Barn QuiltsPieces of art sewn across the Midwest
June 18, 2015
The bright colors and geometric patterns of quilts brighten farms, ranches and communities across the Midwest, and they're moving farther and farther west every year. Barn quilts can be found decorating the sides of barns, homes, businesses, garage–even mailboxes.
The idea originally began in 2001 in Ohio with Donna Sue Groves. While traveling as a child, she and her family loved to play games watching for signs, including tobacco ads painted on barns, and when they traveled through Pennsylvania, she loved looking at the hex signs on the Dutch barns. When she and her mother, a quilter, bought a farm in Ohio, on which there was a large tobacco barn, she promised her mother she would paint one of her quilt block patterns on the barn. But her plans changed. Rather than a single barn quilt, friends suggested twenty quilt squares, hung on barns in the area that could create a driving trail. So the barn quilt folk art began.
It didn't take long for the art form to travel from Ohio into Tennessee, Iowa, Kentucky, and now across the Midwest. The barn quilt fever has spread into Nebraska, namely in twelve counties on the far east side of the state, with Thurston County being a prime example of what can be done with barn quilts. Pender, located in Thurston County in the far northeastern corner of Nebraska, began their barn quilts to celebrate their quasquicentennial in 2010.
Pender resident Debbie Christiansen and her girlfriends had seen them in Iowa on a trip, and "we absolutely loved them," she remembers. "We thought, 'Gosh, we can do something like that.'" As chairman of the beautification committee for Pender's celebration, Debbie got the ball rolling. She organized community meetings and outlined the procedure for people to make the quilts. Most of the quilts were four feet square so they would fit on garages, homes and on stakes in yards. Every barn quilt, its pattern and location was registered with the committee, and each quilt had its own informative board with the quilt pattern name on it. The committee created brochures with a listing of the more than 250 barn quilts in Thurston County and the surrounding area. Five years after their quasquicentennial, the brochures are still for the taking at the three convenience stores and both banks in town. "People can pick them up and drive around and look at the quilts," Debbie says.
“We absolutely loved them. We thought, ‘Gosh, we can do something like that.’ Pender resident Debbie Christiansen
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The barn quilt trails are not only art but economic development, attracting visitors to towns where they spend money. The Thurston County barn quilt trail has had many visitors, including a bus load of thirty women from Wichita, Kan., who came to look at the quilts.
The quilts are as unique as the people who make them, Debbie says. People can use existing quilt patterns, and Debbie points out that an internet search yields thousands of examples. But just as with fabric quilts, people develop their own patterns. One woman in Pender who had made a fabric quilt out of her husband's ties replicated it on her barn quilt, and named it "Family Ties." Another Pender family, avid rodeo contestants, created a barn quilt with the image of a horse.
Debbie's quilt pattern was the railroad crossing pattern, because she remembered the railroad that went through Pender when she was a child. Some Thurston County residents have taken theirs down, and they were turned into eight foot by eight foot barn quilts (four of the four footers) and mounted on the buildings at Pender Implement and Pender Grain. The barn quilters loved the project. "We were consumed by it," Debbie says. "We started in March or April with our meetings, and we had most of them up by June."
The barn quilts are slowly marching across Nebraska. To celebrate Milligan's 125th anniversary in 2013, barn quilts were designed and hung across Fillmore County. And just two months ago, Webster County, in southern Nebraska, held a barn quilting workshop. Organized by Webster County Extension Office Manager Carol Kumke, it attracted twenty-six women, some first-timers and some who had attended other workshops. Quilt blocks were four by four or two by two squares.
Phyllis Schoenholz, University of Nebraska Extension Educator out of Hebron, was on hand to offer her expertise. She has been involved with barn quilts with 4-H youth and has been the Nebraska State Fair Quilt Quest superintendent for several years. She recommends that barn quilts be painted with bright colors on medium density overlay wood, which weathers better than plywood and medium density fiberboard. A person is only limited by their own creativity in the design of their quilt, with the internet an excellent source of ideas. Straight lines are easiest, as designs are marked off with painter's tape. But for those more artistic, the sky's the limit.
Boards need to be painted with primer first, and then with exterior paint. Hair dryers are used to dry the paint more quickly, and designers are encouraged to cover their finished product with a final coating of water based polyurethane, catalyzed lacquer, or boat sealer, none of which will yellow the paint. Phyllis has stories of barn quilts from all over southern Nebraska. A young man in Fairbury made an FFA and a 4-H barn quilt for his fairgrounds, and a little girl in southeast Nebraska, who, for her 4-H Entrepreneurship project, took over her dad's shop to make barn quilts. She sold them, and the utility company hung them for free for her. But it was a one-year project; her dad wanted his shop back the next winter.
Art classes are also getting involved, and Schoenholz has seen barn quilts hung on mailboxes and on the announcer's stand at a high school football field. In her case, they are part of economic development; hey get people off the four-lane highways and into the small towns. Gage County in southeastern Nebraska, the home of the National Homestead Monument, has a well-established barn quilt trail which adds to the activities that Homestead Monument-goers can do while in the area. Suzi Parron, an expert on barn quilts who has co-authored a book about the art with Donna Sue Groves, travels across the nation giving presentations to quilt guilds and other groups. She is the featured speaker on July 24 at the Nebraska State Quilt Guild in Norfolk.
Parron says it's "the fastest growing grassroots arts movement in the U.S. and Canada." It appeals to people, Phyllis says. "It's creativity, and it's history." One hundred years ago, ladies would go to quilting bees. Now the barn quilts hang, a silent testimony to our ancestors who sewed them to keep their families warm.