I’m delving into the history and meaning of colourful barn quilts. Then I’m sharing how to design and paint your own suburban barn quilt to brighten your own neighbourhood.
My First Experience With Barn Quilts
A few years ago, we took a late-summer road trip to Prince Edward Island, the smallest of the Canadian provinces. If you haven’t been, I recommend it as it’s absolutely beautiful. And apparently, no place on the island is more than 16 kilometres from the sea.
When we take vacations, I like to thoroughly research everything I want to do ahead of time and map it all out so we don’t miss anything. During my planning, I found a barn quilt trail on PEI. The barn quilts were created and installed as part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebration in 2017, the year before our trip.
As a quilter, I was excited to see these brightly painted wooden quilts on our travels. I set out to include every nearby barn quilt into our itinerary, searching them out like a scavenger hunt as we drove through the beautiful countryside.
We took photos of most of them without leaving the road, and therefore we don’t have the best pictures of them. But I loved how different they all were. I really liked the one below, which wasn’t on a barn at all, but rather by a lighthouse.
This one is one of the first ones we saw as we arrived on PEI late in the day. I thought it was brilliant how they coordinated the barn quilt with the paint colours on their house and barn.
Other barn quilts are such an unexpected ray of sunshine on an otherwise neutral building as you approach. Even when we were looking for one, the particular design was always a surprise.
Unfortunately, the PEI Barn Quilt Trail website no longer works, and so I’m unable to share a link to a list of locations. If I ever find it again, I will update this post. Then you too can explore the beautiful barn quilts on Prince Edward Island.
You can also read about our visit to a PEI woollen mill here.
What is a Barn Quilt?
Generally speaking, a barn quilt is a quilt square or quilt block, painted on wood and installed on a barn. Many barn quilts on barns are painted on 8′ x 8′ plywood and then mounted onto the barn. However, there are many different variations of the concept. Some are painted directly onto the side of the barns. Others feature whole quilts. Some are painted onto metal, or made using vinyl instead of paint for durability purposes.
In addition, some barn quilts are not located on barns at all. As the popularity has grown, so has people’s creativity with the concept. You can find barn quilts just about anywhere – on other types of buildings, in towns, on floodwalls, or on free-standing signs. People have also been making smaller barn quilts in all sorts of sizes that decorate businesses and homes, both inside and outside.
The History of Barn Quilts
I knew I wanted to create a pair of barn quilts for our house, and I set out to learn more about their history and how to make them. If you had asked me, I would have said that painted wood barn quilts were an old tradition. Quilts are an old tradition. Barns are old. It made sense to me that painted barn quilts would be an old tradition as well. It seemed like the kind of thing that had been around “forever”.
Similar to barn quilts, original Pennsylvania Dutch settlers did paint beautifully elaborate round Hex signs on their barns and other items, some say as part of superstitions. (You can read more about them here if you’re interested.)
However, I was surprised to learn that barn quilts are a relatively recent creation. The first known barn quilt was created in 2001, in Adams County, Ohio, when Donna Sue Groves and her mother Maxine wanted to brighten up their tobacco barn. From there, the idea grew into a quilt trail of twenty barn quilts as a way to encourage tourism in the area. And from that one quilt trail, barn quilts spread across North America.
Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement
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It quickly became clear that the book shown below, “Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement” by Suzi Parron with Donna Sue Groves was the best source of information about the history of barn quilts. I hastily checked a copy out of our library.
At first I was disappointed that there were so few photographs and so much text. After all, barn quilts are a visual thing! But as I read farther into the book, the stories and the history grabbed me.
Rooted in Community and Traditions
What struck me from reading this book was how communities would band together to tackle barn quilt trail projects. They would work together to raise funds, plan, design, paint, install, and promote. Each barn quilt design was carefully chosen to reflect the identity of a farm’s ancestors, to recreate a hand-sewn quilt block from the past, or to represent resources or ideas that made a particular farm unique. Each barn location was carefully chosen to maximize tourist potential – even if it wasn’t on a barn at all.
Here is a quote I loved from Donna Sue Groves in the book:
“I hoped that we would be able to preserve those stories, about those that built the barns and the family farm stories and the quilts. Of equal importance are the quilts in those families and the stories that go along with them. Preserving those stories will help us know where we came from and who we came from. We can reflect on the strength – the energy and focus and dedication and hardship – all of those things that our foremothers and forefathers did so we could be where we are today. We need to remember those stories. That’s our DNA; maybe our larger community DNA connects us all together just like a quilt”.
