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If you’ve ever driven in a rural area, you may have seen a wooden quilt block hanging on the side of a barn.
Despite the name, barn quilts can be found on just about any building, not just barns. There are more than 300 of the colorfully painted barn quilts sprinkled throughout Western North Carolina — and that number is growing.
When Candace Wingo and her husband moved to Haywood County, North Carolina from Texas a few years ago, Candace knew she wanted a barn quilt to become a fixture of her farm.
“I’ve always wanted a barn quilt,” said Wingo. “I wanted to do something that would honor the Carolinas and being here, so I picked the Carolina Lily.”
Wingo commissioned a local barn quilt designer through the Haywood County Arts Council to create the massive 8 by 8 foot block. Most barn quilts are 4 by 4 feet.
Barn quilts usually riff on an existing quilt pattern. Artists tweak patterns to make the final piece completely unique. The reasons people put up barn quilt blocks are likewise unique. Some designs reference a person’s or place’s history, while others are purely aesthetic.
Putting a barn quilt together is usually a labor of love. In Haywood County, barn quilts are painted by volunteers for the Haywood County Arts Council. In each 4 by 4 foot block, there could be about 40 hours of painting, dozens of layers of paint between all the colors and the work of multiple community members.
The barn quilt concept can be traced to Appalachian Ohio. Quilter Donna Sue Groves put up the first barn quilt in 2001 to honor her mother. If you look hard enough the barn quilts can be found just about anywhere in the U.S. There are official programs in more than 40 states.
Sometimes individuals do paint their own barn quilts, but it’s common for community members to commission the blocks from local artists or art councils, just like Wingo did.
A former designer herself, Wingo knew she wanted to be involved with the process of designing and painting her block. With the help of barn quilts designer Lauren Medford, Wingo’s dreams of having a quilt block grace her red barn came true.
“Lauren was so familiar with it all. She did the research on if the design has been duplicated. She would send me her suggestions and I would tweak it. It was a real fun group effort with her,” Wingo said.
The duo designed the largest quilt block Medford had ever designed. The result was an 8 by 8 foot block featuring an adaptation of the traditional Carolina Lily pattern.
Wingo’s barn quilt features eight Carolina Lily flowers, four on the outer perimeter and four on the inside. The red flowers have angular petals, made of triangles and trapezoids. Wingo said the design was inspired by her surroundings. She and Medford worked to pull in colors from Wingo’s barn and from the rest of the farm. In it, you’ll find reds, greens, black and white.
It took months to come together, but Wingo knew she was in good hands with Medford. Medford is a Haywood County native, and no stranger to quilt blocks, or quilting.
“My great-grandmother made quilts her entire life,” Medford said. “But my grandmother fell out of the sewing tradition, and my mom didn’t [sew] either.”
When some of Medford’s great-grandmother’s quilts were passed down to her, she decided to take a quilting class and fell in love.
“I made my first quilt, which was very fun. And it is very mathematical and technical, which I enjoy because I like hard lines and graphic aesthetics, so it was kind of a good fit for me,” Medford said.
For Medford, working with unique designs is gratifying, and she appreciates the connection community members often have to the quilt blocks they commission. She remembers one in particular that a woman’s family members commissioned for her.
“Her sister and husband had us make a design based on her cross stitch, and it’s very intricate,” said Medford.
Medford cites other unique barn quilts in the area. A Haywood County dentist, for example, has a quilt block with a repeating rifle pattern outside his office in honor of his family’s rifle-making traditions.
There are others, too. One barn quilt depicts a man under water. It’s called “Dead Man in the Creek.” It was designed to remember the namesake of the Fines Creek Community in Haywood County. The quilt depicts Vinet Fine, who drowned in a nearby creek in the late 1700s.
The idea behind that barn quilt is morbid, but they have not always told stories in such a literal way.
When barn quilts first started popping up, most of them featured traditional geometric shapes and patterns, like stars. But over the years, people have gotten more expressive with barn quilts. This is something that intrigued volunteer barn quilt painter Linda Lappe.
“[Painting barn quilts] is just being part of the community and the history and the culture,” Lappe said. “A lot of our quilt patterns are very traditional, yet we have people who come in and design for specific quilt blocks.”
Part of the fun of having a barn quilt is that the organizations in charge of local barn quilt block programs create maps and guides, or “trails,” for people to follow in a certain area. Quilt enthusiasts, tourists and whoever wants can drive or walk along the quilt trails to see how people express themselves through the wooden blocks.
You never know what you might stumble upon while following a barn quilt trail. Ultimately, community members can be as creative or traditional as they want when they choose a barn quilt, says Medford.
“It could be like, ‘I just like the color blue, I want a blue star,’ or it could be really meaningful. There’s not really an overarching theme other than that quilt blocks speak to Appalachia and craft and tradition,” said Medford.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.