Virginia Barton




Virginia Barton




Virginia Barton


Heather Gibson

Interview Date


Interview sponsor

The National Quilting Association


Laurel, Delaware


Heather Gibson


[Virginia Barton is called "Mike" by her husband and friends.]

[interview with Virginia "Mike" Barton on August 14, 2000, in her home in Laurel, Delaware. because Mrs. Barton was recovering from a knee operation during this time, the first part of the interview was done in front of her quilt in a bedrooom, and the remainder was done in another room. the tape picks up mid-sentence.]

Virginia Barton (VB): Irma Gail Hatcher and Sue Layton, who is one of the quilters at Delmarvalous Guild, had a class and taught about a dozen of us. It was a two-and-a-half year class, and I was not an appliqué fan, really, before I started this quilt. But it's predominantly appliqué. And I'm really glad I took the class. I learned a great deal about patience, particularly.

Heather Gibson (HG): Now, the tape didn't catch it --This is a "Conway Album" quilt?

VB: "Conway Album" designed by Irma Gail Hatcher of Conway, Arkansas.

HG: Oh, it's so beautiful. And the tape won't be able to see what it looks like. Could you describe it a little bit? It has a large center--

VB: It has a medallion in the center, and then around the center are twelve blocks of appliquéd flowers, basically, and designs. And then the border. The twelve blocks are joined with sawtooth edges. This quilt was supposed to have all these little berries here- they were supposed to be all around the edges. And I got tired of making these berries. So, on mine every other clump--you can see one down there, this way further where the blues are--I used what are called gathered blossoms. And the basic design on this quilt was for an aqua, or blue quilt, which most of the ladies made. But I saw this paisley--

HG: The green.

VB: Which on this quilt is the dark green with a red and gold paisley, and I thought it was a rich color. I'm glad I went with it now.

HG: It's lovely.

VB: And the quilt has a theme fabric. It's in the center medallion, and there's some of that fabric in every block in the quilt. Here it's the stems [pointing.], and here it's these flowers. [pointing.] It's some of those little gathered blossoms, and it's in that peacock. It's in those little flowers.

HG: Would you call that mauve? A mauve kind of color?

VB: Probably. Yes. Well, I'd call it more of a burgundy.

HG: Okay, burgundy.

VB: But it's picked up, and then there's some gold in it. So it goes into every one of the blocks in the quilt.

HG: Ruth Morris introduced me to a technique called ruching. Is that how these are done? [pointing.]

VB: These are ruched flowers.

HG: And would this be folded rose, right here, the rose bud?

VB: Yes. This is a folded rose. These ruched flowers are in each corner, and then is quite a lot of blocks. Some of the berries are stuffed. Some are plain. Let's see what else. A lot of the flowers have some stuffing in them to give it some definition.

HG: And what are the quilting patterns that you used?

VB: This is a cross-hatch. Basically, this is just a straight quilting, cross-hatch in the border and cross-hatch on the interior of each one of the blocks. And these are larger hatches than these. See it's the same thing, but this is half-inch and this is an inch. In the center it was supposed to be cross-hatched, but then again I changed mine and did stitches around each one of the--you do a little quilting running stitch around each one of these flowers. And I did that here, and then I put--I always like to quilt hearts in every one of my quilts. So I have the heart quilted in the pattern in the center medallion.

HG: Oh, that's great. It really makes it stand out.

VB: It does.

HG: Well, I don't want to put any more stress on your legs. So now that I've seen this we can talk about it in the other room.

[pause as interview is moved into the den.]

VB: It was a great class. Some of the women haven't finished their quilts yet.

HG: Now was that through your guild, or was it just an extra class that you took?

VB: It was through the guild, and Sue had made one and showed it at a quilt show we had over in Rehoboth. And she had just finished this quilt. And we said, 'Why don't you show us how to do it?' So Sue is very warm and friendly and willing to share her talents, so she did. And we met at the Georgetown Library.

HG: Did you do the quilting on the quilt or did you have it sent away?

VB: No, I did it.

HG: You did it yourself?

VB: I did it.

HG: And that's kind of unique these days, isn't it? I've talked to a lot of people who have them sent away.

VB: Most of my guild quilts their own.

HG: Do they? And that's the Delmarvalous Quilt Guild?