More Than Just Something Pretty to Look At
On the surface, barn quilts might seem like just a bit of pretty paint, but they are so much more than that. Barn quilts strike me as a tribute and a celebration of the past, as well as to the future. They are a recognition of family, rural communities, and hard work, and a commitment to build on that legacy.
Here’s another quote I loved from “Barn Quilts”:
“Barbara Webster agrees that quilt trails add meaning to people’s lives: “Everything about quilts is metaphorical. To draw on that is meaningful to people. Whether they realize it or not, there is depth to the project. The more blocks that go up, the bigger our quilts gets, the more we are tied together. Real quilts were made out of dresses, tea towels, shirts – history was embedded in each and every one; and that is what we are doing – making our quilt.””
If you are interested in reading more about barn quilts and their history, I suggest purchasing your own copy of “Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement“, or searching for a copy at your local library. I’ve just learned that there is a follow-up book called Following the Quilt Trail, also by Suzi Parron. So I’m going to have to search that out for sure! Or add it to my Christmas list!
Other Quilt Trails and Where to Find Them
Barn quilts have spread all over North America, and if you’re interested in hunting for them on your travels, I would research an area you’re travelling to before you go. They’re not always located along the biggest highways, so a map of locations can be helpful.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of barn quilt trails, as I suspect they’re spreading too fast to ever keep up. Here are a few links to get started:
For more Ontario barn quilts, check out barnquilttrails.ca for nearly 20 different quilt trails. They also have a lot of resources for designing and painting large barn-size barn quilts, and starting your own quilt trail.
There are so many quilt trails in the United States, it is hard to know where to begin.
A starting point might be this site, with a clickable map, though I found that not all the links work.
If you find a better, comprehensive list, let me know and I’ll add it in here.
Creating a Suburban Barn Quilt
Though barn quilts were originally designed to live on barns in rural communities, (hence the name), they can live anywhere. Just as barn quilts in rural areas can honour the past, build community, and showcase beauty and creativity, barn quilts can achieve the same thing in urban and suburban areas.
Though I’d love to be able to hang a barn quilt on a barn if I had one, I’m just as happy to showcase my creativity and love of traditional crafts in a modern way on my home. By hanging a barn quilt, I can also add beauty and interest into my community.
Just like rural barn quilt trails act as scavenger hunts, so could suburban barn quilts. Though they might never publish an map of residential addresses with barn quilts, as more people hang barn quilts (or any art really) on the outside of their homes, it joins us together.
I think about how early on in the pandemic, when there was nothing else to do, many neighbours would put up images in their windows for children to search for on scavenger hunt walks. The joy of spotting unexpected art, placed for the enjoyment of others, could be also be achieved by hanging a barn quilt.
The discovery of such a bright and cheerful piece of art when you round a city corner, would be similar to the joy experienced when seeing a happy barn quilt hanging on a barn when driving down a country lane. They are unexpected, and they make you smile.
Benefits of a Suburban Barn Quilt
Brightens Your Neighbourhood
In addition to the joy that suburban barn quilts could bring to neighbours as they drive or walk by, they can also help to liven up and add art to generally beige and cookie-cutter suburbs. Think about the joy most people get from seeing people’s Christmas lights and decorations and how creative some people get. Why don’t we have that all year round, but in a less commercialized way? Yes, gardens are lovely as well. But we often overlook our houses themselves as being a great blank canvas. Many communities have bylaws against painting murals on your house. But you can absolutely put up a tastefully painted barn quilt.
Here’s a quote that stood out to me from the “Barn Quilts” book:
“The appeal of barn quilts is largely the impulse to work in cooperation with the surrounding community, but early on, a handful of women painted quilt squares for their barns, despite the fact that no one nearby showed an interest. Donna Sue calls them “the lone quilters” and believes that their determination to display their creativity demonstrates the ways in which barn quilts can be personal statements as well as public displays.”
I feel like a bit of a “lone quilter” in that respect right now, because I haven’t seen many similar things in my neighbourhood. But that’s not going to stop me from expressing my creativity. And I would love it if the idea expanded more into urban and suburban areas. Perhaps that will happen where you live and it will start with you?
Year Round Appeal
Barn quilts are also fantastic because they can be left up all year round to brighten up the bleak winter. This would be especially great in many parts of Canada where winter is very long. Large panels installed on barns are left up permanently. But people who choose to hang smaller barn quilts on their homes in urban and suburban areas have the option to put their barn quilt away to protect them from the elements.
