View the patterns of rural life through a countryside quilt trail. Discover how you can plan your own quilt trail tour or learn to make your own!
On a road trip to Macon County, North Carolina, I began noticing painted quilt squares on rural buildings. They were almost always a single square painted on a board mounted on the outside of a barn or other structure.
I was intrigued. My first thought was that it was a wonderful idea, combining tradition and beauty with the durability of American barns. Then, I learned that the first official barn quilt trail was started in 2001 by Donna Sue Groves, who wanted to honor her mother, Maxine. She did so with a painted quilt square on her family’s barn in Adams County, Ohio. She then began working with other community members to display barn quilts in a localized grouping, or “quilt trail,” hoping to encourage tourism and economic growth. Now, 21 years later, Donna Sue’s idea continues to inspire folks across the country.
Nowadays, barn quilts are often created by quilt guilds, civic groups, local arts councils, 4-H clubs, or school groups. They’re also used to honor family members and to promote interests. Often, a barn quilt is a replica of a fabric quilt that resides on the property or memorializes a loved one. Many barn quilts are made to honor military personnel. Additionally, a pattern may be chosen because of its name; “Corn and Beans” is a popular pattern among farmers and ranchers.
Another purpose of barn quilts is to bring visitors to the countryside. In my home county of McHenry, Illinois, many barn quilts are put up to draw attention to old barns – a disappearing sight across the country. And Deb Heatherly of Deb’s Cats N Quilts in Franklin, North Carolina, told me, “Many times, they’re just used to boost tourism.” Mostly, barn quilts exist to give people a pleasant experience.
A quilt trail is considered a grouping of barn quilts in proximity to each other. Sometimes, they’re organized into a localized trail by a historical society or community organization, but every barn quilt is considered part of the larger quilt trail movement.
A quilt trail may include stops at galleries, farmstands, wineries, and other points of interest.
Trail-goers can spend an hour or so discovering a few quilts, or spend a whole day or more looking at the colorful designs. Once you’ve spotted one, you’ll find yourself keeping your eye out for the next.
Scouting Can Be Fun!
During my scouting, I discovered that I lived in one of the few Illinois counties to feature quilt trails. In addition, The McHenry County Historical Society is just up the road in Union, Illinois. I spoke with Nancy Roozee, who was the office manager at the time, and she told me that there’s no specific route to follow for the barns in McHenry County and that people usually map out their own paths. Often, historical societies or other interested organizations will list the addresses for barn quilts along a localized trail, and then trail-goers can view them in whatever order they choose. “It’s a great excuse to get out and enjoy the great outdoors,” Nancy says.
Barn quilt painting has become an entrepreneurial enterprise, and skilled barn quilt artists are in demand. Barn quilts are also beginning to appear on commercial buildings. Driving down Main Street in Kingsport, Tennessee, I saw barn quilts on at least 12 businesses. This makes for a very pleasant sidewalk stroll. I found another quilt hanging from a mall sign in Lexington, Kentucky.
The simple idea of barn quilts has spread throughout most of the United States and into Canada, and the trails continue to grow. There’s no formal registry for barn quilts, although Barn Quilt Info maintains a map with links to organized trails throughout the country. Thousands of quilts are part of organized trails, and plenty more are scattered through the countryside, waiting to be discovered. Now that I’ve started looking, I’m spotting barn quilts I never knew existed. That’s all part of the beauty of rural quilt trails.
Plan Your Quilt Trail Tour
I began my tour in Huntley, Illinois, just off Interstate 90. The residents of Sun City Huntley, an active-adult community, decided that their barn, with its big plank wall, was a perfect place for a barn quilt. They were right. Then, I drove back onto nearby Marengo Road for two other sightings about five minutes apart. A few minutes after photographing the Marengo Road barns, I saw another quilt on Coral Road. Coming home, I spotted a barn quilt on a backyard shed. The movement is growing!
If you’re planning your own quilt trail tour, here are a few tips to make the most of your experience.
- Plan for good weather, as much as possible. Many quilts are located along rural roads, which can become difficult to drive on during bad weather. I got stuck in the snow!
- If you want to follow a specific trail, gather addresses ahead of time and map out your path. How far you go is totally up to you.
- If you stop to admire or photograph barn quilts, be careful about where you park your car, so you aren’t in danger of traffic. It can be helpful to have someone else drive while you look for quilt squares.
- To get the best photographs, take them at a time when the sun isn’t directly overhead. Otherwise, the barn quilt might be in shadow.
- Don’t trespass. Many quilt owners will likely be happy to let you admire their quilt up close, but always ask permission before going onto private property. Barn quilts are designed to be clearly visible from the road.
Create Your Own Barn Quilt
You only need a few tools and supplies to make your own barn quilt. Exterior-grade plywood will hold up best in an outdoor setting, but don’t worry about finding wood in perfect condition; old scraps will do. (Some home improvement stores sell pre-cut pieces of plywood. If not, they’ll cut it for you.) The amount of wood you’ll need will depend on how big you want your barn quilt. Standard sizes are 8 feet by 8 feet, and 4 feet by 4 feet, but you can make your quilt any size and shape you want.
Tools and Materials
- Painter’s tape
- Weather-resistant paint
- Scrap wood for frame, such as 2x4s
- Paint roller or brush
- Hammer and nails, or glue
- Clear, weatherproof sealer (optional)
- Cut the plywood to your desired size and shape. Paint it with a base coat of white paint.
- Once the base coat has dried completely, sketch your chosen quilt pattern on the plywood. It’s best to do this using a pencil and a yardstick so the lines stay straight. It can be helpful to draw a grid on the plywood first to make sure the pattern is transferred accurately.
- Using painter’s tape, tape off areas of the quilt to paint. Depending on your pattern, you might need to paint in sections, so only tape off what you can do without disturbing other areas of the pattern. Press the tape down firmly to prevent bleeding.
- Paint the taped-off sections. You’ll likely need to apply at least two coats to get the best look. Remove the painter’s tape immediately after you apply the last coat to avoid peeling off dry paint.
- Once the areas you painted are dry, continue to tape and paint sections until the quilt is completely painted. This may take a couple of days, depending on the complexity of your pattern.
- Once your quilt is painted and dry, you’ll likely want to attach it to a frame to make it easier to hang. You can construct a simple frame out of scrap 2x4s, or whatever size of wood fits your quilt square. Nail or glue the frame onto the back of the quilt square. If you use nails, you can cover the nail holes with wood putty and paint.
- Coat the finished quilt square with a clear, weatherproof sealer. (This step is optional and likely not necessary if you used exterior-grade plywood and weather-safe paint.)
- Hang your barn quilt on a barn or other outbuilding in a location where it’s clearly visible from the road.
Here are some general rules for displaying your barn quilt:
- It should be visible from the road during all seasons. The structure must be located along a road that’s well-maintained. The structure should be a stable, permanent building that’s large enough to frame the barn quilt.
- If you’re planning to join a local quilt trail, inquire about any rules or guidelines. For example, some trail committees don’t allow words or logos on barn quilts.
Wynne Crombie has a master’s degree in adult education. She and her husband, Kent, are retired and living in Kentucky. Her work has appeared in multiple publications, including Travel + Leisure, Birds & Blooms, The Dallas Morning News, and Air Force Times.