VB: I don't send mine away primarily because then it's not my quilt. And I enjoy the quilting part so much that - maybe down the road I may send it to someone--but, for now I've quilted all of my own quilts.

HG: Okay. I saw a machine in there. Did you do any of this on the machine?

VB: No, that one's all hand done. I always hand quilt. I piece by machine unless it's appliqué. Appliqué I do by hand. What you can do--There's a method now you can appliqué by machine and it's very attractive. But, I'm working on an appliqué quilt right now and it's all hand-done. I do hand appliqué and hand quilting.

HG: Okay, and how much of your quilting--Actually my first question would be when did you learn to quilt?

VB: I started in 1984. I'm not a lifetime quilter. I've always sewed. My mother sewed. Everybody my age had a mother who sewed. And I learned how on a treadle sewing machine, as most of us did. And then I loved to sew from the time I was a little kid. And I still sew clothes, a few. But then I got into crewel and embroidery and needlepoint, and then I found quilting. But I always knew that someday I was going to learn to quilt. And I was saving it for when I was older. Then one day in '84 I thought, 'Time is catching up with me. I better learn to quilt.' So there was a shop here in town, a small shop, and they gave quilting lessons. And I went and learned how to quilt.

HG: Did they start out with piecing?

VB: They start out with a sampler quilt, and they teach you the basics. It's the same way everybody starts. Most people start out with a sampler quilt because a sampler gives you all the different techniques of quilting. It gives you straight pieces, and stars, and curves, and appliqué.

HG: Oh, appliqué also. How much of your quilting in, I guess the last sixteen years you've been quilting, how much of it has been piecing and how much appliqué would you say?

VB: It started out with mostly piecing and now I do a lot of appliqué.

HG: Do you?

VB: It's fifty-fifty now, probably.

HG: Do you enjoy one more than the other?

VB: Not really. I enjoy the quilting the most.

HG: Do you?

VB: I really do.

HG: Can you talk a little about why you enjoy that part the most?

VB: I have a frame in my studio that my husband built. And I can sit down at that frame, and just all the cares of the day leave you when you're quilting, to me. For some people that's not the case. But it's a great stress buster. And it's a good outlet for many things.

HG: Do you usually work on one quilt at a time or several projects?

VB: No, I have several at a time. Most quilters do. I have several quilts under way right now. I have one waiting to be quilted. It's already basted. And I have two that are almost finished and two that I've started.

HG: The class that you made this Conway Quilt in was two-and-a-half years. Is that correct?

VB: Yes. That's a long time.

HG: Is that how long it took you to make the quilt?

VB: From start to finish. Because we met once a month but not every month. And we didn't meet in the summer and at Christmas. That's why it was such an extended time. And to get one block finished a month was a real challenge because of the amount of appliqué in there. And then the new techniques we were learning.

HG: And you said that you kind of deviated from some of the traditional things, or the things that the other women were making. Can you talk a little--

VB: Well, one of the ladies said one day, 'Mike, do you realize there are going to be three hundred and sixty of these little berries in this quilt?' And I had not counted how many berries there were going to be at that point. And I said, 'Not in my quilt.' And she said, 'The book says we have to put all these berries.' But then I said, 'But then it's not mine. It's a copy of the Conway Album. And if I change some of the berries to flowers, little gathered blossoms then it becomes my quilt.' And just the color, the fact that I changed the color. And then I changed some of the flowers. I didn't particularly like the flower arrangements. And the woman who designed it is tremendous. She wins awards all over the world. But by little changes it became my quilt. And I think that makes the difference.

HG: Would you call yourself a traditional quilter?

VB: Yes. I don't do metallics and--I like to look at a quilt and as soon as I look at it I recognize a star as a star or a tree as a tree. And so many of the art quilts to me are depressing. I respect the talent and the skill that goes into making those quilts, but I'm a traditionalist.

HG: But I guess from your definition tradition does allow for innovation?

VB: Oh yes. Yes. Definitely.

HG: That might be a misconception about traditional quilting. Before I talked to quilters, I never thought that you could change the pattern. You really can. Can you talk about any of the special meanings of the things in this quilt? Are there special meanings in any of the blocks you do?

