May 2020

Every Barn Could Use a Quilt

Eye-catching painted patterns brighten outbuildings and benefit bookworms.

There is Double Aster, Star of the Show and Carpenter’s Wheel. Mary’s Flower, Autumn Cross and Appalachian Bull. Anvil, Laced Star and Crowned Mule. And, of course, Craig Library.

Those sobriquets are just a part of a thriving barn quilt operation that brings a fascinating look to even timeworn structures in multiple states while raising money for the community library in Craig County, Va.

“This is like a second career. I’m having a ball. I’m just as happy as a clam with no end in sight,” says Martha Dillard, who has meticulously designed, etched and painted more than 155 barn quilts since 2014 in the studio she maintains behind her family home near New Castle, Va.

In the process, she’s raised more than $15,000 through her Barn Quilts for Books program to support the small but growing Craig County Public Library.

“When I started, I thought if I got 20, I could raise $2,000 for the library and that would be good,” says Dillard, a member of Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative. “I never imagined it would take off like it did.” 

To set the record straight, barn quilts are not padded comforters of the kind grandmothers weave and place at the foot of beds. Those wouldn’t stand a chance tacked to the side of a barn in the summer Virginia sun.

Instead, the quilt refers to a unique pattern on the given medium. Dillard’s artistry employs lightweight aluminum composite plates that run from 2-by-2 feet to 8-by-8 feet. A longtime painter, she’s not an art snob, but has definite opinions about others in the field
who use plywood as their canvas.

“Having painted on a lot of different surfaces, I knew I did not want to paint on plywood, which is what many of the painters in the country are using for these things. It doesn’t hold up well. You have to prime it front, back and sideways and put braces on it, and it’s very heavy,” she says. 

As of late March, her quilts were on display in eight states, with an outside hope that a couple living in Illinois would take their possession to their other residence in Israel. “I told the daughter-in-law who bought it, ‘If they ever take this to Israel, will you let me know because I’d love to go international.’” Dillard laughs.

CAREER SWITCH

A native of Texas, Dillard moved to Virginia with her husband, John, now emeritus professor of chemistry at Virginia Tech. Along the way, she earned an art degree from Tech and constructed a studio when the couple decided to move from Blacksburg to the country about 22 years ago. She had been a painter for 35 years with landscapes and a variety of other pieces, some of which hang on the studio walls.

But she was ready to move on from a near-lifetime of dabbing a fine brush in acrylics.

“I had grown tired of it,” Dillard says. “I had run out of steam and enthusiasm. I wanted to make things but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Then she came across a story about a barn quilt trail in Highland County, Va., and knew she had found the answer, one that allowed her to combine her talents with support for the public library.

“We have had great success with the barn quilts; the community loves them,” says Letha Persinger, director of the Craig County Library. “We have some patrons who have bought two or three. Our barn quilt trail is very popular as well with visitors.”

The barn quilt field is relatively young, less than 20 years old. Donna Sue Graves, an Ohio woman, is considered to be the founding mother of the movement, coming up with the concept to honor her mother and her Appalachian heritage. Graves proposed the first quilt trail, where motorists could take their Sunday drives past a rich array of patterns and themes.

Dillard traveled to Ohio to see barn quilts firsthand and drew on her own research and experience to personalize her endeavor. At first, Barn Quilts for Books operated largely under the radar, but she got a major boost when the late T. Marshall Hahn Jr., a former Virginia Tech president, found out about her creations.

Hahn collected folk art at his home on a farm outside of Blacksburg. He wanted seven quilts, including some
with maroon and orange Hokie colors. It was a perfect fit, Dillard recalls.

“He wanted them up by football season because all the football traffic went by his house to avoid Interstate 81. Then, there was an article in one of the magazines that a lot of people saw, and it just became kind of word of mouth,” she says.

OH, THE STORIES

One benefit of quilt-making, Dillard notes, is that she is no longer painting something that she hopes someone will appreciate or purchase. Guesswork is at a minimum; about 90% of her would-be buyers already have a design or theme in mind.

“They’re preplanned or pre-sold,” she says. “You don’t have to try to figure out what somebody wants on their wall. You just paint what they already love.”

Like a client who collects and sells farm equipment and is fascinated with old-style Cockshutt tractors, which were phased out more than 40 years ago. Working from a picture, Dillard fashioned an 8-by-8-foot quilt for him.

Technically speaking, that’s not a pattern in the tradition of, say, geometric designs from Pennsylvania’s Dutch country, which is known worldwide for quilting.

