The quilt, as we know it in America, was originally a strictly utilitarian article, born of the necessity of providing warm covers for beds. Quilts were also used as hangings for doors and windows that were not sealed well enough to keep out the cold.
In 2001, Donna Sue Groves took the tradition of quilting to another level. In order to honor her mother, she had a quilt block painted on their tobacco barn. While talking with friends and neighbors, Donna Sue realized that the project had wide appeal and also could be beneficial to the community as a means to bring tourism and economic development.
Instead of a single personal tribute, she worked with the community to create a “clothesline of quilts,” which began with an Ohio Star, dedicated in 2001.
By doing so, the first quilt trail was created in Adams County, Ohio. Over the years, similar barn quilt trails have sprung up across the Midwest, to include Marquette County, where I live in central Wisconsin.
A barn quilt is a large piece of wood that is painted to look like a quilt block. Even though the name implies that an entire quilt is painted onto the wood, it generally is only a single quilt block. The size of the squares vary, but usually, they measure 8 feet. After they are painted, these blocks are hung on the exterior of a barn, house, garage or other building.
The majority of barn quilts are comprised of simple geometric shapes, like squares, rectangles and triangles. This makes them easier to create. They usually are painted in solid colors, though every now and then, you’ll come across one that has been painted to look like printed fabric.
The simplicity in shape and the vibrancy of solid colors make these blocks easily seen from afar. If they are too complicated, the details can be lost.
There are thousands of existing patterns and, of course, the choices in colors create even more possibilities. A pattern may be chosen for the name: Corn and beans to signify crops, or Jacob’s ladder for the founder of the farm. Sometimes a quilt block will be a tribute to a lost loved one; a floral pattern might be chosen to honor a beloved gardener.
The rich agriculture history of the Midwest mixes perfectly with our love of quilts to tell the story of the people who sewed them, loved them, and treasure them still today.