Thelma Robison Kirch Barr


Thelma Robinson Kirch Barr.jpg


Thelma Robison Kirch Barr


Thelma Barr is a quilter from Pittsburgh who moved to Dale City, Virginia in 1956. Barr began in apparel, because she loves sewing. She moved to quiltmaking through the National Quilting Association (NQA). Barr earned a blue ribbon for her first quilt that she entered in an NQA show in 1970. She enjoys quilting as a therapy and as charitable work, and works with Nellie's Needlers, the volunteer group for Woodlawn Plantation in Virginia.




Melanie Grear


Thelma Robison Kirch Barr


Evelyn Salinger

Interview sponsor

Iris Karp


Dale City, Virginia


Evelyn Salinger


**This transcript was created by QSOS volunteers and was reviewed and, in some cases, edited by the interviewee. It may not exactly match the audio recording. For citations and interview quotations, please refer to the audio-recorded interview.** Evelyn Salinger (ES): Today is June 9th 2004. We are holding an interview for Quilters' S.O.S.-Save Our Stories with Thelma Robison Kirch Barr, number 22193.001 at her home in Dale City, Virginia. I am Evelyn Salinger, interviewer, with Ruth Duncan, scribe. Present is Ed Barr, Thelma's husband. [of 55 years.] Welcome Thelma and Ed. Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed today--especially at a busy time of year for you. [Thelma.] My first question would be have you been a Virginian all your life?

Thelma Barr (TB): No, we moved down to Virginia in 1956, so Ed could take a job with the airlines. We were both born in Pittsburgh and our four children were born there. When we came down, the oldest one was going into fourth grade, I believe, and we had a 14 month-old baby.

ES: Very good. Tell us about your career, or if you had certain studies along the way.

TB: I'm a high school graduate. I went to Bellfield Girls' Vocational High School in Pittsburgh and I took dressmaking. We would have a half day of our trade, as they called it then, and half a day of academics. I had dressmaking. And I got moved up--you're supposed to take a year in beginners, a year in intermediate, a year in power machine, and a year in advanced dressmaking.

I had a half a year beginners, and I think a year of intermediate, and the teacher in the power machine, I don't know, I was only there a couple of months. What her problem was with me I don't know, but she took me down to the advanced sewing class and said, 'Here she is. You are not going to have any problems with her. Just put her in the back of the room.' So I had really two years of advanced dressmaking. [laughter.]

ES: Very helpful.

TB: It was. I had a wonderful teacher. And after graduation, I worked in an alteration department in Kaufman's Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh. And so I made my own clothes. I made my children's clothes, well most of them. I just love sewing.

ES: Uh-hmm. Do you like machine work more than hand work?

TB: I have been doing more machine work lately. But I really do enjoy the hand work. I find it very relaxing. And to me, I can make it more precise. I know a number of machine piecers who are just excellent. I have no problem with their work. But others I've seen is not that great. But on the whole, I think it's really, really improved in the machine piecing and machine quilting.

ES: What are your earliest memories about quilts or quilting?

TB: The earliest memory I have of a quilt was--oh gosh, I was a little child and my mother brought home a quilt one day and she said that my Aunt Em--well, Aunt Em was really my mother's aunt and she had made this quilt for me. I could still picture it in my mind but as I realize now, it was a Double Irish Chain in a bubble gum pink. And along one side, Aunt Em had embroidered my name. And I remember tracing that with my finger, that that was my name and that was how to write it. I used that quilt. It was used on my bed. I ended up using pieces of it to lay my babies on, and it kind of disintegrated and disappeared. And one time I said to my mother, 'Gee if I had known I was going to become a quilter, I would have saved that quilt.' And she said, 'No, Aunt Em made it with love for you to use. And you've used it.' So.

ES: Very good. And after that, when is it that you got started yourself?

TB: Then, when I was working at the department store, one of the ladies I sat beside, of course I was about nineteen at the time and she was probably around in her sixties, and I really just liked that lady. Mrs. Herman was her name. Mrs. Herman, but we just called her Hermie. At lunch time, we would go eat our lunch and then we'd wander around the store. Somebody wanted to go buy patterns, or buy fabric, or whatever, we'd go together. And one day, we went into the needlework department and she bought a kit, a quilt kit she said she was going to make for her daughter. And I said, 'Oh that's wonderful, do you know how to quilt?' She said, 'Oh, yes.' And I said, 'If I bought a kit, would you help me?' She said, 'Oh, yes.' So I bought a cross stitch top kit, and [laughs.] you know how boring they can get after a while. I worked on that thing for twenty years before I ever finished it. [laughter.] In the meantime, I married and raised four—pretty well raised four children. Of course, I guess Hermie was long gone by the time I was ready to quilt that quilt. But I would just work at it, and get bored and put it away, then get it out, till after twenty years I said, ' This is do or die, I'm finishing this quilt.' [bells ringing.] And then I had a hard time at that time finding books. It was the early sixties. And there were no books about quilting. I found in the back of the McCall's Needlework magazine, an advertisement for the Ruby Short McKim book and Marguerite Ickis' book. And I sent for those. They were not too much help, but I did manage to get this quilt put together and quilted it as best I could. And I entered it in the first NQA [National Quilting Association.] show in September, 1970, and I did win a blue ribbon. So that wasn't too bad.

