Painting quilt blocks on old barns proves magical.
Barn quilts have become the rage across North America. The grassroots art phenomenon is soaring in popularity among rural residents anxious to display their family heritage and community pride. In turn, combing the countryside to view the quilts has become an addiction among tourists lured off the highway by trail maps guiding them to unique displays of Log Cabin, Ohio Star or other quilt designs.
“Painting a board to match a quilt square and then hanging it on a barn or other building is a simple idea that has turned into the largest public arts movement in history,” says Suzi Parron, author of the books Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement and Following the Barn Quilt Trail.
“From a humble beginning in Adams County, Ohio, the idea has spread to 49 states with more than 9,000 barn quilts organized into more than 120 Barn Quilt Trails—and surely thousands more that are not mapped,” adds Parron.
The idea dates back to Maxine and Donna Sue Groves of Manchester, Ohio. “In 1989, my mother and I moved to a small farm that had an old—and very plain looking—tobacco barn,” says Donna Sue. “Mother was an avid quilter so I promised her I would brighten up the barn by adding a quilt square. Friends and neighbors chided me into actually following through and I had a Snail’s Trail quilt square painted and hung in 2001, but in the process a group of us decided to paint a bunch of them in hopes of developing a tourist attraction. We put quilt squares on twenty barns (the number of squares in a typical bed spread) and the idea took off like wildfire.”
Making a barn quilt. Initially, barn quilts were painted on plywood then mounted on a wooden frame. Modern Density Overlay signboard is now the preferred material, though metal is also being used. “Apply multiple coats of primer to the signboard and then draw out the quilt pattern in pencil. Use painter’s tape (Frog Tape) to mark off color sections and begin painting two to three coats starting with the lightest colors,” says Lori Hambright, Dickinson County coordinator on the Kansas Flint Hills Quilt Trail (www.ksflinthillsquilttrail.com).
Hambright conducts ‘Barn Quilt 101’ classes that help students create two-foot square barn quilts at a cost of $35. “They’re really more like neighborhood parties where twenty or so people gather to socialize, have fun and make a barn quilt. The 2×2 size is kind of a starter—we hope people will get excited about it and build a 4×4 or even 8×8-foot size which is easier to see from the road so it’s better suited to include on a trail map,” she explains.
“You don’t have to be a painter or a quilter or even have a barn to do a barn quilt,” says Olsburg, Kansas, resident Connie Larson, one of the founders of the Flint Hills Trail. “Barn quilts are addictive and you can’t paint just one, so you have to have more places to hang them. I use our house, mail box, garden fence and even the kitchen cabinet.”
Berger, Missouri, quilter Laverne LaBoube, and husband Norbert, discovered barn quilts in 2012 and now have five on their rural homestead—including an 8×8-foot Star Variation on their barn. “We began seeing them as we traveled and started pointing out barns that needed barn quilts—including our own. Soon, some ladies in my quilting guild, along with other neighbors—wanted them as well so we’ve made and sold about 30 (email Laverne at firstname.lastname@example.org). They cost about $100 for a 4×4-foot block and $400 for an 8×8,” says Laverne.
Picking a pattern. Quilters were quick to jump on the barn quilt bandwagon, so most designs were based on the traditional cloth quilt patterns. However, Marilyn Anderson, a barn quilt designer from Dorr, Michigan, says patterns have recently gotten more creative.
“Traditional quilts for the bedroom typically honored a parent, grandparent, a family military veteran or some aspect of the local culture. Barn quilts can do the same, but they can also focus on a hobby or occupation. The greatest part of our business (www.americanbarnquilts.com) is hearing how people choose a particular pattern,” says Anderson.
Anderson uses a unique process to print the finished square on heavy-duty vinyl impregnated with fiberglass and colored with outdoor ink. Costs range from $125 to $500 depending on the size.
Barn quilt trails. From the outset, Groves and her neighbors saw the potential that barn quilts held as a tourist attraction—especially if there were enough of them to create a driving trail that would provide a day trip. They launched the Ohio Barn Quilt Project and their Adams County trail was barely open when quilters in neighboring Brown County, Ohio also saw the potential and launched their trail. Groves was soon mentoring groups from across the country on her barn quilt project.
Parron has spent the last eight years photographing and collecting stories behind the quilts. Her efforts helped to develop the American Quilt Trail Movement and her website (www.barnquiltinfo.com) features a map of quilt trails in every state (except Nevada) and three Canadian provinces.
“I’ve seen thousands of barn quilts and there are thousands more that I’m anxious to see because every one is fascinating,” she says.
In an effort to differentiate themselves, some trails limit participation to only 8×8 blocks—which have a greater impact—or only include quilts on historical barns or those that replicate traditional cloth quilt patterns. Groves adds that in McLean County, Illinois there is even a unique poem written for each quilt on the trail.
“A lot of county and state fairs have added barn quilt contests and painting them is a popular 4-H effort,“ says Larson, whose Flint Hills trail spans 22 counties and features more than 400 barn quilts. “People tell us they used to fly through our region on the Interstate, but now they allow time to pull off onto the back roads to visit one of the trails.”
Meanwhile, Groves reflects on how the promise to her mother has grown. “It fills my heart with joy when I see how other people’s lives have been touched. It’s brought neighbors together and it’s gotten me hundreds of new friends,” she says.