VB: Let me think. There's a peacock in that quilt. And I changed the peacock a lot, because I made the mistake as many of us did -going out and I think the book suggested that we have twenty-one blues and sixteen greens and some aquas. And I had all of those. Because with an appliqué quilt with such extensive appliqué you need many different fabrics as opposed to lots of large pieces of fabric, you can buy with fat quarters. But I had all of my colors and all my fabrics. And then when I started to put it together, I didn't like the way some of those fabrics went together. So I had to get more fabric. And I had started on the peacock And one day I was in a shop and I saw this fabric that looked just like feathers. So I ripped my peacock apart and redid him, and I was so glad that I did. So he's quite different. And some of the flowers, I changed the centers because I just wanted the theme fabric to come out more. Things like that make it your own.

HG: Over the course of your quilting career, how has your sense of color developed over time, and how have you learned to choose colors like you have for this quilt?

VB: I've gone from the basic. I think most quilters do. You start out with medium blue, light blue, dark blue. Add in some greens and pinks. And I've used some bold colors that I never would have used before. I did one quilt that's for one of our granddaughters. I made each of our granddaughters a quilt- we have four- when they were quite small. And I gave them those quilts and they've used them. Now I'm in the process, and they don't even know it, of making each of them a quilt for when they're grown. And I have three of them finished and I'm working on the fourth. And I thought when they were twenty-one I would give them the quilts, but the oldest granddaughter will be twenty-one in September so her quilt is not finished. So it's going to be later. But, my color has changed. One of the quilts is purple. And ten years ago I would never have made a purple quilt. And it's bold I went to a workshop taught by Madge Ziegler, who is an international quilter from Delaware. And Madge taught this wall-hanging called--something about brick work. It's an eight-sided piece. And I thought, 'I want to make that,' because I wanted to learn her technique and I wanted to take a class from Madge. And so I didn't want blues and greens. And basically you use the three shades, three colors. And I thought, 'I'll do something different. I'll surprise myself and everybody else.' Because up to that point most of my quilts were blues. So I did purple, and a peach and a green. And there were shades of each one, and fabrics from each of those three colors. And it turned out well. I'm really pleased with it. And I know Megan is going to be thrilled with it.

HG: That's great. Now did you say that was a wall-hanging?

VB: It was a wall hanging, but I developed it into a quilt. That's the first time I did that. There was a time when I wouldn't have considered doing that.

HG: Wonderful.

VB: So, quilting is a learning process. I think if you quilt for fifty years you're always learning something because new techniques come out, and you want to try them. Most people do. Otherwise you become stagnant, and all your quilts look the same.

HG: What are some examples of new techniques that have come around since you've been quilting?

VB: Oh, the rotary cutter. The rotary cutter is wonderful. It's like a pizza cutter. And where you used to have to trace all these little templates, trace your patterns from a cardboard pattern or plastic. Now you can use a rotary cutter, and it's really speeded up the cutting process. And there are special rulers that you can get now. You don't just get a twenty-four inch straight ruler. You can cut circle and star-points and arch with this rotary cutter. And it's a great thing. It's really developed--It's expanded the type of quilting you can do and the things you can do with it.

HG: Great.

VB: Let's see. What's another good one? I think that just the fabrics are so different now. And I have lots of fabric, as most quilters do. But you can see the way that fabrics have changed from the pastels and the little mini-prints. And most of us started out with calicos. A calico, a solid, and another figured print. And now we don't use those very much anymore. We've gone into bolder things.

HG: What about the actual make-up of the fabrics. I understand that now the fabrics are 100 percent cotton. Since you've been sewing all your life, have you noticed an improvement in the actual quality of the fabrics themselves?

VB: In the cottons, yes. I only will use 100 percent cotton. Some quilters use a blend, but you can spot those blends. And they're fine if that's what you like. But cottons have become so refined. There's some cottons that you can get now that almost have a silky texture, but they're still 100 percent cotton.

HG: Let's talk about the way that you've used the quilts that you've made. Where are they?

