Barn Quilts Bridge the Gap

Barn quilts display heritage and beautiful artwork in the countryside.

By R. Thomas Berner


May/June 2016

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Barn quilts adorn the side of barns throughout the countryside.

Photo by iStockphoto.com/Mark Stephenson

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At last count, there were an estimated 7,000-plus quilt blocks adorning barns and other rural structures in 48 states. Among those who are helping that number grow are Glenn and Barbara Gross of Emlenton, Pennsylvania, who conduct workshops for people interested in painting quilt blocks. The Grosses thoroughly enjoy connecting with community members and keeping this beloved craft alive.

The Grosses’ workshops are for painters of every skill level. In fact, the work is more akin to painting interior walls in a house than being a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt. The Grosses bring to their workshops all of the materials participants need to leave with a finished block, including the preprimered wood onto which the design is painted. They also send each participant home with literature to continue making quilt blocks in their spare time, including step-by-step instructions on how to draw and create a block from scratch.

Quilt blocks range in size from 2-by-2 feet to 10-by-10 feet, and it all begins on a piece of grid paper. The Grosses explain the various block grids and how to determine which grid a participant wants. The final drawing is the key to success, or as Glenn says, “Do the math first.”

From here, the participants can try a variety of different color combinations on copies of their pattern.

Participants then transfer their design onto wood. In the case of a symmetrical 8-by-8 design, the work can be done on a 4-by-8, then flipped to mirror the other half.

At the workshop at the Centre County Grange Fairgrounds in Pennsylvania, Marjorie Korman of nearby Old Fort was painting an 8-by-8 called “Farmer’s Daughter.” A first-timer, Marjorie was the only one doing such a large block. Repeat participant Ben Haagen of Snydertown, Pennsylvania, was busy making a 2-by-2 block of a rabbit to be hung on the rabbit building at the Grange Fairgrounds. He plans a similar barn quilt for the poultry building.

Barbara Gross opened the workshop with a slideshow of various designs and offered participants the chance to find some inspiration from the book she brought along called 5,500 Quilt Block Designs by Maggie Malone – although Barbara stresses individualism in the design. It all comes down to what you draw on the graph paper.

Outside of the workshop, there are a variety of quilt-block owners who have their own unique designs. One man, who spent 30 days painting his quilt block, says it represents the dream home that he and his wife built in the 1960s. It includes four stars to represent their children, and five windows to represent their grandchildren.

The 15 participants in the Grosses’ workshop are mostly returning participants and have their designs already in mind. As a woodworker, Glenn enjoys helping out when it comes to transferring the designs from paper to block. He’s a man of precision and uses a compass to help participants draw circles and arcs on their boards. The participants mark each section with the paint color they have in mind, and then start laying down tape one section at a time. It’s  tedious work, and Korman, with the biggest board, jokes about the, at times, slow progress. “Tape, erase, tape, erase,” she says. Glenn says the tape must be laid precisely and firmly, and removed gently. He and Barbara walk around and offer help and friendly instruction. Barbara is a retired schoolteacher, so she knows a thing or two about getting the most out of her students.

Glenn is the paint master and enjoys mixing the house paint until the participants are happy with the shades. As instructed, everyone starts painting with the lighter colors and works toward the darker colors, concluding with a dark color for the border. It’s easier to cover a mistake with darker paints applied last.

Depending on the size of the block, everyone must wait at least four hours for the first coat to dry before applying a second coat. With one color dry, participants carefully remove the tape, decide on the second section to paint, and then tape it off. Glenn calls the process “paint by tape,” a play on the paint-by-numbers method.

Again, Glenn is especially helpful during this process. He has a system for peeling off tape in a way that won’t pull any paint off. He stresses to not rip the tape. He doesn’t use masking tape, but a cheap tape he found at the local hardware store.

Korman, joined by her husband and other family members, posed for photographs with the finished block. The block was hung on a soon-to-be-designated Centennial Farm barn. Below the quilt hung a sign presented by Barbara declaring the barn as part of the Pennsylvania Grange Heritage Quilt Trail.  


It was on a recent road trip to Macon County, North Carolina, that I began to notice quilt blocks on barns and other rural structures. I was intrigued, and I thought it was a wonderful idea to help preserve rural history.

Back home in McHenry County, Illinois, I discovered that I lived in one of the seven Illinois counties that feature quilt trails. I spoke to Nancy, office manager at The McHenry County Historical Society, who told me there were no specific trails per se, but that you make your own. “It’s a great excuse to get out and enjoy the great outdoors,” she says.

To get started making your own quilt trail, visit BarnQuiltInfo.com and select your state and county. Copy down addresses of the barn quilts you would like to visit. Make a rough driving map to follow, and be sure favorable weather is forecasted. (We got stuck in the snow.) Have a driver if you intend to take photographs. To get the best photograph of a barn quilt, do not have the sun directly overhead. The barn quilt will be too dark in the shadow. ­– Wynne Crombie


R. Thomas Berner’s most recent book, “Pennsylvania Barn Stories,” is available at www.Blurb.com. He is working on a book about quilt barns in Pennsylvania.