All Squared Away
Barn quilts that blanket the landscape
By Maria Johnson • Photographs By Lynn Donovan
We know you’re tired of scandals and lies, but we think you deserve to know the truth about barn quilts.
They’re not quilts, at least not the kind you cuddle under.
And only a fraction of them hang on barns.
There. We said it. Cover-up exposed.
Still, we know this won’t stop folks from posting the large kaleidoscopic squares on the sides of barns — or from hanging shrunken versions in decidedly un-Old-MacDonald locations: bedrooms, sunrooms, sheds, patios and storefronts.
Beth Ball, the owner of BBs Barn Quilts in Alamance County, displays a 2-by-2-foot barn quilt on the white vinyl fence outside her Haw River townhouse. She flips one side of the reversible panel, a red-white-and-blue design, toward her patio on patriotic holidays. The other side, a vibrant starburst, shines the rest of the year.
“It’s a different way to bring some art into your outdoor space,” she says.
In the last two years, Ball, who leads barn quilt classes as fundraisers for nonprofit groups, has walked 600 to 700 people through the process of drawing their designs on primed plywood then painting them with exterior latex paint. Students can choose from the 25 geometric patterns that Ball offers, or they can use their own patterns. Many people bring designs from family quilts.
“They’re very sentimental to people. They’ll say, ‘Oh, this one belonged to my mom,’” she says.
At the Wallburg Emporium & Coffee Shop near Winston-Salem, barista Sheila Craven leads a couple of barn quilt classes every month. Participants leave with a 2-by-2-foot square in the “Yankee Puzzle” pattern, done in the colors of their choosing. The whole process takes about three hours, which gives students plenty of time to sip coffee while they literally watch paint dry.
The history of barn quilts in this country goes back to Dutch and German settlers of the 1600s, who decorated their barns with “hex signs” to invite good luck and ward off evil spirits. The designs repeated decorative motifs found inside their homes: flowers, birds, hearts, trees and stars.
Later, some barn signs, especially those on Quaker farms, borrowed from cloth quilts that were draped outside homes on the Underground Railroad, a conduit for escaped slaves. Patterns in squares conveyed coded information: bear claws meant take a mountainous route; a bowtie pattern meant to wear a disguise; a log cabin design of layered rectangles at right angles meant to seek shelter — or that the owner of the home was safe to talk to.
Hex signs fell out of favor with the rise of Christian churches in rural areas. The craft lolled around for decades until it resurfaced in the early 2000s, thanks to an Ohio woman who popularized barn quilts as a tribute to her mother, a quilter of the needle-and-thread variety.
In the Piedmont, Rockingham County and Randolph County maintain quilt trails for self-guided driving tours. Slightly farther afield, mountainous Ashe County boasts a trail with a whopping 150 sites.
Professional artists often paint the big squares that show up on trails, but when it comes to the take-home panels, this folk art belongs squarely to the folks.
“In many cases, they’re the only thing the student has ever painted,” says Ball. OH
For information about a December 12 quilt-painting class lead by Beth Ball to benefit Alamance Arts, go to alamancearts.org/community-classes. Check the Facebook page of Wallburg Emporium & Coffee Shop for their next class. Find the Rockingham County quilt trail at visitrockinghamcountync.com/quilt-trail/. The Randolph County quilt trail: randolphcountync.gov/Departments/Soil-and-Water/Quilt-Trail or www.piedmontconservation.org/projects/quilttrail/. The Ashe County trail: ashecountyarts.org/barn-quilts.php. Individual listings are subject to change, so wrap yourself in a sense of adventure and flexibility if you hit the road.
Ann Beane makes fabric quilts, but the idea for her barn quilt came from another source: a desk calendar with pictures of quilt squares. “Four Dancing Tulips” leapt out at her. “I just love flowers. I work outside all the time, and I just wanted something that looked different,” she says. The square, painted by the Randolph County Quilters Guild for the local quilt trail, hangs on a reconstructed log cabin owned by Ann and her husband, Lyndon. The perky design regularly stops traffic at 5171 Fred Lineberry Road, Randleman. “Especially in the spring time and now, when the leaves are turning, they’ll be pulled over, and I’ll think, ‘Oh, do they have car trouble?’ But then I’ll see their cameras,” Ann says.
Talk about a family affair. Mona Farmer’s paternal grandmother, Anna D. Bean, was an avid quilter, and she left behind several unfinished quilt tops. Mona loved the one with the log cabin design, so when she heard about the Rockingham County Quilt Trail, Mona asked her granddaughter, Brianna Hennis, to paint a square based on it. Brianna’s interpretation hangs on the log cabin where Mona and her husband, Stanley, live, a refurbished tobacco pack house that dates back more than 100 years. You can find the cabin at Pin Oak Farm, 215 McDaniel Road in Eden.
Come winter, Ava Rakestraw, who adored being outside in warmer weather, occupied herself with making quilts. When it came time to stitch the squares together, she unfurled her work on a makeshift quilting frame — long boards laid over the backs of chairs. Before she died at age 102, Ava gave quilts to five great-grandchildren, including Ann Rakestraw Dixon’s sons, Kevin and Keith; the double wedding ring pattern on those quilts inspired the barn quilt that adorns an old tobacco barn on Ann’s property at 291 Crowder Road, Madison. Rockingham County artist Patricia Perdue painted the panel.
Who says barn quilts have to be painted on wood panels? Artist Teresa Talley Phillips shattered that notion when she made a glass mosaic for the Chinqua-Penn Walking Trail, a 1.7-mile loop named for the former home of Jeff and Betsy Penn, Reidsville’s Gilded Age power couple. The state now owns much of the estate, site of the N.C. Upper Piedmont Research Station, an agricultural testing ground. The 2-by-2-foot square — made with backer board, stained glass and grout — depicts the cattle, birds, bamboo and butterflies seen along the popular trail. The center of the square shows the Summer House, a gazebo-like structure furnished with mill-stone tables and benches beside Betsy Lake. The trailhead and parking lot are near 2138 Wentworth Street, Reidsville.
About 20 years ago — before the Randolph County Barn Quilt Trail existed — Joann Hammer saw a story about a lady who made the large squares in a nearby community. A glowing design called Nirvana caught Joann’s attention. “If I had a barn, I would want one,” she says. Alas, Joann didn’t have a barn, so she did the next best thing: she paid for the artist to create another Nirvana as a gift for her daughter, Wanda Cox, and her husband, Dannie, who had a barn on their property. Today, the panel still hangs on the Coxes’ barn beside the road at 4804 Moffitt Mill Road, Ramseur.