Quilt barns are an American tradition, adding art to the countryside. Learn their history and take a photo tour of some of Tennessee's finest.
A barn serves a clear function on the homestead. House for livestock. Holder of tools and machinery. Roof from rain, sleet and snow. But did you know barns also can serve as art?
Enter quilt barns, which turn barns into canvases.
You might be wondering, "What is a quilt barn?" Quite simply, a barn displays a “barn quilt” that is a piece of wood painted to resemble a fabric quilt. Typically, each block is about 8 feet in length and is hung on the side of a farm or home’s barn.
Like the cloth version, patterns vary. Sometimes they mimic the pattern of a beloved family blanket, and other times it’s just a color scheme and style the family likes. They can tell a story of yesteryear, or become a new tradition a family adopts.
Folks who place a barn quilt somewhere on their property are usually fond of telling the tale behind their artistic piece of architecture. Even though no two are alike, one thing is similar. Quilt barns are a true piece of Southern history, each one reflecting the soul of the region.
Donna Sue Groves was the pioneer behind the barn quilt tradition. She wanted to pay homage to her mother’s Appalachian heritage by hanging a painted quilt at her home in Ohio. People noticed her piece of barn art and followed in her footsteps, thus bringing to life the first trail of quilt barns in 2001. According to Wikipedia, “Currently North America has quilt trails in 43 of the United States as well as in three Canadian provinces.”
Approximately 6,000 quilts can be seen on organized trails.
Get lost on any wandering farm road and you might stumble upon one. Or, perhaps, choose a more systematic approach and follow one of the many quilt trails in the U.S. For some trails, there are guided walks showing off the structures.
Typically, though, these trails lead you on a peaceful countryside drive. There are trails in Pennsylvania, Vermont, Ohio and Indiana (among others), but Southerners are partial to the Tennessee Quilt Trail.
The Volunteer State boasts at least 120 sites with barn quilts. All the photos in this article were taken in Tennessee.
While they are clearly on the sides of barns, the state has expanded the hanging platform. Visitors can also see them downtown, hanging on buildings, in front of libraries, on museum walls and on the sides of homes.
It’s a theme that can be spotted throughout the state. The section making up the Appalachian Quilt Trail segment covers 300 miles and boasts more than 130 quilt barns. You can see them dotting the state, from the Smokies and Upper Cumberland to Civil War trails and the Mid-South.
Plan your trip to follow one (or all!) of the trails around one of the many quilt shows or festivals in the state. For more information, as well as a map of locations, visit www.arcd.org/quilttrail and barnquiltinfo.com.
5 more American quilting trails
We love how Tennessee has taken on quilt barns as a state theme of sorts. But there are many other states canvassing these architectural gems. Here are five other quilt barn trails to check out:
1. Adams County "Clothesline of Quilts”
2. Green County Quilt Tour
Information: www. greencountybarnquilts.com
3. Barn Quilts of Grundy County
4. Alcona County Quilt Trail Project
5. Quilting the Countryside of Caldonia
All photography by Gary Clark, a former Southern Living Magazine travel photographer and photographer of the United States Postal Service 2014 Star-Spangled Banner Forever stamp. If you enjoyed this photo series, see also Gary's series of photos of Alabama's covered bridges here. See more of Gary's work and contact him at www.thegaryclark.com.