ES: Very good.

TB: But that was when I learned more about quilting, was through NQA and the ladies that I met there.

ES: Shall we take up NQA at this point, perhaps? I would like to know what was your involvement and what do you know about the beginnings of that organization?

Ruth Duncan (RD): How did you find them?

TB: That was really strange. Ed had a--Mr. van Meter was a supervisor?

Ed Barr (EB): Yeah. The first shift supervisor. What you call lead mechanic.

TB: He was lead mechanic at the airlines where Ed worked. They lived out in Nokesville, [Virginia.] the van Meters. We went out several times to visit them. They were such delightful people. Mrs. van Meter was the type of person, that if she found you were interested in something, whenever she saw a news article, picture or anything about which you were interested in, she saved it. She had a whole--

EB: --had a whole file of every friend of theirs and what that friend was interested in.

TB: An accordion file and she had all these things in it. So one day, I got in the mail a card that Elinor van Meter sent me. It was an ad from the newspaper. And it said that if you were interested in quilting, contact box--and I forget the box number, in Greenbelt, Maryland. It must have been around in June or so, and so I wrote a letter and I didn't hear anything. And I thought, well, that fell through. And lo and behold by the end of August, I got a card that said they were having a quilt show in September at the Greenbelt Library and you could bring in entries, and the time. At that time, Ed was working at the BWI airport--that was called Friendship then--and so on his way home in the morning he stopped and entered my quilt for me. And then we went out to see the show and I was so pleased I had won this ribbon. And they were handmade ribbons. The ladies had gone to the Ben Franklin and bought ribbons, put little gold seals on the top, and then with a metallic pen wrote, 'first place,' 'second place,' and so forth, because they didn't have the money [to buy ribbons.] and they couldn't charge at the library, either.

ES: Right.

TB: But all they had was the little entry fee that you pay to enter your quilt.

RD: So that you found out about them through a newspaper.

TB: Right. Clipping that another friend sent from Nokesville.

ES: So was this the very first exhibit they had?

TB: Yes. This was their very first show. In September of 1970. It's the very first.

ES: So now did you become involved with that group?

TB: Yes, I did. But mostly with Penny Rigdon, and Lynn Harris, and some of the other members who were there, a lady named Marie Lucarelli, who lived over in Virginia, 'cause most of those people were in Maryland. I was just fascinated that these people, I thought they knew everything about quilting there was to know. Realizing later that many of them were just learning same as I was.

ES: Uh-huh. Was Dolores Hinsen part of that group at that time?

TB: Yes. I did not get to know her very well. I was more acquainted with Margaret Todd and Penny and Lynn Harris.

ES: Did you go to meetings?

TB: Yes. At that time, they had quarterly meetings which they held over in Greenbelt. We would go to those. And the July quarterly meeting was always a potluck picnic held at Margaret Todd's. Her husband worked with the Farm—what was it? The experimental farm?

EB: National Agricultural Center.

TB: Agricultural Center. We would go to their place and it was wonderful. Oh, we would have a great time. [inaudible.]

ES: What did you do at that meeting? Did you do anything with quilting at that meeting?

TB: Well, people would bring Show 'n Tell as always. And things that they were working on. And it was a great opportunity if you needed help with something that you could go and ask the other person, which I was always doing at the time, because I was learning. There were not classes and the books that there are now. Oh, my goodness, no.

ES: And the other meetings of the year? Were there other particular themes? One was the exhibit?

TB: Well, mostly they were discussing business and how to raise some money and they started putting out the newsletter. Pat Newkirk was getting the newsletter together, the Patchwork Patter. And there was discussion of raising money for Patchwork House, which just never came to fruition.

ES: What was this Patchwork House?

TB: Well, Patchwork House was to be a repository of information such as this: histories of people, library, books and sample blocks, and

EB: tools of the trade,

TB: quilts. Just to house all this information.

ES: I have been puzzled about the name, National Quilting Association. Was that its name from the very beginning?

TB: Yes.

ES: It wasn't national at this point though?

TB: No, it wasn't. They chose national because it was really formed in DC, and they felt-- National Capital Area.

ES: Oh, OK.

