On the sides of barns and other buildings in the High Country and throughout the region, barn quilts are colorful landmarks that represent fabric quilt square patterns. Requiring both math and creative skills, making barn quilts often takes several weeks.
Barn quilts usually range in size from 1-by-1 foot squares to 8-by-8 feet. Generally, making a quilt square requires a board that can stand up to weather, paints, graphing skills, sealant and marking tools to get the design on the board. Making barn quilts, especially custom, is time-consuming: days or weeks to prepare the board, the design and other materials, before stages of painting, drying and sealing.
Syndi and Renee Brooks have painted more than 3,000 quilt squares since they started painting them in 2010. Their shop, Quilt Square Girls, has a storefront in downtown West Jefferson as well as a Facebook page with more than 6,000 likes. Inspired by local high school students’ barn quilts, Renee Brooks made the first one and hung it on their Ashe County house after they moved back from Winston-Salem.
People started to inquire about them. First, they sold a few at a friend’s yarn shop, then a craft fair.
“We started there, then we set up at Christmas in July. And then the next thing you know, we’re in the farmers’ market and it just started going from there,” Syndi says.
Their quilts use exterior sign board, exterior latex paint and seal with a water-based barrier paint. They prime the wood, draw the pattern directly on the board using geometry to make it fit correctly, paint it freehand or with masking-tape lines and then seal it. Most of their work is custom: Renee is a graphic designer and draws from old quilt patterns (as barn quilts traditionally do) as well as custom motifs like roosters and honeybees.
Depending on how complex the design is, Syndi said time to make one can range from a day to several weeks. Syndi’s favorite part of the process is drawing out the quilts, while Renee’s favorite is designing them. Their quilts travel, but they enjoy seeing them on local buildings as well.
“We have one in Alaska, one in Hawaii, Canada; we’ve had them ship to Arizona, California. They’re everywhere,” Syndi says.
The two started teaching classes about seven years ago, Renee says. Their classes are hosted at Florence Thomas Art School in downtown West Jefferson. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced class sizes, Renee has hosted as many as 16 people in a class. Since she started teaching classes, at least 1,800 students have taken a course. She also said Quilt Square Girls won Small Business of the Year from the Ashe County Chamber of Commerce in 2015.
“We had just opened up the store, I don’t think we had been here a year, but we had been with the chamber for three years,” Renee Brooks said. “That was nice, to be a tiny, little business, and for this whole county, win that award.”
More information about Quilt Square Girls can be found at ilovebarnquilts.com.
Katie Downing restores furniture and paints barn quilts that she sells in several stores in the High Country and through her Facebook page, Downing’s One of a Kind. Her “home base” store is Back Alley Pickers in Newland, but she sells at Antiques on Howard in Boone and Mountain Time on Main in Burnsville.
Katie used to own Appalachian Barn Quilts, having taken a class with the Quilt Square Girls about two years ago. She opened the shop with a partner for about a year with “all the business they could do,” and they sold quilts all over the U.S. Currently, she’s back to selling locally in the other shops and through word-of-mouth. She splits her time with restoring furniture to avoid getting burned out and not having to “stay in the lines all the time” like when creating barn quilts.
Most of Katie’s quilt designs come from a book with thousands of patterns or online, which she draws on the board with a grid. Quilts are time-consuming and can require up to two weeks of work. She uses a special-order marine board with sides in 1-foot increments that she sands and caulks to protect from the weather. She uses Dixie Belle Chalk Paints for the painted designs.
“By the time we finish with them, they’re probably good for 20 to 30 years at least,” Katie says.
She started restoring furniture about 12 years ago.
“I had a big old cabinet, and I painted it black and I distressed it, and just loved it and got so many compliments,” Katie says. “And I have always loved old pieces, so I started doing that to make things look pretty and bring life back to old stuff.”
Katie gets her furniture “here, there and everywhere,” including friends, thrift stores, auctions and antique malls. Her time to restore depends on the piece, but usually takes one or two days. She’ll bring the piece of furniture home and clean it, then sand and paint it before waxing, top coating or glazing depending on the piece. She also develops a relationship with each piece of furniture while working with it.
“I get very personal with my pieces, and I usually name them by the time I finish with them,” Katie says. “I get to know them, and they kind of speak to me.” The item’s name is usually printed on its tag when sold to customers.
Katie started teaching classes at Back Alley Pickers after noticing many people didn’t know how to use the chalk mineral paint she sells there and uses for barn quilts. In her classes, she teaches participants how to clean, sand, paint and seal their own pieces. The COVID-19 pandemic and severe High Country winter weather have prevented her from teaching much recently, but she’s back teaching one class per month in each town of Burnsville, Boone and Newland.
Sisters Jessica Overmier and Ruth Blair own Two Crafty Ladybugs in Boone. They took their first barn quilt class from the Quilt Square Girls as well several years ago, and quickly became enamored with making barn quilts. In the beginning, they looked for quilt squares on hikes and around the area, including a few barn quilt trails in Ashe County. However, supplies and finished squares accumulated.
“Ruth found the class and signed us up for it, and that was so fun. We wanted to do more and more but we didn’t have anything to do with them. We just ran out of room,” Jessica says.
When Jessica and Ruth traveled to Atlanta to visit some family, they hosted an informal barn quilt class that a family friend attended. The friend suggested selling the barn quilts, which the pair hadn’t considered.
“(We) didn’t want them all sitting around in our house, so we decided we would try to sell them. And it worked,” Ruth says.
In 2016, a friend who sold jewelry on Etsy showed Jessica and Ruth how to set up a shop on the site, explaining its algorithms and setup. Their Etsy shop, TwoCraftyLadybugs, has an average review of five out of five stars. They do encourage prospective customers to visit their website, twocraftyladybugs.com.
Most of the time, their work is custom: people come with a pattern or colors they like. One of Jessica’s favorite parts of the process is learning prospective buyers’ reasons for why they want a quilt to look a certain way. But if prospective customers don’t know what they want, Ruth and Jessica direct them to Google.
“We did have one lady that sent us a fabric swatch from her couch armrest, like the slipcover. And the quilt matched perfectly,” Jessica says.
Previously, the two used foam rollers to apply paint on their wood signs, but switched to foam brushes, Jessica said. Because they use wood, they use wood filler and primer first before applying the paint. They start out making the design with colored pencils on graph paper before transferring it to the board. Their quilts take the longest, four to six weeks, but need the time to avoid damaging the design.
“The four to six weeks gives us time to really sit down, get everything just the right way and not feel rushed,” Ruth says. “We’re very perfectionist in our angles and our overlapping, and we think that really sets us apart.”
Ruth and Jessica view making barn quilts as a family affair. They don’t have a formal work space, so they take supplies between their homes in Banner Elk and North Wilkesboro, respectively. One of Jessica’s children is making her own; the other children help with different parts of the process, and their mother is a big supporter.
“It’s called Two Crafty Ladybugs, but it’s more like seven. I love how involved everyone is,” Jessica says. “I just think the whole woman’s influence is really neat when you step back and think about it because it seems natural. It’s really involved, it’s generational, it’s just our family. It’s what we do.”