Barn Quilts: A Beautiful Story from our Recent Past

Barn-Quilts

I have been fascinated by barn quilts since I saw my first one in rural Michigan this past Christmas. I made my husband drive up a snow covered path so I could hop out of the car, scamper through the snow and snap a photo. You can see that photo below.

Barn-Quilts-History

You may be just like me circa 2016 so imagine this: you are lost, and roaming through the rural country roads of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. In between repeatedly rebooting your GPS and reminding your travel buddy in the passenger seat that you are trying to get back to the highway, you start to see beautifully painted symbols on the side of barns that look suspiciously like quilt blocks.

They are quilt blocks. This may have actually happened to you, either in West Virginia, or Ohio, or 46 other states in the country that have their own, distinct “Quilt Trail.” But in the stress and confusion of being lost in middle America, you may have not taken the time to find out what on earth these barn quilts actually are.​

That’s why I’m here. Get ready to hear the very heartwarming story of the Barn Quilt, as well as where to check out some of our country’s most famous quilt trails.​

Barn Quilts: The Beginning

Barn Quilts Started with Donna Sue Groves in 2001. Contrary to common myth, Donna Sue was not a renown Amish quilter from generations past, but a contemporary quilter in Adams County, Ohio. Donna Sue, being the sweetheart she was, wanted to create a project to honor her mother, Maxine, and her Appalachian heritage.

She decided to use her biggest, most visible canvas: the side of her barn. She partnered with some local artists to create not only a quilt block on her own barn, but a completed “sampler” of twenty quilt blocks, encouraging people to follow the trail and travel through the beautiful Ohio countryside.

The project was a homey, heartwarming success, and Donna Sue was asked by other quilt enthusiasts, artists, and historians to help develop quilt trails in their states as well.​

Tennessee, Iowa and Kentucky were the first to jump onboard, all eager to take pride in their networks of old barns, and their rich cultural histories. Now, you can run into quilt trails in rural areas all around the country, each with their own unique symbols and stories.

Modern Barn Quilt Squares with Historic Significance

Even though the history of quilt trails are rooted in the surprisingly recent past, the blocks themselves tell stories from much longer ago.

The Trail in Pocahontas, West Virginia, is actually a great example. Crafted in 2013 when West Virginia was celebrating its 150th Birthday, the Pocahontas County Quilt Trail tells the story of the history of the region by using famous, historic quilt squares. You’ll probably recognize most of them, but here are a few that the West Virginians included and their historical meaning:

Barn-Quilts-Trail
  • Bear’s Paw: Early American Pioneers coming across a bear track would know that they needed to proceed cautiously, but that the bear’s tracks would lead to water and food.
  • Bow Tie: Though it may symbolize morning, midday, evening, and night, this pattern also reminds us of the bow ties that were given to many slaves running toward freedom as part of a disguise.
  • Flying Geese: Also a signal for slaves intending to escape, this pattern was a reminder to follow the direction of the geese also headed North.
  • Rail Fence: This pattern is reminiscent of the fences that divided many of the fields in West Virginia… and still do!
  • Churn Dash: The Churn Dash quilt pattern is a reminder that quilts are both beautiful and practical.

Quilt trails around the country have chosen their own blocks to tell the story of the people and places surrounding the trail. Using quilt squares to narrate history is almost like using a special code for an exclusive group of awesome crafters (like quilters!) It’s pretty cool to consider yourself part of the inner circle.

Where to Find the Best Barn Quilt Trails in the US

(I called this “the best” because I can’t find a list of all of them… so here are the better known ones.)​

  1. Colorado: The Colorado Classic Quilt Trail
  2. Georgia: The Southern Quilt Trail
  3. Iowa: The Barn Quilts of Sac County
  4. Kentucky: The Boone County Quilt Trail
  5. Michigan: The Barns of Old Mission Quilt Block Trail (Fun fact! I got married on Old Mission Peninsula at a beautiful winery. What was that? You want to see a pictures? awwww ok. Here's one...and because I can't help myself, I'll throw a few more at the end of this post too. Muah!)
  6. Old-Mission-Wedding
  7. Mississippi: The Oktibbeha County Barn Trail
  8. Missouri: The Boonslick Area Quilt Trail
  9. New York: The Country Barn Quilt Trail of Western New York
  10. North Carolina: The Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina
  11. Ohio: The Adams County Quilt Trail
  12. South Carolina: The Upstate Heritage Quilt Trail
  13. Tennessee: The Upper Cumberland Quilt Trail
  14. Texas: The Terry County Quilt Trail

Barn Quilt Trails fill my heart with warmth. A movement created to honor mothers, quilters, and rich American history through the diverse, colorful patterns of quilt squares? I'm in.

Now for a few more wedding photos because...well just because :)​

Old-Mission-Penninsula-Wedding

And that super cute man in between John and me is my dad! He married us. Awwwww 🙂

Michigan-Wedding

Below is our quirky band that drove up from Chicago. John heard them play at the California Clipper and then asked if they wanted another gig. This funky crew was so low maintenance, they camped all weekend!