VB: Most of them are being used. I have a friend who said to me after I made one quilt for each bed that we have--I was going to make another one--and she said, 'You already made a quilt. Why did you make another one?' And I said, 'Why shouldn't I make another one?' And this Conway Album, we use. No one is allowed to lay on that bed when the Conway's on it. And you don't put suitcases on it. And heaven forbid that an animal get up there. But I get that quilt out and we put it on the bed for holidays and if we have quests that quilt goes on the bed. And the same with other quilts. I made one fore each of the grandchildren. As I told you we have three children. I made one for each of them. I made one for me. It's my favorite pattern, Dresden Plate, and it's all in blues. And I made one for my husband, which is a red-and-white quilt. It's a Bear's Paw. And we just use them all. And I've only given two quilts away and they were baby quilts. Other than to family members.

HG: How are the quilts transported? Do you put them in any special suitcase?

VB: In a pillow case.

HG: And how are they cared for? Can you wash them?

VB: Oh yes.

HG: You can. In the regular washing machine?

VB: Washing machine.

HG: Would you put them in the dryer?

VB: Yes.

HG: You can do that?

VB: And most quilters wash their fabrics first. It gets all the sizing out. You wash and press that fabric. And then if you're careful, you don't have to wash that quilt for a long time.

HG: Now you've talked about the quilts that you've given and provided for your family. And you said your mother sewed. Can you talk about any quilts that might've been in your family when you were growing up? Or any quilters?

VB: There were none. My mother sewed and her sister sewed, but none of them were quilters. I remember when I saw my first quilt when I was about fifteen. [the first quilt.] That I paid attention to and I saw a quilt, and it was a Dresden Plate. And I said, 'When I get old,' because at fifteen you think of little old ladies as quilting. No one between fifteen and little old ladies made quilts. And I thought, 'When I get old I'm going to make that quilt.' And when I started quilting that's when I thought, 'I guess I'm at that point.' I was fifty-eight when I started quilting.

HG: And did you make a Dresden Plate?

VB: No, I made a sampler first and then I started my Dresden Plate.

HG: You did make one? And where is it now?

VB: On my bed.

HG: Okay. And you belong to the Delmarvalous Guild. Do you belong to any others?

VB: No.

HG: No other guilds. And you've never belonged to another guild because--

VB: I belonged to the Milford Guild which is the Piecemakers, but just for a very brief time--about a year. I simply didn't have the time for two guilds.

HG: Because you're in a guild I suppose you have plenty of friends who quilt.

VB: Yes.

HG: Can you talk a little about your activities within the Delmarvalous Guild?

VB: It's a great guild. And I think quilters in general are basically good people. They're willing to share their talents. And you don't find that in every area where people have a special talent. But our guild meets once a month. We have speakers come in. We have people from within the guild who are willing to share their skills if it's a particular thing. And we work together. We have special workshops, and we have Christmas in August, which is a whole day where we have special classes. And we have our morning classes, afternoon classes, and in the evening, and then we have a cover-dish dinner. And that's always a fun time. In Delmarvalous we have members from all over lower Delaware, from Sussex County. We have a few from Kent County that come down. And some from Maryland that come over.

HG: Before I started the tape recorder you were talking about the Linus quilts. Can you tell me a little bit about that again?

VB: Yes. Everyone should know who Linus is. He's from the Peanuts cartoon, and he's the one who carries the dirty blanket around. His security blanket. Several years ago a lady started this project. I think she's from Colorado. And we made quilts that are from baby size through lap quilt size. The largest ones are sixty-by-forty. And many guilds do this, but our guild has special workshops. And we spend all day cutting and making very simply patterns. But it's to provide children who are diagnosed terminally ill. And they're from age newborn through eighteen. We give them to the hospitals in the area. And we have given quilts to Beebe Hospital in Lewes, to Nanticoke in Seaford, to Milford Memorial, and to Peninsula Regional in Salisbury, Maryland. The premise behind it is that when children are very sick they need something warm and cuddly and soft. And a cotton quilt with nice batting is very soft. And they can choose whichever quilt they want. They are given two or three to choose from. And they take their quilt and it's their property. They take it home when they leave the hospital. It's theirs.

HG: Now do you think it would make the quilters feel differently about the project if, say, the quilts were shipped off to hospitals in the Midwest or the West Coast, where they weren't in contact with the hospitals where they were being sent?

VB: Not really.

HG: It wouldn't make a difference?

VB: No. We do it because there is a need.

