WAUNAKEE, Wis. — Emma Laufenberg made her first barn quilt in 2014 as a Father’s Day gift for her dad. Word got out, and people in the area began asking Laufenberg if she could make one for them as well. Since then, Laufenberg has made more than 700 quilts and turned a hobby into a full-time business.
“I never thought this is what it would be 10 years later,” Laufenberg said. “It’s taken a lot of effort and tears. Business owning is not for the faint of heart.”
Laufenberg grew up liking music more than art.
“I played piano for 12 years and was the kid who always wanted to be on the farm with the animals,” she said. “Then, I happened upon this.”
At the urging of her college business professor in 2019, Laufenberg created a limited liability company. She built a website and made business cards, and El Barn Quilts was born.
Last year, the 24-year-old sold more than 200 quilts. Laufenberg can have anywhere from five to 40 projects going on at the same time.
“I like to work on multiple quilts at once; otherwise, I get bored,” she said.
Since 2020, a renovated dairy barn near her family’s farm has served as Laufenberg’s workshop. Previously, she ran her business from the farm’s shop and her parents’ garage, eventually leaving her dad with no place to park machinery. The Laufenbergs milk 300 cows with four robotic milking units and farm 750 acres near Waunakee.
In 2021, Laufenberg left the farm to create barn quilts full time.
“I was making enough money to support myself, and my cousin wanted to come back to the farm, so it was perfect timing,” said Laufenberg, who continues to help on the farm when needed.
Laufenberg averages a 12-hour workday, seven days a week. Christmas is her busiest time of year. Last year, Laufenberg made over 40 quilts during a five-week timeframe, often putting in 20-hour days. Sometimes, when Laufenberg’s dad is done working on the farm for the day, he drops by her shop and offers a helping hand.
“My parents helped package quilts before Christmas when I had 18 going out in one day,” she said.
Laufenberg tailors her quilts to the farming community, featuring International Harvester and John Deere logos, for example. Patriotic pieces are especially popular.
“Anything you can put red, white and blue on will sell,” Laufenberg said.
In 2021, Laufenberg ventured from the traditional barn quilt and began creating custom designs. Her quilt featuring the American flag with an eagle is her most popular design. One such eye-catching quilt hangs on her parents’ barn with the addition of the John Deere logo. It was the 600th quilt made by the young artist.
Laufenberg said her favorite part of the job is the creativity it allows her.
“When I get to come up with a new, one-of-a-kind design and play around with different designs to create something only one person is ever going to have, that’s my absolute favorite,” she said.
Laufenberg’s portfolio contains 49 one-of-a-kind designs. One of her most challenging quilts to date was an 8- by 8-foot design upon which Laufenberg painted four breeds of cows. The masterpiece took 37 hours to complete.
Laufenberg’s barn quilt paintings come in 11 sizes ranging from 2 feet by 2 feet to 8 feet by 12 feet. Her works of art are shipped all over the country.
“I only have seven states left that I have not shipped to yet,” she said.
Laufenberg makes her quilts out of medium-density overlay plywood. The layered epoxy board prevents rotting or warping and is primed with an exterior primer. She cuts the wood down to size using a table saw or a track saw. Laufenberg said almost all designs are based on a grid.
“I like the math aspect of making barn quilts more than the art aspect,” Laufenberg said. “I really enjoy the graphing, layout and design. I have gotten more into the art in the last few years with custom designs, and my art skills have advanced.”
After drawing angles or doing free-hand sketches to complete the design, Laufenberg paints the quilt. The more colors a quilt has, the longer the process takes. Lining one wall of Laufenberg’s workshop are 370 cans of paint.
“The paint I use doesn’t wear out — it lasts,” Laufenberg said. “It’s guaranteed for 30 years without fade.”
Red is her most popular color.
“It’s bright red like a stop sign and takes eight coats to complete,” Laufenberg said. “It takes a full day for a color to dry before you can repeat it.”
The time it takes to complete one quilt varies on size, design and the number of colors used and can take anywhere from six hours to upward of 30.
“A lot of time goes into each quilt,” Laufenberg said.
When Laufenberg is preparing to attend a show, such as Wisconsin Farm Technology Days or the Badger Steam and Gas Show, every inch of her workspace is used.
“I’ll take 100 pieces with me to those shows to sell at my booth,” Laufenberg said.
In addition to barns, the quilts can also flatter houses and garages or be hung as artwork inside homes.
“I have a lot of returning customers, which surprised me,” Laufenberg said. “I didn’t think this would be that kind of business. My best customer has bought six quilts.”
Laufenberg is also developing relationships with builders and other businesses. Furthermore, Laufenberg’s work is displayed in an art gallery in Door County. She also teaches classes on how to make barn quilts.
Laufenberg loves sharing her craft with the world and appreciates the exposure a barn quilt provides.
“Wherever you drive across the country, you might see my art,” Laufenberg said. “Most artists are stuck in a gallery; whereas my art can be seen by thousands of people each day. That’s really cool.”
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