TB: And I think their first out-of-state member was Catherine Eschelman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Who was a judge and I learned a great deal from Catherine. She was a very knowledgeable person.

ES: And you continued that association all of these years? NQA?

TB: Oh, yes. I have stayed with NQA and I have not joined any other quilting group other than the local guild. But I have just stayed with NQA and felt very faithful to them.

ES: Very good. I am going to change the subject and we will come back to NQA I am sure.

I guess at this point, I would like to hear something about the quilt that you brought today. It's a very beautiful quilt with lots of pansies. Do you want to describe it?

TB: This has all sorts of pansies on it. Some [break in tape.] Now it's upside down.

ES: That's OK. We'll take a picture later.

TB: Actually this pattern was in the Patchwork Patter at one time by Pat Newkirk. And Pat Newkirk said it was her mother's pattern. So I don't know, her mother's from Kentucky, so I don't know how far back this pattern goes. Some of the fabrics in here were my mom's. These checks were my mom's housedresses. She gave me her scraps. And many others I got from a sister-in-law in Pittsburgh who was working as the shopkeeper for the Baptist Home; their gift shop. And people would bring her things for the shop. She called me when we were up visiting in Pittsburgh one time and she said, 'Oh, Thelma, I've got this box of fabrics, these scraps, I don't know what to do with them. I'll leave them inside the door for you if you want them.' So I said, 'Fine Mary, I'll pick them up.' And as we were leaving to go home the next day, we went by and I got this box of scraps so many of these lovely little prints were in that box.

ES: Uh-hmm. They were probably dresses or blouses of women in that home.

TB: Yes. And I don't know why they thought Mary could put it in the gift shop, and what good it would do, I don't know, but anyway I started to make these blocks. And I ended up with breast cancer. I had so many doctors' appointments, and therapy appointments, I had radiation treatments, and I couldn't lift my arm at the time, but I could sew. [laughs.] So I carried these blocks with me for all these appointments and I lived in the car and on the road for how many months and I made these blocks, while I was recovering from the cancer. Which I licked. It was almost 29 years ago so--

ES: That's wonderful. Good for you.

RD: That's a real win.

TB: That's a win and so I call this "My Therapy Quilt" [Pansies.] because it took my mind off of everything.

ES: Oh, yes. What did you put inside this?

TB: I have Mountain Mist polyester batting.

ES: You have the tiniest little stitches, and I always wonder how you can do that.

TB: At the time I was I was doing much finer quilting than I do now. My eyesight is not as great as it used to be. I feel, as a friend in Ohio said, 'I think we reach a peak with our quilting. We get up to a certain peak, and then we go downhill.'

ES: Well, this has the tiniest little stitches and it quilted all over.

TB: All over. I believe in a lot of quilting.

ES: That's great. Many of us these days don't take the time to do that.

TB: No.

RD: Very even and very full quilting.

ES: Beautiful. And you have used this quilt?

TB: Yes. This one's been well used.

ES: Do you have members of the family that you have been making quilts for over the years?

TB: Oh, yes. I've given many things away. Baby quilts. Bigger quilts. They're still on a waiting list. [laughs.] 'When am I getting my quilt?'

ES: Oh, yes.

TB: I was trying to get caught up with grandchildren then the great-grandchildren started, so I'm still behind on the quilting. [laughter.]

ES: How many grandchildren and great-grandchildren do you have?

TB: Eight grandchildren, and now 6 great-grandchildren. I'm behind. I made some utility quilts for some of the great-grandchildren. The older ones. Tried to do machine quilting. I'm not as good at machine quilting as many people are, but the children were happy.

ES: Have you exhibited this quilt some places?

TB: This has been exhibited. It was in the museum in Paducah. [looking at the label.]

ES: Um-hum. In 1999 it says.

TB: We used to go out as a group, NQA members to recruit new members, and we'd go to shopping malls. We'd set up quilts and talk with people. They would ask questions about quilting and we would answer them, best we could. And maybe we'd get some new members, and maybe we wouldn't, but we just had enjoyment talking with people. And I remember one time, we were in some mall in Maryland, and this particular quilt was there--my therapy quilt. And there was a man, I believe, and he was very despondent. Somehow, he come around saying something about having cancer and it's just hopeless. And I said, 'No, it isn't.' I said, 'You came to the right person to talk to about cancer.' And I pointed out this quilt to him and I told him my story. His face brightened up and I think he went away with a little more hope than when he came.

ES: That's wonderful.

TB: I've used it in that text, too.

EB: There's also another story that goes along with it that same outing. This woman come over to me and she says, 'You're involved with quilting?' I says, 'Only as a photographer.' And she says, 'My husband was injured in the riots in Washington. He's a fire captain. He got hit in the head with a brick off of a building.' Well, he was medically retired from the fire service, but he was still in therapy. And he had absolutely no gumption for anything, until I pointed this quilt out to him. Told him that's what you do in recovery.

