There’s a barn quilt affixed to the rear end of my house.
Like a cattle brand, or a bumper sticker, or that tattoo you know about but rarely share, this one’s on the backside, for those behind you to see.
But first, my apologies. It’s been more than a year since I last posted to this blog. There are many reasons for that, including some laziness. But I’m back like a bad habit, so here goes.
If you don’t know barn quilts, they’re the giant, usually plywood, quilt-block squares that dot the apexes of barns. You’ll find them scattered along this nation’s back roads, from Pennsylvania to California. We don’t have many in Kansas City Star Quilts’ two native states, Missouri and Kansas, though Iowa to our north seems to have one for every man, woman, child and cow. Perhaps they’d be willing to share.
I latched on to the subject of barn quilts during some road trips through Illinois and Michigan. In fact, I took some pictures for a book we published, “From the Bedroom to the Barnyard.” (The title is less suggestive than it seems, which is a shame.)
So I’m proud that I built my own. But how it got there starts with Nellie, our 1-year-old pup.
Nel is a Great Pyrenees. That’s a dog breed that hails from the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain and France. Bred as a guard dog, a Great Pyrenees – or “Pyr,” as they’re called – is the favorite of shepherds for its ability to protect the flock.
When we lost our Golden Retriever about a year ago, we knew we’d get a new pup. And eventually we found our way to the kind folks at the Milk & Honey Farm, a Pyr breeder west of Minneapolis. How and why we chose a Pyr to follow our Golden is a very long, separate story.
Now, we weren’t quite ready for the sheer size of Nellie. Check out the photo at right, and then the one below … that’s Nel at just six weeks old. I’m holding her as best I can. Pyrs can grow to be huge – 130 pounds or more. Nel’s now closing in on 100.
Nor were we prepared for the long trip home when we finally took possession. (Here’s the story on my personal blog, slobber and all.)
Nellie quickly made herself comfortable in our back yard. I can go through the litany of digging and destruction she’s caused – enough 3-foot holes in the ground, for example, to accommodate Paul Bunyan’s personal Putt-Putt course.
In fact, the backyard is her domain. Soon after we got her, she managed to collect the following in the middle of the yard: various sticks, limbs and logs, which you’d expect; two pieces of siding from the house; two Diet Coke cans, crunched to an inch long; a couple of putrid potatoes from the mulch pile; two heavy stones that we’d brought home from Michigan; three pieces of charcoal, Kingsford’s finest; two big Nerf balls reduced to golf-ball size; two clay pots; one large brick; a landscape light ripped from the ground with assorted wiring; and half of a giant sea shell.
Oh, and my barbecue brush.
She has other weird qualities. For example, she has the loosest lips and jowls that I’ve ever seen … er, heard. When she shakes her head awake, her jowls sound like two punching bags made of Flubber, whacking each other senseless.
It was her penchant for digging, though, that inspired the barn quilt.
Standing where the barn quilt is now, there used to be a very large flower box with a trellis that I’d built. Nellie, in search of cool places to sleep this spring, decided to dig out the dirt in the box and plant herself there.
We tried to work with her. (And no, let’s not debate dog discipline here. We acknowledge we were pushovers then.) We figured that because there were no flowers in this box’s future – she’d just dig them up – I’d clean out the dirt and install cushions in its place. Then she’d settle back in, per usual, with no dirt and dust.
But Nellie missed the cool Mother Earth. The cushions must have felt like a sun-baked Barco Lounger.
So with the planter now empty and useless, I decided to yank it from the wall and haul it to the trash.
What to put in its place?
“A barn quilt!” I announced. “It’d look perfect, between the two windows.”
And so I started. I bought a 4 x 4-square-foot piece of quarter-inch plywood, some primer and paint. (Most barn quilts for barns are much bigger – 8 x 8 at least.) The remaining steps were pretty easy:
- I selected a quilt-block design. I decided to play it safe with a pieced block vs. appliqué.
- I grabbed a tape measure to plot dimensions and a long straight edge to draw the pattern.
- Before plotting the block, I primed both sides of the plywood twice, then gave it two coats of base color. I chose yellow for that.
- I drew the pattern.
- I filled in the colors – again, two coats. (Be sure to use Frog Tape to ensure sharp, clean lines between colors. Amazing stuff.)
So now it hangs, proclaiming my affinity for quilts. I’m sure the neighbors behind aren’t quite sure what to make of it. Unless you’re a quilter, you might think it some kind of modern public art.
But as you and I know, all quilt blocks have personalities – have names. And I picked this one carefully.
You see, I was going to put up that famous quilt block from these parts, “Kansas Troubles.” And full disclosure here: I tend to vote Democrat, so naturally as a Kansan I’m a bit troubled about where our Kansas Republican governor is taking this state’s fiscal situation.
But my neighbor behind is a staunch Republican, and I didn’t think it nice to broadcast my politics into his kitchen as he sipped coffee each morning. Not neighborly.
So I decided on “Bear Paw” instead. It’s a long-time favorite of quilters. But more to the point, that barn quilt is anchored on the wall because of Nellie. And if you examine that photo of her as a pup, you know those paws are like a bear’s.
In fact, I just measured them – each is about 9 inches round and still growing. If she didn’t hate water so much, I’d call them canoe paddles.
I’m proud of our Bear Paw. And I’d encourage all to scout your house or outbuilding and see where you might fasten something similar. They don’t have to be huge. Context is everything.
Oh, and like quilts themselves, you can pack ‘em up and take them with you should you happen to move on.
Kind of like the blessing of that tattoo … it’ll follow you everywhere.
Doug Weaver is the publisher of Kansas City Star Books and a very irregular contributor to Pickledish.com. But he’ll try to be better.