What is a Barn Quilt?
“Broken Fan,” Dexter

If you have done much driving across rural Kansas in recent years, particularly in the Cowley County area, you might have noticed colorful squares resembling quilt blocks dotting the buildings of farms, ranches, and small towns. You may also have noticed that they seem to be increasing in number with time.

These are barn quilts. A barn quilt is a large square design based on a quilt block but painted onto wood and hung up outdoors.

There are many sources of inspiration for barn quilt designs. Many families use a favorite block from a treasured fabric quilt. Those who don’t have such a quilt in their family may design something around their interests, such as red, white, and blue for a staunch fan of all things Americana. Business owners might select a design reflective of their trade, such as flowers for a nursery or a green-and-yellow pattern for a tractor dealer. In Kansas, sunflower-, KU-, and K-State-inspired themes are common.

Whatever they look like, barn quilts are icons of community spirit.

The History of the Barn Quilt

The barn quilt started in Ohio with Donna Sue Groves. In 1989, Groves and her mother, an avid quilter, were discussing their unsightly tobacco barn, and Donna vowed to beautify it someday by painting a quilt pattern on it. However, after getting a job with the Ohio Arts Council, Groves’s vision evolved somewhat, and she realized that there was a broad interest in adding quilt blocks to barns in her community.

The first documented barn quilt used the Ohio Star pattern and was placed on a barn in Adams County, Ohio, in 2001. Groves went on to place more barn quilts on more barns with the support of the Ohio Arts Council, including a block called the Snail’s Trail on her mother’s tobacco barn.

The first barn quilts were painted directly onto the barns. However, this was a difficult and time-consuming process, so the concept of the barn quilt as we now know it (painted onto a square piece of wood) was developed.

It wasn’t long before people everywhere wanted barn quilts, and not just on barns. Barn quilts now decorate barns, homes, and businesses in all 48 contiguous states.

From barn quilts, it was a short step to barn quilt trails. A barn quilt trail is coordinated by the community. A map and some type of promotional program are developed to bring attention to the quilt trail, which in turn draws tourists. Many of these tourists then go on to spend money at featured shopping and dining opportunities, which boosts the local economy. As an added plus for the community, barn quilt artists have noted that buildings on the quilt trail tend to be well maintained, as their owners know that they will be in the public eye.

Can Anyone Make a Barn Quilt?

What is a Barn Quilt?
“Country Star Flag,” Cambridge

Yes, anyone with the time and desire can make their own barn quilt. This topic has been well documented across the Internet (the Kansas Farm Bureau has some suggestions). A simple search will lead you to barn quilt painting workshops, as well. If you don’t want to do it yourself, you can contact a local artist to make one for you.

To have your barn quilt added to a quilt trail, however, you will need to cooperate with local officials. Before starting, be sure to contact the organization that oversees the barn quilt trail in your area, as there are usually guidelines for designing and mounting quilt blocks that are to be promoted by the community.

To make a barn quilt, you will want to use exterior-grade sign board, as it can last for years. You will also want to plan on using some primer and several coats of paint with ample drying time in between to ensure a clear, attractive design. Use painter’s tape to make straight lines and clean edges.

Simple designs are usually best because they have greater visual impact, particularly when viewed from a moving vehicle.

But before you take up barn quilt painting, be aware of the advice from those who have done it—it’s addictive!

How Do I Find More Kansas Barn Quilts?

You may find private projects just about anywhere in Kansas. To easily find as many barn quilts as possible, however, you will want to hit the barn quilt trail.

Find Kansas quilt trail maps and stories here:

Also worth seeing is Kansas’s Biggest Barn Quilt, located in Ashland at the intersection of Main Street and 8th Avenue. A design that centered around four 4×4′ sunflowers has expanded to feature numerous blocks celebrating Ashland and Kansas. The finished work is 30×16′.

Helpful Resource

Top 10 Sights to See in the Flint Hills
The Flint Hills Quilt Trail made our list of Flint Hills must-sees. Find out what else we recommended.