Department of Tourism
'Quilt Trail' Emerging on Barns in Eastern Kentucky
BARBOURVILLE, Ky. -- Kentucky has long been known as a center for the sewing of colorful quilts in many patterns and designs. But over the past several years, painted quilt patterns on the sides of barns in Kentucky have emerged as a new form of self-expression and cultural pride for rural residents.
Efforts are getting underway to coordinate the painting and erection of colorful wooden quilt blocks on barns in eastern Kentucky and elsewhere to form trails that can lure travelers off of interstate highways onto back roads, bringing tourists into rural areas that need an economic boost.
“It’s like hanging a painting in an art gallery,” said Dianne Simpson, a fiber artist and native of Knox County in southeastern Kentucky. “But with the quilt barns, the whole community becomes an art gallery.”
Simpson is a leader in the quilt barn movement in Knox County, along with representatives of the Kentucky Arts Council, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Knox County Extension Service, all of whom are helping organize this grassroots movement to beautify their communities.
Judy Sizemore of McKee, regional outreach director for the Kentucky Arts Council in eastern Kentucky, is helping coordinate the selection of quilt patterns to be painted and recruiting barn owners to provide a place for their display. Each pattern that is submitted to the selection committee is associated with a particular local quilter who used the design in her sewing. In some cases, several generations of a family have sewn quilts with the same pattern, Simpson said.
The farmers, many of whom formerly used their barns for tobacco curing, are allowed to choose the pattern that will be displayed on their structures. “This provides a new reason for them to care for their barns,” Sizemore said.
Even electric companies operating in Appalachia have gotten on board with the quilt squares program. They loan their bucket trucks and skilled workmen to mount the 8 ft. by 8 ft. squares high up on the sides of barns.
Often the quilt squares are painted by local students who volunteer their time. “Having the opportunity to participate in the quilts project has been the most interesting experience I have ever known,” said Joseph Cross, a Knox County high school student who has worked on painting several quilt blocks.
Other trained volunteers like Simpson record the oral history of the quiltmaker whose pattern is being painted. The goal of the oral histories eventually is to provide a narrative for an audio driving tour of the region’s quilt barns, similar to the Country Music Highway audio tour guide of eastern Kentucky’s famous musicians’ birth places, Sizemore said.
Quilt squares also are cropping up on barns in other parts of Kentucky. Sizemore estimates there are 20 to 30 counties that now boast quilt barns. Elliott County in northeastern Kentucky probably has the most, with about 60 barns adorned with the patterns, she said. In western Kentucky’s Pennyrile region, innovative quilt painters have started using metal to provide a longer life span for their patterns, said Cheryl Cook, executive director of the Hopkinsville-Christian County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Other states are getting involved with the quilt barn movement, including Ohio, Indiana Tennessee and Iowa. The materials necessary to create an 8 ft. by 8 ft. quilt square, including plywood, paint, and 4 by 4’s and bolts for mounting, usually don’t exceed $150 in cost, Sizemore said. Several government agencies are helping quilt square painters get started with matching grants.
Participants in the quilt barn movement in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, are presenting Quilt Trail Workshops and Tour in Ashland Friday and Saturday Nov. 2-3. Donna Sue Groves of Adams County, Ohio, regarded as the founder of the quilt barn movement about six years ago, will be among the special guests participating in the workshops. For more information about the conference, contact the Boyd County Extension Service at 606-739-5184.
For more information about the Kentucky quilt trail program, contact Sizemore at 606-364-5831 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kentucky Department of Tourism, an agency of the Kentucky Commerce Cabinet, exists to promote The Commonwealth as a travel destination, generate revenue and create jobs for Kentucky’s economy