On a lazy, Sunday drive through a rural landscape, in mountainous or farming regions of the US, you’re sure to happen across an old barn decorated with a striking piece of Americana folk art called the “barn quilt.” Although the pattern is like the blocks of its fabric namesake, it is created by painting the pattern on wood.
I’ve often wondered what the meaning behind the symbolism is and the history of how such an art form started. When I began researching the history of barn quilts, I found it as much fascinating as confusing. Many sites credit Donna Sue Groves for making the barn quilt an art form in 2001. Although she did start the first Barn Quilt Trail in Brown County, Ohio, barn quilts existed way before 2001. So, I’m going to try to sort out this practice as best I can.
The Mystery and History of the Barn Quilt:
First, it is believed German and Dutch immigrants should be credited for bringing this art to Pennsylvania in the early 19thcentury. The popular six-pointed star that you see on many barns in some fashion or another, today is called the hex, which conjures in one’s mind the image of witches and occult practices, but oddly this name didn’t emerge until 1924. After which, small versions of barn quilts were sold to tourists visiting towns with dark histories (such as Salem and their witch trials). Could it be the name emerged as a marketing strategy for these replicas?
Although the German and Dutch farmers– descendants of the immigrants–thought to bring the Barn Quilt to America, called the design simply “six- pointed star” or “bloom” for the flower designs. One theory states the German word for six being “sechs” was misunderstood by the English as “hex.” Could it be this miscommunication swirled in religious circles giving flight to the connotation? Albeit, the birth of the name “hex” remains speculation as today it’s still a mystery.
The Many Purposes Behind the Barn Quilt:
One of the early purposes for the barn quilt started in Germany. They held the belief that this ornamentation on their barns served as their prayer to keep their animals safe, their barns from fire, farms safe from the witch’s curse, and overall protection of all that dwelt inside.
Later in the US, another use for the ornamentation emerged…navigation through the rural countryside. Before the practice of naming roads and street signs erected, you would direct someone from barn quilt to barn quilt. For example, when you reach the red-star barn, turn left, then you’ll see the blue-star barn—take a right. See?
During the Civil War the barn quilt was used as a secret way of communicating to those escaping slavery in the Underground Railroad. One design pointed them in a direction, another would tell those fleeing that the family inside the farmhouse were sympathizers; one symbol would mean food and supply provider, another design would even tell them to change their clothes and disguise themselves. Not only was the barn quilt used for this purpose, but bed quilts with the symbolism laid draped over fences or porch rails to relay messages to those fleeing towards freedom. I told you this art form is fascinating!
Today’s Use of the Barn Quilt:
Today barn quilts are not only used to bring color against a drab wood backdrop, but they’ve become an expression of the owner. The art is used to reflect the owners religious beliefs, a hobby they enjoy, to memorialize a loved one, or reveal something about their town or location. The variations are limitless.
Barn Quilt Trails:
As I mentioned before, in 2001, Donna Sue Groves started a barn quilt trail in Ohio that has since popped up all over the country in rural towns in almost every state. Driving along a barn quilt trail could be the perfect way to spend a fall day in November. To search for a barn quilt trail near you, check out All People Quilt. If you’d like to learn how to make your own miniature version of a barn quilt, we will be creating one with the kids this month in The Playroom.
Tammy Carter Adams is the founder of The Hallelujah House and co-host of The Hallelujah House podcast. She resides full time in Orlando Florida with her husband Jay and their four children.