What Are Barn Quilts And How To Use Them In A Modern Way

Out for an afternoon drive in the countryside, you may have come across a sudden flash of color against the side of an old barn — or a glimpse of pattern peeking through the trees, only to reveal, on closer inspection, intricately wrought squares that resemble fabric quilt blocks on the side of farm-related structures. These specific designs, known as barn quilts, have been popping up in all areas of the country. While they come from a long tradition of barn decorating that includes early Pennsylvania Dutch painted barn stars and advertisements from the mid-20th century, these colorful accents are much newer in origin, but firmly rooted in community and folk-art traditions. While their purpose ranges from purely decorative to highly personal, they offer a bit of beautiful, eye-catching interest to the exterior of structures they can be found on.

Part art exhibit, part tourism booster, most quilts are part of community-focused tours, which you can experience on foot or by driving. Each quilt tells a story about its creator or community, rooted in personal significance and symbolism. The wide range of their style and meaning make them incredibly interesting to look at, as well as accessible as an art form, particularly if you are a quilting aficionado. Even if folk art or quilting's rustic charm is not your style, the beauty and opportunity for customization and creativity with barn quilts make them a perfect element to bring into your home or yard in a fun, contemporary way.

The American Barn Quilt Movement

The first organized barn quilt endeavor was created by Ohio resident Donna Sue Groves in the early 2000s. Seeking a way to memorialize her mother and their shared love of quilting on the side of an old tobacco barn, Groves reached out to her local community and the Ohio Arts Council to help create a "clothesline of quilts" that could be enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. As word of the Adams County Quilt Barn Trail spread, more communities, artists, and quilters helped proliferate a large number of similar projects in other regions. Most trails and installations are group efforts, involving local government and arts councils, who along with others, create and curate local exhibits. They often rely heavily on community social groups, organizations, and individual residents to help make, paint, and install barn quilts. 

In the early years, quilts were painted directly on the side of the barn, sheets of plywood,  or created from wood blocks or tiles. Recent years have resulted in more quilts made from MDO sign boards or aluminum, which are lighter and easier to install. Many designs are configured in popular and recognizable quilting sampler patterns like Compass Wheel or Jacob's Ladder. Others are more personal in symbolism or imagery, using designs culled from old family quilts, initials, or imagery created in memory of a lost loved one. While barns are obviously the most popular location for these pieces, they are also found mounted independently or on other structures like homes, businesses, and public buildings. 

How to use barn quilts in your home

If you love the look or style of barn quilts, there are ingenious ways to incorporate them into your decor even with no barn in sight. Barn quilts, after all, can be found not only in rural environments, but also in suburbs and urban areas alike. While classic quilt patterns and colors immediately give a more traditional country look to your space, you can easily put a stylish and contemporary spin on your design by seeking out a variety of modern and avant-garde options, including patterns that incorporate more abstract or asymmetrical elements and color combinations.

These quilts don't have to be placed outside, however. Large or small format quilting blocks created on canvas or wood can be a beautiful addition to a large empty wall or a stunning way to add accents in other locations, like painted on a door, cabinet, or along a fence. Create a pattern in bold colors as an accent, or use neutrals for a cozy, contemporary piece of art that fits in stylishly among cottage-style or farmhouse décor. Design a one-of-a-kind barn quilt on the floor of a mudroom or entryway as a unique tile pattern using porcelain or clay tiles. For an outdoor project, create a series of small barn quilt designs and place them in strategic locations for your guests to wander and enjoy. Even better, enlist your neighbors to create a barn quilt garden tour on your block as an engaging community-driven project.