ES: Ah ha.

EB: So he seemed to perk up and seemed to be more interested. Then his wife beamed.

ES: Very good story. At this point, would you like to tell us, what are the aspects of quilting that are your favorite?

TB: I like appliqué. That's my favorite to do. I enjoy the quilting. I think the hardest part for me is deciding on a quilting design for the top and the marking of the quilt.

ES: What do you mark with? I don't see any marks.

TB: This has been washed and I think the pencil marks have washed out, because sometimes I tend to get a little too heavy-handed with the pencil. So I try to watch that. And I try to use other means, tape and what-not.

ES: Do you ever use those blue markers?

TB: No, I never used those. Because I saw a bad time with one. Someone marked a quilt at Woodlawn with a blue marker and we kept trying to sponge it out, and as soon as it would dry, the blue kept seeping up from the batting. It was 'cause they used too much of it and the batting held it and it kept migrating to the top. So I rather avoided them. I don't know if the newer ones are better or what. I have not tried them. I've tried to stay away from them.

RD: You mark the whole quilt before you start?

TB: It depends. Some parts of it I will mark entirely before I start and then others, you know like straight lines, I can use tape afterwards. I've tried to be more and more careful with that. Because I know that I do get too heavy handed with the pencil. So I watch it.

EB: Some of the judges persist in marking off because of pencil marks. Like one of the judges said, 'The pencil marks will all be out of the quilt, will be long gone, but imperfect seams and imperfect sewing will stay.'

TB: And the sashings will never straighten out. The pencil marks, unless they are too, too obvious, I will not mark down on them as a judge. I will, of course, go for crooked borders and binding and sashings, but the pencil marks, that's kind of up in the air, it depends on how badly they are.

ES: I have one more question about this quilt and your quiltmaking before we go on into other things. What do you quilt on? Do you use a frame or do you use a hoop?

TB: I use a hoop.

ES: A large round one?

TB: Well, I have various sizes. I have a large one and smaller ones, and then I have an oval one that I have been using lately that will go along the border.

ES: This does not have a stand.

TB: No, on the table. I found that the frame that I tried years ago and it just was uncomfortable for me and back breaking. I found the hoop more versatile, really.

ES: Interesting. Good. We had just about started to do the judging, so maybe we should go into that. When did you start doing judging?

TB: We set up an ad hoc committee at NQA one time, 'cause it had been discussed back and forth about having uniform judging. So many different judges were called in to judge the show and were somebody who wrote a book, and somebody who did this, and somebody who did that. And they used a numerical system. And the first thing you know, quilts were coming up with numbers that would have given it a blue ribbon, that were maybe mediocre according to the judging. So a group of us, especially Catherine Eschelman, always advocated using an elimination method. And we discussed it with her, the pros and cons, and with Catherine, and a few other members, an ad hoc committee was set up and Ed and I were members of that. We met at Fay Goldy's house who lives over in Rockville. [Maryland.] Pat Morris, who recently passed away, she was at the time from Glassboro, New Jersey, was on the committee. We met and tried to set up, more or less, criteria for elimination method judging. We tried the method for the first time in 1977, was it?

EB: Uh-hum.

TB: For the quilt show, '77 or '78. Excuse me, it was 1978 we used it the first time because Ed and I were the chair people of the show and we invited the judges and we used the elimination method and it went like clockwork. The judging was done in much quicker time, and ribbons awarded. And everybody was happy. And it just worked so much easier.

EB: Show's displayed. The ribbons were put on the quilts and everything was done by six o'clock.

TB: Then a program was set up to test people to become judges. And we did test each other. We did not grandfather each other in to our certification. We did test each other. So, this was in '79, and '80. And now, there is quite a much more elaborate certification program. But mostly it was set up to get judges for the NQA show especially and this was to have a more uniform set of rules and judging. But it varies from judge to judge, too, which is good because you get different input from the judges.

ES: What sort of things do you look at when you look at a quilt to judge it?

TB: The first is the impact of the design and color of the quilt. And the use of it. You know if you feel this is going to be a bed quilt or this is going to be a wall quilt, they have different feelings. Of course, you can't say about the colors of the bed quilt because you do not know for whom it was made. It's the maker's choice of colors, but how well do they work and you know just look well together. Of course, now we are seeing, at least I know I have lately, more and more of the art type quilts. So-called contemporary style. Some of them are just terrific. It is amazing what is out there.

ES: Apparently there are a lot of therapy quilts. I've seen various ones of those.

