Donna Sue Groves once mused that an old barn would look nicer if draped in a quilt. When she painted a quilt block design onto wood in honor of her mother’s beautiful handmade quilts, that simple idea of using a barn as a canvas inspired a grassroots public art movement.
In 2001, Groves, a longtime champion of Appalachian arts and culture, enlisted the help of her community to put up barn quilts in Adams County, Ohio, that visitors could see while driving through the countryside. Her Ohio Quilt Barn Project became the country’s first barn quilt trail.
Groves, who died in 2021 at age 73, had a vision for an imaginary clothesline of barn quilts that would stretch from the East Coast to the West Coast—and now thousands of barn quilts and hundreds of barn quilt trails can be seen throughout the United States and in some parts of Canada.
Barn quilt squares also adorn local businesses, fences and porches and, like traditional fabric quilts, can even serve as bright, colorful home decor.
“That really is just amazing how much one person's idea can influence the world,” said Suzi Parron. She has been following the barn quilt trail since its earliest years and wrote two books about the subject—“Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement” and “Following the Barn Quilt Trail.” She collaborated with Groves while researching her first book.
“It is pretty interesting when you think about the fact that this was one person's idea and then it ended up spreading to thousands and thousands,” she said.
Parron grew up around quilting, and her great-grandmother on one side and grandmother on the other side both made traditional quilts. Her grandmother, an avid gardener, also inspired Parron’s favorite quilt block pattern—Grandmother’s Flower Garden. Parron began quilting as an adult and has painted many barn quilts herself, also teaching others to make them.
She said some people “found out about the movement and thought it would be a good way to bring art to their communities.” Some barn quilt trails, such as one in South Carolina, are tied closely to their local quilting heritage, and each barn quilt is a representation of a particular quilt pattern that’s important to a family or local culture.
While traveling around the country for nine years in an RV, Parron spent some of her time visiting barn quilt trails and talking to people along the way. She said her books are peripherally about the barn quilt movement, but really they’re about sharing people’s stories.
When she asked farmers about their barn quilts, they shared the history of their farm, barn construction and what machinery they use to farm in their region. Some barn quilts may be 4-H projects, and others are painted in memory of a loved one’s favorite cloth quilt.
“They tell me about that family member and why the barn quilt was painted to honor that person. So my books are just about all of these rich stories of people's lives and what was important to them,” Parron explained.
She said her favorite barn quilt trail she visited is the largest one, in Shawano County, Wisconsin.
“It's just amazing to see almost 400 barn quilts in one county—that's just an incredible feat,” she said.
Why have barn quilts spread so widely and had such a great appeal?
Parron said, “I think everyone has pride of place. You know, people want to decorate your community and to make your community into something that people want to come and see—that takes it from being ordinary to being something special. That farm that you've been looking at your whole life is all of a sudden something that people want to see.”
She added that painting barn quilts is also an easy form of art to learn, even for those who do not consider themselves artistic. “It's really rewarding that you can create art that people actually stop and look at and go, ‘Wow, look at that!’”
Barn Quilt City USA
A painter from an early age, Sandi Lawson knew as soon as she saw barn quilts that she wanted to paint them, too.
“I've always loved them from the moment I first saw one. They’re just so unique and beautiful, and they add a piece of art to the country,” she said.
She and her husband retired in Hopkins, Missouri, in 2013, and Lawson soon joined the local community betterment organization, where she shared her vision for adding barn quilts to businesses, homes, sheds and other buildings in the community. “I approached them with the idea of just trying to get a few quilts in town for tourism and for community morale. We're only about 570 people, so we're really small.”
The community supported the idea, and Hopkins has since then been designated Barn Quilt City USA. Lawson has painted most of the barn quilts in the Hopkins area herself. She said some people choose to personalize their quilts with logos of their favorite tractors, while others might select quilts that are special to them or their family, like one she did of a quilter’s favorite pattern to sew, Around the World.
She said Hopkins also features smaller quilt squares downtown. “There's a wall that I designated Memory Lane. So if someone passes away or even moves out of town, we put their quilt on that wall, just kind of as a reminder of them.”
Hopkins has also hosted an annual barn quilt festival for several years. In addition to a flea market, craft vendors and other community activities, the festival features horse-drawn tours of the town’s barn quilts. The barn quilts have drawn visitors from other states to town.
Lawson sought approval from Groves about putting Hopkins on the map as Barn Quilt City and gives credit to her for starting the community movement.
“It’s an amazing legacy,” she said. “And to think it all started from that tiny little seed, and it’s gone crazy. I mean, there's quilt trails everywhere.” She added, “It's a neat representation for the women of the community because it shows those that are quilters that their art is appreciated.”
Find a clickable map of barn quilts at Parron’s website, barnquiltinfo.com. Learn more about Barn Quilt City USA and the annual festival in Hopkins at Facebook.com/ShowMeTheBarnQuiltsOfNorthwestMissouri.
Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kansas' Largest Barn Quilt
Kansas’ Largest Barn Quilt can be found in Ashland. Teresa Arnold, Beth DeMont, Mary Kaltenbach, Rhonda Swonger and others in Clark County developed the plans for the impressive barn quilt displayed on the side of Venture Foods, the local grocery store. The 30-foot by 16-foot collage is made up of individual quilt squares painted by community members. See a list of all the contributors on the Kansas' Largest Barn Quilt Facebook page. (Photos by Shauna Rumbaugh.)
Donna Sue Groves and her barn quilt legacy were featured in a documentary, “Pieced Together,” in 2016. The film by Julie Dinofrio shows how Groves’ “Clothesline of Quilts” began and how the barn quilt community was a lifeline to Groves as she faced breast cancer and extended illness. Find out more at http://www.piecedtogetherdoc.com.