However, I would encourage anyone choosing to paint a barn quilt to protect it with a top-coat for the weather. Then you can leave it up all year round for everyone to enjoy. Or, a fantastic alternative is to swap out a spring and summer version with a winter/holiday version. (*Makes mental note to herself: go buy more wood to make a Christmas barn quilt*).
Little Artistic Ability Required
Another great benefit of painting a suburban barn quilt is that ANYONE can do it. If you can draw a straight line with a ruler and lay painter’s tape along it, you can paint a barn quilt. You don’t really need “artistic ability”. Or at least not the kind we think of when we think of painting elaborate portraits and landscapes. A geometric painting, aided with rulers and tape is approachable for everyone. And it can even become a group or family project. With painter’s tape, it is easier to paint inside the lines, and even children can participate.
What Should My Suburban Barn Quilt Look Like?
There are many options when deciding what your suburban barn quilt should look like. You will find a lot of inspiration when searching for barn quilts through either Google Images or Pinterest.
There are also books available that contain tips and designs, such as Barn Quilt Addiction by Talara Parrish.
You might also look at quilts that have been passed down within your family if family members or ancestors quilted. Perhaps there is a meaningful design that you would like to recreate. However, many quilts made in the past were not always geometric and included organic appliqued shapes. But I have a solution for recreating those.
Drawing Non-Geometric Designs
If your preferred design is non-geometric, there is a simple method that you could use to sketch out a non-geometric design onto your prepared quilt square. If you’re recreating a design from an old quilt, first take a photograph of the quilt that is square on the quilt, rather than from an angle. (Hanging it on the wall, or taking a picture from a ladder when the quilt is on the ground can be helpful).
Then print the photo out on paper, or print/sketch your non-geometric design. Using a ruler and a pencil, divide the image into an equal grid, say 6 x 6 squares. Then draw a 6 x 6 grid on your prepared wood barn quilt. Using a pencil, draw what you see in each box of the printed image into the corresponding box on the wood, one box at a time. For example, whatever lines you see in the top left box of the image, draw the same lines in the top left box on the wood. Continue on, box by box, until you’ve done the whole grid. This method is much easier than trying to sketch out a large design all at once. Make light pencil lines though so you can erase your grid lines after.
How to Easily Design Your Own Suburban Barn Quilt – or For Anywhere!
Perhaps you don’t have a meaningful family quilt to reproduce, or you haven’t found exactly the right block. Or maybe you want to do something unique that expresses your creativity, and matches the style and colours of your house. Like me, you might wish to design your own quilt block.
You can sketch out a design on graph paper and colour it in. I do like sketching on paper, but it’s tricky to quickly make a bunch of changes without starting over.
Many experienced quilters use their quilt designing software to create barn quilt designs, but that’s a bit expensive and complicated for anyone who’s not a quilter.
For much of my design and pattern work since starting my blog, I’ve been using Inkscape, which is a free and open source piece of software that’s available in Mac and Windows editions. There are so many tools within the program that I have yet to learn how to use, but if you focus on a few key tools, it’s simple to design your own custom barn quilts in a matter of minutes. It’s also quick to modify the designs to try out different combinations and colours.
Below are the two designs I came up with for my two suburban barn quilts – the one on the left for our backyard and the one on the right for our front yard. I designed them for 24″ square barn quilts, and each square in the design is 1 inch. If you wish to use my designs for your own barn quilts (with the same or different colours), you may. Just print out the image below and draw out the designs to scale onto your prepared boards.
I’ve prepared a quick video to demonstrate the tools I use in Inkscape and the method I used to design these blocks (and other blocks like these) so that you can make your own barn quilt designs in minutes.
How to Make a Suburban Barn Quilt
Ok, now we are finally making it to the tutorial part of the post.
To begin your own suburban barn quilt, you need the wood that you are going to paint on. I chose 3/4″ thick plywood that was sold in 24″ square pieces. This was convenient because it saved us from having to cut the wood without a table saw. I can’t remember what kind of plywood it was for certain, but I suspect it was aspen. We chose 2 pieces that were knot-free and had nice grain on one side at least, and that were already quite smooth. Prices of lumber have been varying widely, but at the time they were about $20 per board.
Tip: Take a tape measure and actually measure your pieces before you buy them. Just because it’s sold as 24″ square doesn’t mean it is. Of the two boards we bought, one was exactly 24″ square, and one was 1/8″ short in each dimension, which made drawing out the pattern a little bit more tricky.
Even though the plywood pieces were pretty smooth when we bought them, we used a power sander to lightly sand the fronts well and a little bit on the backs. Then we removed all the sawdust from every side.