TB: Oh, yes. People are much more aware now. And I think it's great, especially for the breast cancer, the breast cancer awareness. I think it's wonderful what they're doing. And it does help. And not only working on a quilt, but quilting friends are a big support. I had so much support from quilters that I didn't even know at that time, who called me and said, 'I had my surgery 10 years ago, I had mine 12 years ago. It's better for you now, look what you have to look forward to.' And now I can say that after 29 years. 'Look how much better it is now, then when I had the surgery.' So, it is a great support system. Besides, you are making something useful. [chuckles.]

ES: Yes. Something beautiful.

RD: You have something when you are finished. Other sort of therapy you have receipted bills. [laughter.]

TB: Exactly. Well, that's my theory about the quilting, too. I do other types of needlework, especially embroidery and crocheting, and once in a while a little knitting, but I haven't done much lately. But anyway, I feel that I have really a good product for my time when I finish a quilt.

ES: Uh-hum. I feel it's a good legacy. It's something that will outlast me.

TB: Yes. And the family love them.

ES: Uh-hum. I would like to hear about your involvement in other organizations that have to do with handwork.

TB: Well, the Nellie's Needlers is the volunteer group for Woodlawn Plantation. And I think we are about over 30 years' old now.

ES: Have you been in that since the beginning?

TB: No. I joined in 1983. I had made a friend, who lived at that time in Alexandria, Lila Zimmerman, and she was a quilter. She would call me and she told me about the quilt that they were making for the raffle at Woodlawn. It was an Old Maid's Patience quilt. She invited me to come down and help quilt on it. So I did. I would go down and quilt and when they had the April meeting, they did the drawing for the quilt and she said, 'You're coming to that meeting. We're having a luncheon.' And I said, 'Okay.' So, I went. All at once a piece of paper came around and I said, 'What's this Lila?' And she said, 'Oh, that's the time sheet. You put down the hours that you worked on the quilt.' She said, 'You're now a member.' [laughter.] So whether I wanted to be or not, I was now a member of Nellie's Needlers. But I have enjoyed that time immensely. Last year's quilt I chaired, the making of that. We raffled that. A lady from North Carolina won it. She was ecstatic. This year we have a Red Work quilt we're raffling. So I got to work on all the quilts. And we did a Crazy Quilt at one time. We're doing another small one again. So this gives me a chance to do some embroidery. But mostly I work with the quilting end of it.

ES: I thought perhaps you did repairs and that sort of thing.

TB: No. We don't get into that. People have called and asked if we did repairs and they'd pay, but we just don't do that. We are all volunteer time and we don't want to get into that.

RD: Repairs are so tricky.

EB: There are quilters who do nothing but that. They buy antique quilts that are very worn out and they salvage what they can out of it to replace the time frame for the fabric.

TB: In fact, we just, through the needlework show in March, someone approached one of the Nellie's members and requested if the Nellie's would make a duplicate of our present raffle quilt, the Red Work quilt, which all the blocks depict something concerning Nellie Custis Lewis or Woodlawn. And we just shuddered. So the Board at their Board meeting decided that it would be a policy of the group that we would not duplicate any of our raffle quilts.

ES: Which is good, because that is a unique quilt. And you don't want someone else to have the same one.

TB: That's a unique quilt. That's exactly it. We thought, 'Whew. We're off of that.'

EB: An awful lot of quilts which they have made were made on the pattern of the House quilt. One that belongs to Woodlawn.

TB: We would duplicate one that was in the House collection.

EB: That one might be from the 1870's. The current one would be anywhere from late 1900's or early 2000's.

ES: That's good.

TB: We decided that since Red Work is popular, we would do a Red Work quilt. And it's really lovely.

ES: So when you get together, is it monthly?

TB: The Nellies have a monthly meeting, the first Wednesday of every month, except March and August. But a small group of us meets Monday mornings up in Mount Vernon area and we work on Nellie's projects.

ES: Very nice.

EB: It's another good group because you have exchange of ideas and it's another support group. We've seen people through serious illnesses, deaths, and births, which were the happy times. So it's a great support group, too.

ES: How has quilting impacted your family? I'd like to hear some more about that 'cause Ed is definitely involved, but maybe there are other impacts as well? [laughter.]

TB: Well, as our daughter-in-law said, 'Beware if Mom gives you a quilt because she'll come in the middle of the night and rip it off your bed and take it to a quilt show.' [laughter.] But they all enjoy it. I think they enjoy to see what I make.

[deletion of a few inessential sentences.]

EB: For a year I was corporate officer of the organization.

ES: Of the NQA?

EB: The NQA. And later on I was vice-president, and at different times you and I were chairpersons for the show.

RD: Which year was that?

TB: I was vice-president in 1975, and unfortunately that was when I had the cancer, so I was not really that active as a vice-president because most of the year –

RD: I mean, what year were you the head of the quilt show?

