux Mines had been booked up. I decided to combine the visit with a holiday along the Alsace Wine Route so I started looking on the eastern side of the Vosges mountains. We chose Obernai (about 40 minutes away from the quilt show) but I think many people were staying further south in the large (and lovely) town of Colmar. I booked via Expedia and got quite a good deal on our hotel compared to the prices that were displayed at the hotel itself anyway. Having visited the quilt show, I think I made the right choice for visiting the Wine route as it would have been more of a pain to try to get out from the mountain-enclosed Sainte Marie aux Mines area every day to tour on the Wine route. For example we found we were in a slow moving queue of traffic late on the first day all the way back eastwards through the valley, presumably the 'rush hour' of commuters taking the main route back.
Transport: We hired a car for the duration of the holiday. We were based in Obernai, near Strasbourg, and we found that it was an easy drive to Sainte-Marie aux Mines of approximately 40 minutes, down the main motorway of the A35, then across the mountains through a fairly level valley on the N59, so we didn't have to tackle any winding mountain roads thankfully. Driving on the right was a bit of a challenge for DH for the first few days but after that it was fine. Roads are good and traffic was never too busy. There are free shuttle buses between all four show locations: the show programme includes maps for each location showing the shuttle bus stops and also contains a printed shecule which shows buses departing every 20 minutes between approximately 9am and 7pm depending on location. The shutttles were coach sized so presumably could accommodate 40-50 people. I didn't use the shuttles so I can't comment on what they were like, but I'm sure glad we had our own car on the first day when it was throwing down rain with driving winds.
Parking: Each town offers free parking for visitors over several small parking lots which are marked on the maps in the programme. I would strongly recommend printing the event location map from the website before your first day as signage in the towns was minimal. When we arrived in Sainte Marie aux Mines on day 1 (so before we had a programme), there were no signs at all for parking even though we came in on the main road from the east. After driving through the outskirts of town for a while, we eventually parked in the first town car park that we came to, then ventured onwards on foot through the driving rain and strong winds which was absolutely miserable. It turns out that the majority of the event parking in this town is up the hill at the top of the town near the shopping area. Even that parking was only signposted once you got very close to it, so having a map will really help. On our first day, we arrived in Sainte Marie Aux Mines at 9am which is 30 minutes before the show opens, and easily found a space. But when we returned the next day in the afternoon, we had to hunt for some time to find a space as all the parking lots were full: we eventually managed to park on the pavement at the extreme end of the town. In the smaller towns it was easier but could still be busy.
Tickets: I had pre-purchased tickets online but it turned out this wasn't necessary. Almost every exhibition venue had a desk at the entrance where you could purchase passes for 1 day, 2 days or four days, and be given the programme. I showed my e-ticket at the first venue we visited and they exchanged it for a gold ribbon wristband which was then our passport to enter all venues.
How long do you need for a visit to this show? This is obviously depends on your individual personality. For me, I felt two days was sufficient. We did one long first day in Sainte Marie aux Mines visiting all the exhibition sites (except number 1 which was too far away from everything else) and having a good trawl through the shopping area in the afternoon. I am much more interested in traditional/conventional quilting so in some of the more contemporary/art-based exhibition sites we literally walked once around the room and departed. I would estimate that more than half the quilts on display over the whole festival are very contemporary and art-based, very cutting edge and challenging. If this type of quilt is your passion, then you will probably need more than two days to enjoy them all. Even in exhibitions we didn't care for, it is still interesting to see inside the village churches. The next morning we visited the other three towns and viewed all the other exhibitions, and had a picnic lunch on a bench. On the second afternoon, I returned to the shopping area in Sainte Marie aux Mines for a second shorter visit just to check I hadn't missed anything that needed to come home with me. I did not take any of the 23 classes on offer nor attend one of the three or four lectures, so if you were planning to do those then you would need additional time.