Priming and Painting
Here are the products we used to prepare the wood for the colourful painting:
Tip: After priming, you will want to paint a base coat of whatever background colour your quilt has. It is a great time saver, rather than having to tape and paint many individual sections of the base colour later. However, think about how dark the background colour is and how many coats you may need to cover it when painting sections of colours overtop later. I found a white background was very easy to use in this regard.
I primed one coat with Bulls Eye 1-2-3 primer on all sides. Priming/painting raw plywood can raise the grain. So after the primer coat was dry, I gave the fronts and backs a quick sanding with the power sander again. Then clean off any sawdust again.
Tip: Throughout the entire project, you will want to prime, base coat and paint in the direction of the grain. That means your brush strokes will be going in the same direction as the longest lines of the wood grain. You will get a more professional finish this way than going against the grain, or by painting haphazardly in every direction.
Then I used DAP paintable Acrylic Latex Caulk Plus Silicone to smear around all the edges. It helped to fill in gaps between the plywood layers and smooth things out. Filling in those gaps will also help to make it more waterproof.
Once the caulking was dry, I painted the barn quilts with Craftsmart Multi-Surface white paint. I did 3 coats on the fronts and edges, and 2 coats on the backs.
Tip: Use a smaller craft brush to paint the edges, and a bigger brush to paint the front and back. Using a bigger brush on the edges is too hard to control and you’ll get a lot of drips underneath.
Let your boards dry well, and then set them up somewhere light and bright and comfortable to work, on a drop cloth.
Drawing and Taping on the Designs
I really enjoyed transferring the designs to the boards. Because my boards were 24″ square, it was very convenient that my quilting ruler was also 24″ long and fit perfectly. If you don’t have a quilting ruler, any long ruler will do. You can use a shorter ruler for some parts. However, even the long (straight!) edge of an object or box would be helpful for drawing the lines all the way across the board in a pinch.
Use a pencil to draw your designs, but draw lightly. Pencil lines can be tricky to cover with paint if a colour isn’t providing good coverage. Therefore, don’t draw more lines than you need. Erase any lines that need fixing carefully with a white eraser. I’ll explain more about how I drew the pencil lines in a moment.
Having a pleasing design is important to the final result, as is choosing good paint colours. But being able to draw straight lines with your ruler and laying out painter’s tape properly are the two most important steps to creating a great barn quilt. You will use a fair bit of painter’s tape during your project. For my two 24″ squares, I started with a full roll of Scotch (green) painter’s tape. And you can see how much I had left and how much I used, above!
Back to drawing out designs. I printed my designs on paper first. The yellow block was easy to draw out because I used 3 inch blocks over the whole grid (except the centre square). I made little tick marks every 3 inches down the length of every side near the edges.
Then I joined the tick marks on the left and right sides with horizontal lines across the board. (Note: I’d already drawn my whole design by the time I took these photos)
Then I joined the 3 inch tick marks on the top and bottom with vertical lines across the board.
Then I started doing any diagonal lines where they were needed to make triangles. The trick with a good diagonal line is to make sure that the ruler is passing through multiple intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines.
The orange barn quilt block was the one that was 1/8″ short in each direction, so I had to make the outer blocks just slightly smaller. It was also trickier to draw out because there weren’t horizontal and vertical lines that flowed through the entire shape. I again started with ticks around the outside edges. Then I did a lot of joining of diagonal lines first.
When your design is drawn on, you will begin taping. I was really worried that I would get paint bleeding under every tape line and it would be a mess. I was also concerned that I didn’t have Blue painter’s tape, or Frog Tape. But as it turns out, the green Scotch tape I was using was just fine, as long as you use it right. In fact, I was thrilled with the results I was getting. Here are some of my neat edges and corners:
Tip: Good taping is essential to the final result of this project. If you rush or don’t do it properly, you will get frustrated and you will need to spend a lot more time fixing things.
To apply the tape, rip off a piece longer than a side of a shape. Apply it neatly JUST outside the line so that you will cover the line with the paint. Then, run your fingernails (or a credit card) along the inner edge to burnish the edges down really well. Do it a few times. And when you think you’ve done it enough, do it once or twice more. Trust me!
Once you’ve surrounded all the edges with tape, and burnished all the edges well, you can paint. Apply as many coats as you like for opaque coverage. Remember to paint in the same direction as the grain (or your previous base coat). Ideally, you should remove painter’s tape when the paint is wet, but when you have multiple layers, it’s better to wait until it is dry. Then peel it back at a 90 degree angle.