HG: This is a question that we usually ask in all the Quilters' Save Our Stories interviews. What do think makes a great quilt?

VB: Well, first it would be eye appeal. Because you look at that quilt and a quilt, I think for most of us--when you go to a quilt show, there will be one quilt that takes your eye. There might be a hundred quilts there, and there might be three hundred. But one quilt you will remember. And so it has to be eye appeal. For me it's the color and design and the workmanship. And I like the points to be pointed and the curves to be curvy. And the quilting to be done not necessarily in tiny stitches, but uniformly done.

HG: What would you say is the greatest virtue of a great quilter?

VB: Humility.

HG: Humility. Okay, now which do you think is most important or are they equal in a quilt: artistry or craftsmanship?

VB: Probably craftsmanship, because if you take the time to do it well you develop the artistic. It kind of ties them together.

HG: Why is quilting important to your life?

VB: Because it's my thing. It's my thing. It's something that I can do anywhere. And you can work on it driving down the highway. I've worked on quilts all over this country when we've traveled. Basically because I enjoy doing it. And the people that I've given quilts or quilt-related items to have enjoyed it. And that's where a lot of the pleasure comes from, too- sharing it.

HG: How does it affect you differently than the other needlecrafts that you've taken up throughout your life?

VB: It's become my passion! It fills my time! Everyday I usually quilt or work on some phase of quilting. Almost everyday. And I think by sharing.

HG: Sharing. Can you think of any particular instance that stands out in your mind, of quilters sharing with each other? Maybe in your guild or something you've heard?

VB: Projects like the Linus quilt. We've done gifts for the children at Casa San Francisco and many projects like that. We've done many quilts for Hospice and projects for Hospice when they've had their Christmas sale. And I think quilting, it doesn't have to be--so many people think of quilting as a queen-size quilt. But there are many other things that you can do that are quilted. And just sharing. And it makes other people happy, too.

HG: It certainly does. Now you said that you've been all over different regions experiencing other people's quilts. Is there anything about the quilts of Delmarvalous or the Southern Delaware region that stands out, or that identifies them?

VB: Not really. My husband and I went to Colorado last year to a Marine Corps reunion. And we were there for a week. And in Boulder, Colorado that week they had a quilt show--just because they knew I was coming. [laughter.] And in some parts of the country you can see definite colors and patterns. And in the Midwest you definitely see those Midwestern colors- the turquoise and tans, and browns and rusts. But here, in this area, I don't think there's anything in particular that would make it stand out. Except I do think that the women in Delmarvalous Quilters--we have some tremendous quilters in our group. We have a lot of new women who have moved into this area from the Western Shore or from Pennsylvania. They have retired here. And they have brought in new ideas and they're learning to quilt. And some of them are experienced quilters, and that's been a tremendous boost to our guild. And I think the skill level in our guild is on par with any area of the country that we've been in. And particularly, it's a personal thing with me, I get so weary hearing about the Amish, or the Pennsylvania Dutch, whichever you choose to use. We have quilters who are equally as talented, who are equally as good with their quilting. And many better. But because we're from Delmarva, we could take a quilt that we had done, and have an Amish quilt done with the same pattern, both in the same construction, the same fabrics, the same quilting, and the design and everything would be exactly the same, and because it's Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish it could be sold for several hundred dollars more. And I think that's wrong.

HG: Now why do you think that is?

VB: Because their merchandisers and we're not.

HG: Have you ever sold a quilt?

VB: No.

HG: Can you tell me a little about why you choose not to go into merchandising your quilts?

VB: Because I quilt for my family and my friends, and I'm not interested in making money on quilting. I just think that would sort of take some of the fun and pleasure away from it. I've donated quilts to several raffles for the hospital, but that's not selling it because that money is going to benefit the hospital, not me personally.

HG: Okay. Quilts in museums. Have you been to a museum where there have been quilts, and how do you feel about quilts being put in museums?

VB: I think they should be. I think very special quilts should be. Our Guild went over to the D.A.R. Quilt Museum one time. And that was tremendous. We saw all these quilts from the Civil War era that had been preserved. And one lady had made about eight quilts with lots of very fancy work, and very fine, tedious work. And we decided that she was very wealthy, and she had household help and she had someone to do everything. Because otherwise she wouldn't have had time to make all those quilts. But I think it's good that quilts be preserved so that they can be passed down and other people can enjoy them.