Is it worth making a visit to the show only, and not as part of a holiday to the area? Again, this would be down to individual preferences. I had a brochure for a UK tour which was proposing to visit the show by coach, travelling over two days with an overnight stay en route each way and I think spending two days at the show itself. The cost for a single person was more than I paid for our ten-day holiday flying into Strasbourg from London including hotel accommodation for two and a hire car for 10 days. Although I enjoyed the show a lot, it is not a huge show like Paducah or Houston and for me personally it would not be worth enduring two days on a coach just to visit. The show was a pleasant add-on to our holiday in a very lovely area.
Language: My native tongue is English and I still remember some school girl French. As is usual in Europe, most local people speak at least some English and German. In fact it was quite usual to be addressed in French, then they would switch to German when they saw your baffled look, then ask if you were English. The traders were from all over anyway so I heard conversations in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, French, German, English and more - everyone is happy to try to make themselves understood so as long as you too are prepared to make an effort then you should be fine. You are unlikely to find many people fully fluent in English so don't expect that. Pointing at things works fine and they can often show you the price on a calculator or write it down if you don't understand the words. I even had a couple of people use Google Translate on their phone and show me the English translation! Everyone was very friendly.
Money: the currency is of course Euros and all prices I saw at the show were in Euros. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost everybody was accepting cards, unlike English shows where traders often struggle to get a signal for their card machines. So I was able to put most of my purchases straight on to my card. Ironically the one place I couldn't was my biggest purchase from an American antique quilt dealer when I bought an antique quilt top, so we had to visit an ATM after that cash purchase. There is an ATM at the Credit Mutuel halfway down the main street, and I also saw another bank down the hill near the bottom of the town. My credit card (Mastercard: Halifax Clarity) lets me withdraw cash from ATMs at a good rate.
Food: some of the exhibitions are located in purpose-built event halls and these often had small tea rooms or snack bars offering light meals. The largest could accommodate perhaps 40 -50 people so they were always crowded especially when it was raining outside, and you had to wait a while to be served - I saw several grumpy people either leaving in a huff or futilely trying to attract a waitress' attention. There were also outdoor food kiosks which in the smaller towns seemed to be manned by community groups or local patchwork groups, so it was easy to get a tea/coffee and pastry and some of them were doing BBQ etc. However in typical French style, none of these were open at 9:30am when the show opened, and I think most only got going late morning or in time for the typical French lunch period of 12:30-2pm. Sainte Marie aux Mines as the largest town did have several commercial restaurants and a few patisseries/tea salons but again none of these were open in the morning and only a few at lunch time so those were also very crowded. So it was a bit miserable in the driving rain and wind at show opening on the first day with nowhere to go inside for a hot drink. Being a somewhat paranoid person, I had brought a packed lunch with us so we were able to eat inside our dry car at a time of our choosing thankfully. We generally found food in the Alsace area was more expensive than the UK, even a budget meal would be 25 euros for the two of us (£25) and a 'normal' meal of two courses with a drink would be 35-50 euros for two. We saved some money by buying supplies at the supermarket for breakfast and the occasional picnic in our room, and I will confess to eating at McDonald's twice (although even that was 15-20 euros).
Toilets: these are not marked on the map so use them when you find them. I didn't see any port-a-loos to cater for the crowds apart from a small temporary box with either 1 or 2 stalls located in the outdoor commercial area, so you are reliant on the occasional toilet in the exhibition venues which are usually only a single stall or perhaps two. Needless to say there were queues of women for almost all of these and the stalls were running out of toilet paper, so perhaps bring some paper in your bag to be on the safe side. Men as usual could walk right in to their toilets - grrrrr.