TB: '78. We were the chair people.

ES: That was here locally?

TB: Yes, it was in Georgetown.

EB: It was Georgetown Visitation. [Preparatory School.]

ES: Now tell us about your quest, your following these shows every year forever. [laughter.]

EB: Well, we've missed four shows so far. Whether this will be our last or not, I don't know. This is what, the 35th?

TB: This is the 35th show, I think, this year.

EB: One year, Thelma was supposed to judge in New Orleans. Instead, she's having by-pass surgery.

TB: That was in '82.

EB: If you ever wanted to see a startled expression, when I said to the doctor, 'She has to judge, you know, in New Orleans.' I thought he was going off in the air like a Titan rocket.

TB: He says, 'You're not going anywhere.'

EB: I think I give him a near heart attack. Another year the show's in Seattle, Washington. Our daughter and son-in-law invited us to go with them and their two kids to Grand Canyon, and that's where we went. So that was the second show we missed. The third was out on the Queen Mary--

TB: No, it was in Riverside, California. We didn't go to that one.

EB: We didn't go, for whatever reason, I'm sure we had a legitimate reason.

TB: No, we didn't go and we didn't go to the one in Tulsa, because it was shortly after he had some serious surgery, and we didn't feel that he could drive that far or even go on the plane.

EB: I am another cancer survivor.

TB: So he's another cancer survivor.

EB: Colon cancer.

ES: Oh, my.

EB: So that's what I was doing, recovering from that when the Tulsa show came.

TB: But we did go to Charlotte, and Columbus of course, and hope to be in Peoria in a couple of weeks.

EB: Reservations are made.

ES: Will you drive out to Peoria from here?

TB: Yes, we'll drive.

ES: Now, what do you do there? Each of you has some jobs to do I am sure.

[Here, RD reminds us that the tape is almost over.]

TB: I usually attend the judges' annual meeting and there's a breakfast, Shirley Bartolino, one of our CJ's [Certified Judges.] from California has a breakfast and as many CJ's--and last year we included the teachers. It was fun. She had all sorts of games to play and then just to get together and get to know the other ones, because judges on the East coast don't get to judge with the ones on the West coast. So, it's a lot of fun.

ES: Do you usually go a day or two ahead of the show opening?

TB: We try to. This year we're just going to arrive on Wednesday, the day before the show opens. The year that the show was in Omaha, Nebraska, we went early because we met our friends from Ohio, Paul and Donna McDade, and we toured, and we saw all the little quilt shows and went to Boys' Town--

EB: Besides the NQA show, there were five other shows going on around the city.

ES: Oh, my.

TB: We had a great time. So we were about 3 or 4 days just touring around having a great time.

ES: Do you remember what year that was?

[Here there was a short discussion where and when, and one would have to look it up.]

ES: Ed, now what do you do at these shows? I know you do something special.

EB: After we get settled in, before the show opens, I usually try to do pictures of where the show site was, what kind of building it was in, a convention center, or hotel, or whatever. And then we look up all the railroad museums and all the fire museums, and photograph them, [laughter.] if any exist. I usually look for other model railroad clubs, because I helped start the Prince William [County.] Model Railroad Club here. And things like that. And then the day the show opens, Thelma and I will usually visit the show and mentally note which pictures we want to make, because we used to photograph everything in the show. And sometimes we would wind up with a hundred and fifty pictures, sometimes five hundred pictures. It just got overwhelming and we decided, OK, we'll just do the ribbon winners. I don't think we've come out with less than a hundred and fifty at any show. And then we go back through them and order these, which we will want like 'pearl on the half shell.'

ES: Oh, yeah.

EB: Remember, you have seen the picture of the baby on the shell.

TB: Baby on the clam shell. And Paul McDade says, 'That's a baby on a half shell.' And I said, 'Its name is Pearl.' [laughter.] So that ended that.

EB: We have jokes like that, about almost every show we've ever gone to.

TB: The shows are wonderful because they're more like conventions where you meet your friends from across the country, you don't see from year to year. It is just marvelous. We have a good time.

EB: We've known people who have been editors, magazine editors, writers that have done books, done articles for magazines. I have had a lot of pictures published in quilt magazines or publications, as well as fire publications.

ES: And I know you do do some shows, people invite you.

TB: We do slide shows.

EB: One of the nicest and the best slide shows we have ever been requested to do, is a show for children, over to the Boys and Girls Center, Boys and Girls Club. So what do you show boys and girls, up to age thirteen? We figured we'd do pictorial quilts. Well, they just raved about Winnie the Pooh, there's a full size Winnie the Pooh on a quilt, and penguins and animals of all kinds.

TB: Any picture quilts we had, we pulled. And the children were just delighted. [laughter.]

