Text by Emily Kathleen Alberts
Photos by Always and Forever Photography
Quilts are becoming to barns what rocking chairs are to porches, and the earliest versions of barn quilts dates back hundreds of years. Some say colonials painted barn quilts as a way to celebrate their heritage; others have the notion that Pennsylvania Dutch settlers couldn’t afford to paint the whole barn, so just did these quilt blocks. While it’s true that paint was very expensive, these special patterns do much more than just add a splash of color to the broad side of a barn.
Long ago women used barn quilts to communicate messages to onlookers. Certain patterns carried different cultural, political and historical connotations. Women were known to transform their favorite Bible verses into colorful patchwork blocks, and the pattern would be painted directly onto the barn in a huge 8-foot square. These colorful creations could be seen from far away and would lift the spirits of world-weary passersby.
Often times, these quilts had a deeper story to tell. Women would display a pattern known as “Wond’ring Foot” when they were suspicious their husband was being unfaithful. There were also many patterns communicating the idea of freedom. According to folklore, quilts were used as code signals for the Underground Railroad. Certain patterns such as the Flying Geese or Jacob’s Ladder were used to let runaway slaves know that they were on a safe route headed north to Ohio.
Martha Dillard is a modern day barn quilt artist, and she stays busy painting large quilt block patterns from her home in Craig County. Her studio is jam-packed with barn quilt paintings. She has painted more than 17 barn quilts throughout Montgomery County alone, and she takes great pride in being a part of the burgeoning barn quilt movement. When asked what she thinks people are communicating with their barn quilts today, Martha responds: “The people I am painting for have chosen designs that mean something to them. I think people are sharing their pleasure of the place where they live. It is a matter of pride and community spirit.”
And the patterns are as varied as the people who commission them. “One woman simply loves sunflowers and has four sunflower barn quilts on her big barn,” she adds. “Another family has a log house and wanted the log cabin design but wound up with a Log Cabin Star design that represents sky and land and their house.” Another of Martha’s patrons brought over several quilts her grandmother made, and Martha helped her chose one of those patterns.
“I encourage people to look to their own quilts, their heritage — Dutchman’s Windmill for a man of Dutch descent, for example — and to pick something that brings them joy.” She has done mules for mule fanciers, cows for dairy farmers and glider planes for the Blue Ridge Soaring Society. The sky truly is the limit. Martha enjoys the geometric barn quilts most and likes when patterns are unique.
Barn quilts have evolved from being painted directly on the barn, to being painted on plywood and hung on the barn, to now being made of aluminum sign board that won’t split, rot, warp or rust. Artists use top quality exterior enamel, which Martha hopes will allow newer barn quilts to stick around for decades.
And they are no longer just for barns. “Barn quilts can go on houses, sheds, posts, fences, churches, businesses, garages, you name it,” she says. A number of people are painting and/or repairing outbuildings before putting up the barn quilts. This is keeping these rural buildings standing, which is a benefit to the landscape of the community.
Next time you’re in the mood for a Sunday drive or bike ride, take Ellett Road out to Luster’s Gate, down Catawba to Old Blacksburg Road, and check some of these amazing creations out for yourself. Every single one has a story. Maybe you can unravel the meaning.
If you see one you really like, check out the Generations Quilt Patterns online or in the library and see if it’s there. You can click each pattern to learn more about it.
If you’re anxious for more stories, Suzi Parron’s latest book, “Following the Barn Quilt Trail,” is due in stores this month. Suzi is a pioneer of the American Quilt Trail Movement and wrote “Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement” in 2012, which features 27 states and dozens of fascinating barn quilt stories.
Emily Kathleen Alberts is a Blacksburg-based freelance and science and technology writer who contributes regularly to New River Valley Magazine. She has an insatiable curiosity in wanting to know or write the story behind everything she sees around the NRV, including these barn quilts.
Interactive map of barn quilt trails