Trombone-Dave

One thing that made that day extra special was that I got to wear my mother's dress. It was over 30 years old and aside from changing its hue from white to ivory, it still looked beautiful. My mom is one of my most favorite people and I loved being able to honor her like that on my wedding day.

A year and a half after my wedding my mom began a series of eye surgeries that tragically failed. She can no longer see, but we still love this memory of our shared wedding dress. I wrote a blog post about her, if you'd like to read more.

bridesmaids
Woods-Wedding

Suzy Quilts

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21 thoughts on “Barn Quilts: A Beautiful Story from our Recent Past

  1. Erica says:

    That dress is gorgeous. I was surprised to read it was your moms. How lovely that she had great taste that transcended time and you got to wear it. I bet you felt amazing in it. My mom made my dress but unfortunately my daughter is built completely different. I wish she could because there is a lot of love stitched in to that dress

  2. Kristi says:

    These are beautiful photos. I love reading all of the background on barn quilts. I am lucky to live on a quilt trail in Loomis, Ca (outside Sacramento). It’s also the reason I started making and selling barn quilts. I would love if you checked out my brand new website. We’re making 23 inch blocks so they can go anywhere, not just barns, and we lovingly call them our Modern Barn Blocks.

      • Kristi says:

        Thanks. Our website is putaquiltonit.com. We’ve been working really hard to make a high quality quilt block that also looks beautiful. We’re a brand new start up, but so far more than half of our customers, after receiving their barn block, have returned to purchase more as gifts!

  3. Karen @dixielandcrafts says:

    Congrats on the closing of your house today. I loved this Barn Quilt post. I’ve always been intrigued by them but never knew the background. Thanks for sharing that. I live in Ohio so I’m going to ask hubby if we can drive the quilt trail here. Sounds like a fun adventure. Also that was a beautiful wedding; thanks for sharing the pics. 😉

  4. Judy says:

    Awww…thank you for sharing, Suzy. I have tears in my eyes. So much joy in your wedding photos! And your mom sounds amazing. 😘

  5. Alli says:

    I absolutely loved reading about the barn quilts, I had no idea they were”modern”, I just assumed it was a long-time tradition. Also I remember seeing that dress when you first posted about your mom, and I still think it’s the best wedding dress ever!!

  6. Cara Farquhar says:

    I really enjoyed this article, with your beautiful photos of barns and your lovely wedding! Thanks for such an informative, interesting resource. I love the combination of barns and quilts! So gorgeous on their own and even more stunning when combined. Great way to bring the community together!

  7. Diane says:

    Thanks for sharing about the barn quilts – I’m intrigued to learn more about them. Beautiful wedding photos and so sweet that you got to wear your mom’s dress and that your dad married you!

  8. Lindsay Verwys says:

    We love Old Mission peninsula!!! We live about an hour from there now but hope someday to have a house there. Loved this post!

  9. Craft Biz Pro says:

    Hi Suzy,

    These photos are so lovely! Thank you for sharing them. What a timeless dress! Absolutely stunning. I too was surprised to find out that the quilt trails are relatively modern. You learn something new everyday! Thanks for teaching me 🙂

  10. kelly says:

    I’m glad to read about other communities that have barn quilt trails! Ours aren’t always on barns, and the big draw to our trail are the Quilt Gardens, which is my favorite part of it. Every year the quilt garden patterns change, and it’s so beautiful to see these flowering patterns scattered around several communities in Northern Indiana Amish country. This year there are 19 gardens and 22 murals!!

    http://www.amishcountry.org/things-to-do/quilt-gardens/

  11. SarahZ says:

    Barn Quilts are so easy to love for us quilters aren’t they?! I made my first barn quilt back in 2010, after seeing one in my hometown in Southern Indiana…and I couldn’t stop at just one! If anyone is interested in seeing a few more, I blogged about barn quilts at http://prairiepatchworks.blogspot.com…which in turn, led me to the wonderful world of quilting blogs! Yay!! Thanks for a beautiful post, Suzy, and for inviting me to share my barn quilt blog here! I love seeing a glimpse of your wedding, too!

  12. Allison says:

    My in-laws live in Sac County in Iowa and it’s near where my husband grew up. It’s a 4 hour drive from our house, but I love seeing all the barn quilts begin popping up as we get closer. There are so many even peppered through town on homes and such as well. We even created our own with four cats on it for my in-laws’ front yard. At the time they were running a b&b out of their home and they always seemed to have at least 4 cats in their house (only 3 now though). It’s a 4’x4′ that we have held up by posts rather than on a barn.

  13. Rhiannon says:

    I had no idea this was such a recent tradition! I would’ve thought it stretched back decades at least. Very cool to learn about. I loved spontaneously stumbling across barn quilt trails in California and Tillamook, Oregon and found them endlessly intriguing. I hope to be able to put one of my own up on a house or barn in the future. Your new house looks beautiful, congratulations. Beautiful wedding photos too! 🙂 Thanks for the post.

  14. Teala says:

    Loved reading about barn quilts! I had no idea there were trails! Time for a road trip! Thank you for sharing your wedding photos too. Lovely!😍

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