The History of Barn Quilts

Have you ever seen quilt-like art on barns when driving along the countryside in the U.S.? Also known as barn quilts, this art can be found on nearly every farm in the American and even Canadian countryside. A barn quilt is a traditional form of art painted on barns and cottages to show off creativity and continue a 300-year-old tradition.

But what is the history of barn quilts? Where did they come from, really? Read on to learn about barn quilts’ history and origin.   

What Is a Barn Quilt?

First of all, what is a barn quilt? A barn quilt is a form of homegrown art that can be found in barns all over America and Canada. It is a huge quilt block pattern made on a piece of wood. This wood is painted and hung on barns, garages, cottages, and houses. And since these quilt blocks are huge, they can be spotted from a distance too. A typical barn quilt measures either 4×4 feet or 8×8, so it can be seen from far away.   

Most barn quilts are painted in solid colors and are designed in basic geometric shapes like traditional quilts. However, you can also find barn quilts with unique designs today, such as a farm logo, a livestock quilt, or anything that one can create to associate with their history. Barn quilts are created to share stories and historical events related to individual communities and farms while attracting tourists and adding to the barn’s beauty. 

Some neighbors and communities have joined forces to create barn quilts based on a central theme to create a Barn Quilt Trail. And these trails are not just limited to farms anymore. You can even spot them on historical buildings, schools, churches, municipal buildings, and museums.

History of Barn Quilts

Barn quilts are not a new tradition. In fact, they have been around for almost 300 years now. Their history dates back to the times when immigrants from Austria, Germany, and the Netherlands entered America. The practice originated in Pennsylvania after their arrival and spread to different parts of the country, including the Midwestern states and New England. 

Most of these immigrants were Amish, Lutherans, Mennonites, and other groups who came to America looking for religious freedom. As they settled in Pennsylvania, they resorted to barn quilts as a way to protect their barns from evil spirits and bring good fortune to their lands. 

During those times, the paint used to be very expensive, and painting a barn quilt on a big piece of wood was their way to adorn their barns with distinctive patterns. It also became a part of their identity as travelers used these quilts to identify farms and distinguish them from others. Whoever came searching for someone would be told by the townsmen to look for a specific barn quilt pattern. How cool, right?

During the 1830s, paint became cheaper than before, and barn quilt painting was then considered a real trade done by skilled artisans. These designers would mix and match different folk designs with geometric patterns to create unique designs. 

However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that barn decoration art reached its peak and became a more practical form of art through advertising. The colorful quilt designs and geometric patterns were replaced by ads for tobacco, flour, and fertilizers. 

But in 2001, Donna Sue, a woman from Ohio, started designing huge barn quilts that appeared on farms in the East and Midwest to reminisce the traditional value of these quilts. She designed the first remodeled block of a quilt to honor her mother’s memory and help her friend’s business to attract more customers. 

Ever since then, modernized and huge barn quilt squares have started popping up all over between the MidWest and the East, with hundreds of quilt trails in between. They have regained their popularity and can easily be spotted anywhere in the area. 

You can even find quilt trails in many states and visit them using a map that is developed to especially guide viewers to their locations. On these maps, you can see a picture of the quilt square, a name, and its address to locate it. Some of the best quilt trails can be found in Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Kentucky, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. And they are no longer just limited to barns. You can find them in houses, sheds, garages, and churches. 

As of 2019, over nine states in the U.S. have joined forces to form barn quilt trails, including New York and New Jersey. That’s a way for farmers to attract travelers to their farms and educate them about the history of this amazing art. As a result of these efforts, tourism in these areas has increased greatly as tourists follow the trails through farms and towns to view these quilts. 

Some municipalities have even started conducting contests to find specific quilt squares, and as a result, the tourism and economic development in these rural areas has significantly increased. Today, these quilts are more than just decorative designs to beautify their barns. They have become a source of attraction for tourists. Currently, Shawano County in Wisconsin has the most barn quilts (more than 366).

Are Barn Quilts Still Popular?

Yes, they are still very popular in the U.S. In fact, right before the pandemic, the tourism authorities in Shawano County, Wisconsin, arranged a two-day bus tour for tourists to view the local sights and see the beautiful barn quilts. Such tours are also arranged by retirement communities, private groups, and travel boards in other states today to tour these farms and allow the tourists to view the homegrown art of barn quilts. 

So that’s all, folks! Now that you know about the rich history of barn quilts and their origin, make sure to take a trip to a nearby farm in the countryside to spot one of these.