EB: And after it was all over, what really made the show, was one little girl came over and put her arms around Thelma and says, 'Will you come back and show us some more pictures?' That kind of makes the whole thing worthwhile.

ES: It certainly does.

EB: And it keeps us off the streets. [laughter.]

ES: It certainly is a very good thing to do. I am going to ask you if you have any other special memories that you would like to share at this point. You can be thinking about that. In between I'll ask you, what makes a quilt appropriate for museum or special collection? Do you have any ideas about that?

TB: I am dubious about this thing to have a quilt in a museum. So many people say, 'Oh that should be in a museum.' I used to think that way, too, early on, until someone pointed out, how many quilts that are in museums do you really see, or does the public get to see? They're all put away in storage. But I feel that some collections should be preserved, such as Mary Schaefer's, who lived in Flint, Michigan. And I understand hers has been put into a museum. She was such a wonderful person and did so much for quilting. I think that those types should be preserved. But, you know, the average person like you and I, I think maybe they're not what are considered museum quality, I don't know. But I feel they should be out where other people can enjoy them and see them and have pleasant memories, and tell the stories about them.

EB: Years past, fabric would deteriorate simply with age. And that which did manage to survive totally and in one piece, and in very good condition, deserved to be put in a museum and from there on out, the rest of its life, be hermetically controlled.

TB: Yes, if it's climate-controlled, it's great.

EB: But not every quilt is a museum quilt.

TB: I think, as much as possible put them out where people can enjoy them.

[flipping the tape over, 'testing', etc.]

ES: We have a few loose ends that I'd like to tie up. [a small deletion.] I would like you to describe your Aunt. [who was the family seamstress.]

TB: [deletion of non-pertinent material.] Aunt Em was the lady who did the quilt for me. She was a spinster lady and was my grandfather's older sister. My grandfather's father was killed in an accident when he was about four years old and there was a sister about two years old. And then there were many older brothers and this older sister who took over with my grandfather. She must have been about thirteen or fourteen at the time, and she just took over the raising of him. She went and lived, as an older woman, with the different families and did their sewing and their mending. And my mother told me of different clothes that Aunt Em had made for her when she was a child. I barely remember her. She died around 1930-31, so I just barely remember her. But I remember that quilt. I can still see that in my eye. [chuckles.]

ES: I wanted to ask you to tell us about the honors and prizes you earned on your quilts, if you could.

TB: I have won everything from blue ribbons to honorable mentions. I won this huge first place ribbon from that college--

EB: Ferrum.

TB: Ferrum College down in Virginia. It is a big one. And I won special for crib quilts, I won two awards for the one I made for our oldest great grandchild. So I won two special ribbons for his quilt.

EB: His mother wanted a picture of the quilt with all the ribbons on it and wound up with seven ribbons. Different shows.

ES: Oh, my. Would you describe what technique you used?

TB: It was an appliqué. It has a rocking horse center, and different blocks around it. It showed up quite well and Drew was real happy with his quilt.

ES: And your other one which was a large first prize in Lexington. What kind of quilt was that?

TB: I think it was a Nine Patch. A simple Nine Patch, if I'm not mistaken. I was just so shocked when it came back with this huge beautiful ribbon, long streamers on it.

ES: Do you find over these years that the quality of the quilts has increased?

TB: Yes. I see a great improvement in the quality of quilts, indeed I do. And the machine quilting has come so far, too. I'm just amazed when I see what some people can do. And this is on their home sewing machines. I am not referring to the long-arm machines. These are the ones that are doing them on their own sewing machines at home, and just terrific work, beautiful. I am very impressed.

ES: Now when you see these at a quilt show, the judges have different categories for the machine quilting and the hand quilting? Or do they compete now?

TB: Some shows have separate categories. NQA has separate categories for machine quilting and hand quilting. If you get into some of the smaller shows, they are not big enough to have a separate category. So they'll put them all in together. And you judge them on their merits. And sometimes the machine quilted quilt will outdo the hand quilted one.

EB: At the NQA there's a group of quilts for the Masters Quilt. And included in that is one several years ago totally machine quilted.

TB: Yes.

EB: Absolutely gorgeous.

ES: Would you describe this Masters Quilt--

TB: Well, this program was originally set up many, many years ago, early on in NQA. Pat Newkirk was behind it. It started out as a piecemeal thing that first you would submit –and sizes were given—a piece of appliqué, which I did. You would submit that to be judged. And if you passed on that, then you would quilt it. And then you could submit it for the quilting. Likewise submit a pieced square, I forget what the dimensions were, but anyway, this went on just piece by piece until eventually that you would cover all—piecing, appliqué, embroidery, and so forth. Well, no one entered it, the program lagged, and I think it was complicated really, but finally a woman that I was friends with at the time, she said, 'Let's enter something.' So she did some piecing and I did an appliqué piece, and mine passed, and I got the award and I was the first one accepted into the program under the rules that existed at the time. The program stagnated. Well, then Jeanie Spears set up an ad hoc committee. She came here to the DC area and we met intensely, I think for two days, a whole group of us who were judges at the time, and went over the whole thing. Her theory was that it was not really going to work the way it was set up. Why not just take a completed quilt and go from there.

