Barn Quilts Blanket America

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Driving through the countryside in rural Indiana the other day, a brightly painted barn quilt caught my eye, a trend that is literally blanketing America. This simple piece of art adds a little bit of Americana to a homestead without distracting from the natural beauty of the barn itself.

These barn quilts aren’t really quilts at all, but rather quilted patterns painted on squares of plywood which are then framed and hung on barns or other out buildings. Some can be found randomly throughout the countryside and others are part of “quilt trails” which are organized by communities or counties and provide visitors an opportunity to view several in a certain area.

The concept of barn quilts began with Donna Sue Groves who wished to honor her mother Maxine and her Appalachian heritage by having a painted quilt hung on her barn in Adams County, Ohio. However, her work with the Ohio Arts Council and other community organizations inspired her to alter her plan.

Rather than have a personal tribute, she suggested a “sampler” of 20 quilt squares could be created along a driving trail that would invite visitors to the countryside. A committee of volunteers worked together to both plan the trail and to form guidelines for how the project would be managed. Several barn owners signed up.

So, ironically, the first quilt on the American Quilt Trail does not hang at the Groves’ farm. The “Ohio Star” quilt pattern was painted by local artists and installed on a building on a greenhouse near the Groves’ farm in 2001. This site was chosen because it allowed for a public celebration of the inauguration of the trail. A “Snail’s Trail” quilt square was later painted and mounted on the barn where Donna Sue and Maxine reside.

This new art form quickly caught on, and Donna Sue helped to promote it. A group of quilters from nearby Brown County started their own project. For years, she worked with organizations in Ohio and Tennessee to create new quilt trails. She also advised dozens of individuals who either created painted quilts of their own or who were organizing quilt trails in their communities.

Donna traveled to Iowa to introduce the concept and then to Kentucky. Today the Bluegrass state has about 800 quilt squares across its countryside. Quilt guilds, local civic groups, local arts councils, 4-H clubs, school groups, and many other local groups have come together across the country to create quilt trails. Four such trails exist in Michigan to date, with the Vicksburg Quilt Trail in southern Kalamazoo county in Michigan being the closest trail to me. It consists of 24 locations and takes a leisurely 2 hours to drive and see them all.

This relatively new concept spread like wildfire to the lower 48 states and Canada. Over 7000 barn quilts are now part of organized trails, with dozens more individual ones scattered throughout the countryside. Groves’ simple idea has become the largest grassroots public arts movement in our history.

Contrary to what many believe, this movement is not part of the Amish quilting heritage. No one has been able to document a location of a painted quilt square that existed prior to the Ohio Star that was painted in Adams County.

Patterns are as wide open as regular quilting patterns themselves. Some are personal. One such pattern consists of bright dark and light blue pieces and is named “Drunkard’s Path.” It replicates a quilt from a barn owner’s great-grandmother who lived during the Temperance Movement. One, located near Vicksburg on 24th Street, is made of vibrant colors of green, maroon and brown and is appropriately named “Corn and Beans on 24th Street” as it represents the farm’s 3000 acres of corn and beans.

This is the best attribute of a barn quilt, it can be personalized and still be part of something greater. They are quite easy to construct, perhaps the hardest part being deciding on a design! The biggest thing to remember when choosing a pattern is that someone will likely want to actually piece it into a quilt at a later date, so choose a pattern that is simple and bright. Also, consider where it will be located on your barn or other out building and choose colors that will either coordinate or contrast with your building.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Brian Stansberry.

As far as the wood, most are made out of plywood or beadboard, or sometimes people use their own barn wood and mount planks on sheets of plywood. The squares can be any size you choose, but 4 x 4 foot or 8 x 8 foot are common sizes. Where it is mounted and how high will help in your decision of size. You want to make sure that it is visible from the road. Facing one side with boards and one side with plywood makes it sturdier. However, remember also, the thicker the plywood, the sturdier it will be, but also the heavier it will be.

Apply several coats of primer to the square, remembering to do both the front and back so it doesn’t warp. After each coat has dried thoroughly, draw your pattern on. Choose the part of the pattern that will be the lightest in color and tape off the rest of the pattern adjacent to it. Then apply three or four coats of paint to that part of the pattern, making sure each coat is thoroughly dry before applying another. Then proceed to the next darkest color and repeat the process until all pieces have been painted. Yes, this does require patience!

After all the paint is dry, and you are satisfied with your piece, build a frame around it using stock that is 3/4 of an inch thick by however thick your piece is. Fill the nail holes and paint the frame with the color of your choice. When it is all finished, apply a polyurethane sealer to protect it. A polyurethane automotive clear with built-in sunscreen will help it to keep from peeling in the elements. Voila, it is ready to hang!

Our friends, Dan and Kim Tebo, took it one step further. They wanted a barn quilt square to place over their mantle. Instead of painting the squares, they actually cut pieces of wood in the shape of the pattern and stained each piece accordingly, then mounted them onto the frame. The result was a very early-Americana authentic barnwood quilt square that gives “pop” to their living room. They proved that you can “think outside the box” and take an idea to the next level from what it was initially intended.

Such a simple idea such as a barn quilt square can make a huge impact. Groves’ ingenuity continues to inspire folks across the country. Barn quilts add a colorful pop of charm to rustic barns or, as in Kim and Dan’s case, a touch of authentic Americana to a home.

Photo by Kim Tebo.