HG: How does it make you feel to be participating in this craft that is so historic? I mean, you're literally connected by thread to these women of the past.

VB: It makes me feel great. That's my tie.

HG: How do you think the art of quilting can be preserved for the future, and how do you think it might change?

VB: I think it should be taught in schools. It should be offered. Unfortunately Home Economics in schools is a dying class. And I think that's wrong, because people are so computer-minded now, and scientific, that they forget that these skills are the important things. And quilting is something that is very affordable to anyone. You don't have to have the finest fabrics. I've taught some classes over at the college, and in any of my classes I say, 'Buy the best fabric that you can afford.' It doesn't have to be name-brand, particularly. But, I think that it's an art that should be preserved. And it should be taught and it should be encouraged more. Where you don't have as many 4-H clubs that we once did or farm-related. Or, home-maker related. I think we've become such a sophisticated country that people have a tendency to look down on people who do simple crafts like quilting. I'll give you a good example. One time our guild had a raffle quilt, and I belonged to the hospital Auxiliary and I took it to our meeting so we could sell some tickets on the quilt. And we were going to take those profits from the quilt, and we made over two thousand dollars, and gave it back to the hospital. We were meeting that day at the Country Club. And I went through an area where there were some women who were playing bridge--a lot of them good friends of mine, and good bridge players. And one lady said as I passed, and she didn't think I heard her, she said, 'Can you imagine just sitting and quilting all day long? Oh, that must be so boring.' And I turned to the lady next to me who was a quilter who was going in with me, and I said, 'She doesn't know we heard her, but at least at the end of the day we have something to show for the time we've spent sitting all day. And someone will have this quilt and keep it as an heirloom. But those bridge players will not have that at the end of the day.' But that's the attitude of a lot of people when they say, 'What do you do now that you're retired?' I say, 'I quilt.' They say, 'Oh.' Like, 'Oh, okay. Doesn't sound very exciting?' But when you take a piece of fabric, and you start putting--it's like playing paper dolls or jigsaw puzzles--and you put those pieces together. And you see that pattern emerge. And then you quilt it, because quilting makes the quilt. It just puts it all together. And then you see that quilt on a bed. It's just something special.

HG: Well that is a wonderful story to end my line of questioning. You've answered all my questions so well. Do you have anything you'd like to add? Any question that you wish I'd asked?

VB: I don't think so. One thing. Unfortunately, younger women now are working full time and their lives are very busy. And they don't have time to do quilting or other crafts like that. Sewing or painting. It's becoming for younger people, a dying art, and that's kind of sad because it's been around for so long.

HG: Don't you think that the young people, when they retire, maybe will pick it up?

VB: I would hope so. But I don't know. If they're not encouraged to do it when they can find just a few minutes, I think it's something that's going to be just like a lot of skills and craft things. Like crocheting. Crocheting, you don't see that much anymore. And tatting. Even knitting. There are a few people who do it any more the way they once did, because they're just so busy. And they figure, 'Well, I don't have time for that. I can go to the internet and get it cheaper.' That's one thing. Most quilters in our guild petitioned the Smithsonian Institute when they started selling quilt patterns to overseas, and these cheap quilts came back. And they're cheap imitations. They're cheap imitations, and we felt very strongly about that.

HG: Well, I think if the Houston Quilt Festival is any indication, with about 60,000 people every year and growing, I think that quilting is not going to follow the trend of tatting and crocheting.

VB: Let's hope not.

HG: Let's hope not.

VB: Because we have some younger women. But my guild is a good example. We probably have 125 members at least, and most of us are well beyond fifty. If we get a fifty-year-old we get so excited. Now to someone like you, that's old. [laughter.] That's really good to get someone under fifty, because they don't have the time. But if we keep pushing it, maybe it will not die.

HG: I don't think it will. I think you're absolutely right. Well, thank you so much for talking to me. I've had a great time.

VB: You're certainly welcome. It's been a pleasure.

HG: This is Heather Gibson on Monday, August 14, 2000. And I've been talking in this interview to Virginia Barton in her home in Laurel, Delaware. Thanks.



“Virginia Barton,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed July 18, 2024,