Barn Quilts Rekindle Legacies From Past Days
Discovering Barn Quilt Pattern Meanings
Reading Time: 5 minutes
By Dorothy Rieke – Travelers discover many views of interest along highways, including barn quilts. Each mile brings its unique views. As we turned a corner to travel another highway, I saw something that aroused my curiosity. It was a black, white, and purple sign mounted on the front of a barn. It was so vivid and eye-catching, I could not believe what I was seeing. The colors and design intrigued me. I immediately decided to discover what that was. I learned later that it was a barn quilt. What a history those barn quilts have!
Even from the earliest days, man appreciated beauty. From early folk art to today’s modern paintings, artists have demonstrated a love of beauty. In fact, John Keats once proclaimed, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
So it isn’t unusual to believe that immigrants who came to America for religious freedom over 300 years ago loved beauty and found a way to express that love. Even though some dispute the fact that the Germans, settling in Pennsylvania, were the first to paint designs on their barns, it seems logical that Amish, Mennonite, Lutheran, Moravians, and other religious reformed sects pursued their taste for beauty by decorating their outbuildings. In this way, they celebrated their heritage.
These uniquely different barn designs made it possible for travelers to locate families or crossroads as local people knew patterns used by families. Some of the patterns, adopted from older quilt patterns, were “Snail Trail,” “Bear Claw,” “Mariners’ Compass,” and “Drunkards Path.”
Some referred to these early Pennsylvania settlers as “superstitious Germans.” Because these people added these ornamental designs to barns, they were often accused of using signs to frighten Satan or to bring good luck.
Before the 1830s, most outbuildings were unpainted because of the high cost of paint. However, some farmers mixed their own paint using skimmed milk, lime, and red iron oxide. At times, linseed oil was added for a soaking quality. It is also thought that some farmers added blood from recent slaughters to the paint mixture. As the paint dried, the bright red color changed to a darker burnt red.
As paint became more affordable, these structures were painted with real paint with chemical pigments. Red was usually the chosen color.
Barns played important roles in agricultural pursuits. While barns in foreign lands were often small and cramped, the barns, built by early settlers, were large, obviously symbols of hope for successful endeavors. Most barns were hand-hewn structures built with an eye to sunshine, wind, and water drainage because the health of the animals and the storage of grain were of prime importance to the farmer’s economy.
Down through the years, cloth quilts have been used for warming beds, covering couches, or hanging on walls as decorations. These beautifully constructed coverings of heritage materials bring feelings of comfort, home, and family. Now, an entirely different kind of “quilt” is appearing in bright patterns on outbuildings.
Today’s barn quilts, mounted on garages, barns, outbuildings, and even on houses, are crafted with clever designs and beautiful bright colors. Any type of exterior-grade paint, latex or oil, is used. While a cloth quilt is constructed with many squares of the same pattern, barn quilts just have one pattern in the square. The simplicity of shapes and the varying colors make them uniquely attractive.
Many designs used on these barn quilts are patterned after early quilt patterns such as the “log cabin,” “bear paw,” and “wedding ring” blocks. Some include monograms and fancy original designs with messages.
A barn quilt is a large piece of wood, such as plywood, that has been painted to resemble a quilt block. Some larger “quilts” are eight by eight feet square or 12 by 12 feet; others are smaller. The size often depends on how close the quilt will be located to the road and how much space there is on the building. They are remarkable because most of these colorful decorations closely resemble the cloth patterns they are meant to portray.
Years ago, most folk art reflected meanings. Barn quilts are not unlike this early art form, as the symbols and designs often have special meanings. For example, circles represent eternity or infinity. The four-pointed star stands for success, wealth, and happiness.
In the Midwest, Donna Sue Groves and her mother purchased a small farm in Adams County, Ohio. On this farm was a small tobacco barn. Donna Sue decided to honor her mother’s Appalachian heritage by hanging a painted quilt on her barn. In addition, she wanted to help a friend draw attention to his business by advertising with a “barn quilt.”
The first barn quilt, painted in the area, was one painted with the “Ohio Star.” It was mounted on the Lewis Mountain Herbs building. This display, especially noted during a fall festival, encouraged others to follow suit with their own barn quilts.
However, it was some time before Donna Sue pursued this idea as she had other obligations. Finally, with her friends’ encouragement and the assistance of the Ohio Arts Council and other community groups, she decided on another plan.
Why not create a driving trail of barn quilts in their county? It would beautify the area and attract tourists. She would promote a “sampler” of 20 barn quilts to be displayed along a driving trail. Soon, 20 barns were ready for tourists in 2003 in Adams County.
Oddly, the first quilt painted and displayed was not located along the proposed route. Instead, it was painted by local artists and placed on a greenhouse nearby. Later, another barn quilt, the “Snail’s Trail” quilt square, was painted and mounted on the barn on Donna Sue and Maxine Grove’s farm.
Inspired by this unique idea, a group from Brown County, Ohio, began their own barn quilt projects. Donna Sue helped spread “barn quilts” by working with Ohio, Tennessee, Iowa, and Kentucky groups. Today, Kentucky, known as the “bluegrass” state, is home to over 800 painted quilts. In Pennsylvania, octagonal and hexagonal star-like patterns are displayed on the Dutch barns. No two barn quilts are the same.
In the following years, these barn quilts became so popular that the idea of painted barn quilt decorations spread to most of our states and into Canada.
Today, it is estimated that over 7,000 quilts dot the maps of the United States and Canada. These all represent a “clothesline of quilts” that celebrate our art and history legacies of quilting.
These barn quilts, now preserving culture and history using advanced materials, are bright, oversized artworks using high-resolution, longer-lasting outdoor barn paint. These colorful murals adorn historic barns, family homesteads, and public spaces.
Indeed, people are telling their own stories with certain chosen designs. In addition, they celebrate the uniqueness and beauty of each structure where barn quilts are mounted. In addition, they also celebrate the history of agriculture, traditions of quilting, and the owner’s passion for art, community pride, and hospitality. As illustrated in barn quilts, the legacies of past days carry all viewers to a level beyond their imaginations.
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.