But if someone has an idea, Dillard is more than happy to bring it to life.

One client wanted a barn quilt of a bird as a cherished reminder of her childhood. “She wanted a redbird,” Dillard says. “When she was a little girl, her mother told her that when she wrote Santa, she should clip it to the clothesline and the redbird would take it to Santa Claus. And she said, ‘I still think the redbird brings messages from him.’ So, we worked to find the right size, the right images to go on her barn.”

Another quilt is visible from Interstate 81 near Radford. It’s an intricate double wedding ring, which is a popular quilt style. Dillard’s client received a woven-style quilt for her 1963 marriage, but the fabric hasn’t stood up to the test of time. The one on the barn will.

“I made the barn quilt for her and she is so happy,” Dillard says. “People say, ‘But you don’t get paid.’ I say, ‘I get paid in the joy that people show — and you cannot buy this — when they walk in and see the finished product.’”

ARTIST AT WORK

For Dillard, the blade is as important as the brush. She carves designs with a utility knife, applies masking tape to the relevant area, and then trims the tape so she can paint in a precise area. Her studio looks like a color wheel gone wild, with just about every possible permutation of paint kept in recyclable containers.

Once the pattern is in hand, production can take a couple of weeks, though that varies depending on the complexity of the project or a work backlog. Dillard prefers a semigloss exterior latex for her quilts.

“It’s house paint so you have a certain fluidity. You want to be as uniform as possible and try to use really smooth brush strokes so that it will be a flat color, which is what shows up better. I’m making a sign, after all. This is a sign and it needs to be read from a distance.”

The material holds up well in inclement weather. A quilt on a small building behind the county library has been up since 2014, facing south in full sun. “It’s red, green, yellow and blue, and it’s not faded at all. It still looks perfect. So, I keep telling people I can’t guarantee these things, but I think they’re going to last for at least 10 years,” Dillard says.

Prices vary depending on size — a 2-foot square is $125 and an 8-foot square is $450, with in-between sizes as well. The price covers the materials and library donation; Dillard adds a small fee for intricate design work.

And Dillard always keeps an eye open for new destinations. “As I drive down the road, there are places where I keep thinking, ‘I should knock on their door and see if I can put one up there.’ It’s amazing fun.”

For more information, visit barnquiltsforbooks.com.

Blazing the Barn Quilt Trail

Our region is home to some fascinating barn quilt trails. Here are some sightseeing options you can do without leaving your car.

CRAIG COUNTY, VA

Some 50 barn quilts — and the number is growing — dot the highways and backroads of this New River Valley County. You’ll find many of them along Va. 42, which bisects the county from northeast to southwest. The New Castle and Newport areas are particular hot spots. Three barn quilts are visible north of New Castle at White Oak Hill Farm, which also has camels on the property.

Barnquiltsforbooks.com

GREENE COUNTY, VA

The Blue Ridge Barn Quilt Tour is said to be the largest in Virginia with more than 100 works of art featured on barns, fences and houses in 80-plus locations. It started in 2016 with a push from the Art Guild of Greene County Economic Development and Tourism. Several are visible off U.S. 33 as you head to Skyline Drive. Like other tours, this one is self-guided.

Exploregreene.com/explore/barn-quilt-trail

“Cotton Boll”
Eastern Shore

CAROLINE COUNTY, MD

This is a little different but worth a look when you’re on the Eastern Shore. Caroline County hosts the Byway Quilt Trail, which features about 15 barn quilt block replicas at historic sites along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. Several agencies put it together in honor of the Tubman centennial. Volunteers painted each composite material quilt by hand. They all tie into the Underground Railroad.

Fiberartscenter.com/quilt-trail

HIGHLAND COUNTY, VA

Known as Virginia’s Switzerland, this county has maintained an active barn quilt tour for several years. Nearly three dozen quilts catch visitors’ eyes, with several interesting ones along U.S. 220 north and south of the town of Monterey. Margie Boesch has been the most prolific barn quilt producer in Highland; her Jacob’s Ladder on Mountain Turnpike honors the late owner of the farm that it sits on.

Highlandcounty.org/brochures and click on “Barn Quilt Trails.”

LOUDOUN COUNTY, VA

One of the newest additions, the Loudoun County Barn Quilt Trail opened in 2018. A variety of rural treasures are mounted on the sides of old barns, some of which are today used for diverse purposes such as a brewery and crafts display.

Loudounbarnquilts.org