Weather: as mentioned above, the first morning was horrible with strong winds and driving rain, and it was cold at only 10 degrees Celsius. I assume this isn't the norm as half the commercial area is in outdoor tents as were many of the food areas. So it was a bit miserable and crowded in the tents as they tried to keep the flaps down to keep the weather out, and it was wet underfoot. The sun was out the next day and they were able to open the sides of most of the tents presenting a much more pleasant shopping experience. At the first exhibition venue we went to, it was very frustrating to be huddling in the driving rain in a slow moving queue when I could see through the doorway that there was a large dry foyer where we could all be inside, but I guess it isn't the French way to deviate from the planned process.
Shopping: the main shopping area is called the Commercial Area which is located at the top of Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines. It has a single narrow entrance into what I assume is normally a large open courtyard which for the show was crowded with tents housing many traders. This joins onto a building which has two large rooms of traders and an adjoining restaurant. According to the programme there are around 150 traders in all. Entry is free so you don't need to have a ticket to go shopping. I really enjoyed visiting all the stalls as there were so many things that we don't normally see in the UK. However, most of the fabric on sale is the normal American fabric brands such as Moda, batiks, printed panels, Kaffe Fassett fabrics etc, but at very expensive prices due to our current poor exchange rate: many stands were asking 18 or 22 euros per metre (about £18 or £22). So I wasn't really shopping for fabric as I can buy the same things somewhat cheaper in the UK. There were a couple of stands selling printed linen for making European-style bags or quilts, and a couple of stands selling fabric from Japan, and a couple with African fabric. At least two Dutch shops were there: Petra Prins Patchwork and Den Haag en Wagenmakers, with their gorgeous but even more expensive fabrics. There were the usual types of stands I would see in the UK: Handiquilter and AQPS and Bernina, craft lights, wool applique specialists, soft toys, multiple bag supply stalls, magazines such as Quilt Mania and Magic Patch, quilting stencils, haberdashery etc. I was surprised to see very little representation of the French Boutis style of quilting apart from some books and in one stall they were selling the soft cotton yarn to pad the stitching channels with. I tended to like the stands I don't usually see: there were several stalls selling dozens of metal charms very cheaply at 10 centimes and upwards which are useful for everything from quilting to dollshouses to scrapbooking, and others selling unusual buttons handmade from Fimo or ceramic. There was a healthy representation of cross stitch and embroidery, and I purchased some patterns for embroidery decorated boxes made of card. There was a limited selection of knitting wool and I purchased some lovely wool/cotton blend from a Danish stall. There were several stands specialising in applique kits to make both quilts and a range of household items such as book covers, storage baskets, spectacle cases, handbags, hanging storage totes etc and I bought some kits here as well. Out in the town itself there were also a handful of pop-up stores in disused shops, hopping on the bandwagon to sell threads and home-dec fabric remnants, garments, bric-a-brac, yarn and secondhand clothing, which reminded me of Paducah. Also like Paducah was that a few normal stores were displaying quilts in their shop windows. On the main street, Jane Lury of Labors of Love had taken a shopfront to sell her antique quilts (mainly American I think), orphan blocks and unfinished tops. In the Theatre where Mary Koval was displaying antique quilts from her collection, she and her husband also had a sale room selling antique quilts, orphan blocks and unfinished tops which is where I bought my top. In some of the venues there were sales tables with items made by local groups to raise funds: I found a couple of lovely embroidered needlebooks in one church.
My highlights: apart from the shopping, my favourite exhibitions were the antique quilt displays of Amish and Mennonite quilts, Mary Koval's display of antique quilts, Jane Lury's Labors of Love shop, the Cairo tentmakers, the display by the Beauville textile company from their archive of printed fabric, and several exhibitions in Liepvre such as the Quilts of Legend by the France Patchwork Association and 'From Tradition to Modernity' by the Patchwork Guild of Germany. I also liked Ian Berry's 'Behind Closed Doors' of fabric pictures made from denim jeans.
So I hope you find the above post useful if you are considering a visit to Sainte Marie Aux Mines - let me know in the comments if you did. Or if you've been already, leave a comment with your own hints and tips for this event.
And finally here are some photos.