ES: And have it judged on all the aspects. [3 people talking at once.]

TB: Yes. Which we did. And we had several quilts there that we formed groups and each one took--I think there were about 3 quilts and went over them and I think it was Dorothy Findlay's quilt went in first. And that way it made much more sense to take the entire finished quilt. And so that's where the program went from there.

ES: The title of this program is--

TB: The Masters Guild Program. And at the time, when we were finished, Jeanie asked, 'What are we going to do with Thelma?' [laughter.] And she said, 'Do we let her award stand? Or do we take it away?' And everyone said, 'Well, she earned that award. We let it stand.' Jeanie said, 'Fine.' She felt the same way. So I kept my award.

ES: How many people are there in such a program?

TB: I forget how many are in there now. There are quite a few. There are some absolutely gorgeous quilts in there.

EB: At the time of the Lincoln show, there were 12 quilts displayed.

TB: One went in last year.

EB: Twelve masterpieces including yours. A new one went in last year and the year before.

ES: The quilt that passes muster then becomes part of the collection?

TB: Well, it belongs to the person. You just get an award. It's not like [that.] other place where it's bought. [American Quilt Society.]

EB: As space permits, they will ask them to bring them back. They'll have a special showing of those.

TB: So they may be on display or some of them on display this year. I do not know what all they have in mind for the special 35th show. They may be there.

ES: Do you have a quilt in this show?

TB: No, I do not have anything this year. I haven't entered lately, I just--I've gotten too tied up with doing things for Nellie's and trying to do stuff for myself.

ES: Yes, I can understand that.

TB: I am a great-grandson behind. He's almost nine months old and I still don't have poor Alex's quilt. I have the top made, but that's as far as I got. [all talking at once.]

EB: 'The hurrieder we go, the behinder we get.'

ES: I have one more question. In what way do you think quilts have had a special meaning for women's history in America?

TB: I don't really know how to answer that. I feel that quilts have become special for women. I think that once they get into quilting, they find out how relaxing it is to quilt, how creative it is. Also the friendships they make, which I think means so much to the women. And maybe it's shown that women are artists who thought that they weren't artists.

ES: Good. I think at this point we'll say our goodbyes. Thank you so much for your hospitality here in Dale City.

TB: Thank you.

EB: You're quite welcome.

ES: And all the wonderful information that we've gotten. If there's anything else you think of you can let us know.

TB: Well, I just love to hear the stories about quilts when I get to talking with women. And you find out different things that have happened to them.

EB: The last question is pretty hard to pinpoint for the simple reason that women have a variety of other interests in life. For instance, horseback riding, or dressage,showing off show horses, square dancing, music of any kind. So if that holds the primary interest in your life, quilting you can appreciate, but you are not necessarily involved with it.

TB: One lovely story I would like to tell you. It was 1975, because that year we had a couple of grandchildren show up. And the one was due in November, David, and I was making him a quilt. And because it was getting on to bicentennial, everything was red, white and blue. So I made David a Nine Patch red, white and blue. We were doing a little display out in Sully Plantation. This was before they were having all these big quilt shows and everything. And I was put up into the little house that's out there where they had some looms, and whatnot. And I was sitting at the table with David's quilt, and quilting it, and I had alternate blocks of nine patches and in the plain block, I did a little feather wreath. Well, I saw this woman come in with presumably her husband, and I wondered what was wrong at first and I saw her take him to one of the looms and she put his hand on. She was describing and talking about it. And I realized this man was either almost sightless or was sightless. Well, then they came to the table where I was--you know this whole thing 'don't touch the quilts,' she was trying to describe to him what I was doing. And she put his hand on the block where the feather wreath was, and he moved his hand over it. And this look came on his face that gave me the chills. And I thought, you can touch my quilt all you want. [chuckles.] And I was just so pleased to see the look on his face.

ES: That's so moving.

EB: Yes, it was. And she thanked me, and he thanked me. And they left. And I just sat there for a long time with chills. I just always remember that when I think of David's quilt. I hope it is still around somewhere. [laughs.]

ES: Well, thank you very, very much again.

TB: You're very welcome.



“Thelma Robison Kirch Barr,” Quilters' S.O.S. -- Save Our Stories, accessed April 13, 2024,