If you didn’t burnish some sections as well as others, you’ll get a bit of bleeding, like I did in the photo below. Don’t fret!
To do touch-ups, I would tape the coloured side this time and paint back up to it with white. For example, I would tape inside the left side of the turquoise triangle above and then paint white up to it to cover up the little turquoise paint bleeding. It worked quite well with a couple coats of white to do touch-ups that way.
Painting the Designs
If you’ve been reading on the blog recently, you may have seen our giant tulip project. I had a lot of Caicos Turquoise (MQ4-21) left in Behr Exterior paint from that project, and I chose to use it in both of our barn quilts.
The orange barn quilt also used Craftsmart Multi Surface paint in Neon Orange and Tangerine. The yellow barn quilt used Craftsmart Multi Surface paint in Yellow, and FolkArt Multi-surface paint in Patina. I used more than one bottle of the neon orange, but otherwise one 2 oz bottle of each was enough.
I highly recommend using a top coat overtop of your paint to protect it from the weather, but even so, I chose to use exterior or Multi-surface paint. If your barn quilt is for inside, you can use any kind of paint.
Next, to paint the designs, choose one colour to work with at a time. Select sections of that colour that do not touch each other, even at a corner, and tape them off properly – see the tips above. You can do as many sections of one colour at a time as you like, provided they don’t touch.
I began with turquoise for each barn quilt. Below is the orange barn quilt, on the second session of painting turquoise shapes. Make sure to leave time for shapes to adequately dry before taping over them for shapes that are nearby/touch.
When you’ve completed the first colour, move onto the second colour. Here – neon orange. The neon orange didn’t have very good coverage and it was so transparent that I could still see pencil lines through it after 6 coats. Though I stopped with 3 coats of every other colour, I did do 6 of the neon orange until I was happy with it. That did result in thick edges where that colour ended however.
Yellow was the second colour on this block, here in the second session of painting yellow shapes.
Finally I added the third colour, here a lighter orange, and the yellow quilt got the aqua Patina colour.
When I had finished all the sections, I went back and did touch ups for a couple hours until I was happy with them.
To make the barn quilts as waterproof as possible, I used water-based Diamond Varathane Exterior in Satin. I did 4 coats on the front, back and edges as the instructions recommended. I used a brush to apply it, and a smaller brush again on the edges to minimize drips.
At first I found it very difficult to work with and I was getting gummy sections when I shouldn’t have gone back over sections again. And I kept getting little hairs in it which were nearly impossible to remove. But once I had done a few coats I found my groove and stopped trying to over-brush and I started getting a much nicer surface. Except for the few little hairs I missed, I got a nice smooth surface in the end. (Again, I brushed in the same direction I had been painting).
If you’ve never worked with top coats before, I feel like making a barn quilt or something similar is a great way to practice before you do an heirloom piece of furniture.
Hanging Your Suburban Barn Quilt
Hanging a suburban barn quilt was fairly easy for us because we have brick sections on our house, so we can use brick clips. On the back of the barn quilts, we installed triangle hangers with screws that were shorter than the 3/4″ thickness of the wood. Then we wound picture hanging wire to make a hanger that could hook onto the brick clips.
A Colourful Suburban Barn Quilt, x 2
I love our colourful suburban barn quilts. This yellow one is at the front of our house, and you can see it from far away. I love the personality it adds and how cheerful it looks.
Some day we’ll have a colourful front door to go with it!
The orange and turquoise barn quilt is very bright. We have a lot of bright colours in our backyard, and I wanted to echo the bright orange of our Red Torch Mexican sunflowers.
I love how this one pops off the brick back here!
These suburban barn quilts are so bright, modern, and fun, and I’m so happy I’ve added them to our house. I’ve read that barn quilts are addictive, and I think that might be true. I definitely want to make some more now. They also looked great in my craft room as I was painting them, so I might have to paint some smaller versions.
Suburban Barn Quilts
Adding a suburban barn quilt to your house can be a great way to add personality, fun, and meaning. It’s also a great simple art project that anyone can do.
Perhaps you don’t want to paint your own suburban barn quilt, or you don’t have a spot to hang one. You still have the opportunity to be your own designer and make colour decisions with an adult colouring book of barn quilts. Colouring is so relaxing and getting to make decisions for a whole “barn quilt trail” of your own would be so fun. You can find it here:
I want to hear from you! Would you put a barn quilt on your house? Do you already have a barn quilt on/in your house? Are there barn quilt trails where you live? Tell me all about it in the comments below!
All the best,