What Are Barn Quilts And Where Did They Get Their Start?

Have you ever seen and wondered what the bright patterned squares on the sides of barns are?

Barn Quilts

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Perhaps you've seen a brightly painted pattern on the weathered face of a dilapidated barn as you’re driving down a country road. Though you likely didn’t give it much thought at the time, these surprising squares of color are becoming part of the rural landscape. The phenomenon began with Donna Sue Groves, who's long had a fascination with old barns. As a child on road trips to visit her grandmother in West Virginia, she would count and categorize barns along the route, from the dilapidated ones to the beautifully maintained.  

Fast forward to 2001—Donna Sue put her childhood appreciation for barns into something beautiful, adorning an old barn with the first painted “Barn Quilt'' square to honor her mother, Maxine, an avid quilter. Her neighbors in Adams County, Ohio, encouraged her to expand the project, which resulted in a collaboration with the Ohio Arts Council to create 20 more painted quilt squares in the area. From there, the art form took off and began making its way to barns and other buildings across America, including the South, with communities and individuals displaying their own unique patterns.

What are barn quilts? 

A barn quilt takes the concept of a quilt square, just like one you would find on a cloth quilt in your home, and recreates it on plywood or composite aluminum (which is lightweight and durable). The plywood or aluminum square is then displayed on a barn or other structure for passersby to enjoy. Squares typically measures 4 feet by 4 feet or 8 feet by 8 feet; and the designs are mostly made of solid colors that compose a simple geometric pattern of squares, rectangles, and triangles. The idea is that the bold colors, size, and graphic features of the barn quilt can be seen at a distance when hung on their roadside canvases.

Barn Quilt
Alabama Barn Quilt Trail

What do barn quilts represent? 

This form of Americana folk art preserves the country's quilting tradition and various communities' regional heritage. While some barn quilts are dedicated to a specific person, like the one Donna Sue crafted for her mom, others are created to represent a family or the land. For these, patterns are typically inspired by the design from a single block of a family quilt. If it's not family specific, many barn quilts are made to resemble a traditional quilt pattern, perhaps chosen for what it represents—Corn and Beans, Jacob’s ladder, Compass Star, and Carpenter’s Wheel, just to name a few.

Where can you find barn quilts? 

While some trails are more extensive than others, a quilt trail signifies a collection of barn quilts within driving distance of each other, typically within a singular county. You can find organized quilt trails across 48 states and parts of Canada as a result of the thousands of painted quilt squares that have been hung over the past 20+ years, plus many more throughout the countryside waiting to be found. Communities come together with help from local arts councils, quilt guilds, and non-profit groups to create trails to promote travel by encouraging visitors to celebrate their rural areas. 

Today, barn quilts are one of the fastest-growing and community driven grassroots public art movements in the country. You’ll find trails across the South including the Appalachian Quilt Trail;Alabama Barn Quilt Trail; Chatt Hills Barn Quilt Trail, and one of the 16 tails in Kentucky, among others. Whether you make a point to drive along a quilt trail on your next road trip or are just out for a backroads drive, make it a point to scout out one of these colorful displays.

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