By Andrea Nordstrom Caughey
A tour of the barn quilt trail is the perfect way to enjoy art from the comfort of your car while taking in country scenery. It’s also an ideal socially distanced cultural getaway.
This spectacular and growing roadside art initiative began spontaneously in 2001 with one project. That year, Ohio craft enthusiast Donna Sue Groves decided to paint and hang a quilt pattern on the side of her barn, saluting her mother and her Appalachian heritage.
Groves’ artwork, dubbed a “barn quilt,” a brightly-colored pattern painted on wooden blocks and hung on the siding of rural structures, quickly caught on. Her piece spawned a local display of another 20 additional blocks, eventually woven into a driving tour and tourist destination. Now termed the North American Quilt Trail Project, this grassroots art movement has since generated more than 7,000 pieces of art through the United States and Canada.
To “test drive” your first barn quilt trail, consider starting in Western North Carolina. Here you’ll find one of the highest concentrations of barn quilts in the United States.
This state-wide network, called The Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina, spans nine counties with more than 200 quilt blocks. The largest collection is found in Yancey, Mitchell and Haywood counties, with dedicated trails also winding through Ashe, Avery, Madison, McDowell, Swain and Wautaga.
An ideal starting point is the quaint mountain town of Burnsville, North Carolina, just 45 minutes north of Asheville and near the Blue Ridge Parkway. From there, six adjoining counties and nine separate driving tours offer routes past dozens and dozens of quilt blocks. Don’t forget to check out the many preserved, historic barns en route, some of which offer their own self-guided tours.
For a driving map encompassing all nine trails, visit Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina at QuiltTrailsWNC.org.
While designs for quilt blocks often duplicate popular geometric patterns, they may also embrace the culture of a region. Local animals, birds, geographic forms, American Indian symbolism, crops, native flowers and plants and more can tell the story of town or neighborhood.
On a deeper level, quilt patterns were even often used as portable maps for enslaved people trying to escape through the Underground Railroad. It’s believed that safe houses were often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill. Additionally, the shapes and motifs sewn into the design represented messages to guide or warn travelers. Early quilting circles also offered women important community outlets and even information on the emerging suffragette movement.
Check out these popular tours. And if you have time, weave in stops in the surrounding small towns, parks and scenic lookouts, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and spectacular North Carolina waterfalls.
Ashe County Barn Quilt Tours
Starting with a community mural project, today Ashe County showcases about 150 barn quilts on six separate driving trails. AsheCountyArts.org
Randolph County Quilt Trail
Ten years ago, the barn quilt movement took off in Randolph County. Today, the Randolph County Quilt Trail meanders past 44 sites, designated on its own interactive online map online. The artwork salutes the region’s rich resources, from pottery to bees, corn and more. RandolphCountyNC.gov
Person County Quilt Trail
A relative newcomer to the barn quilt scene, Person County now features 30 quilts, some with fun retro cultural references, such as the muscle car from The Dukes of Hazard. ItsBetterInPerson.com
Sampson County Barn Quilt Trail
Sampson County calls itself the “barn quilt capital of North Carolina,” with nearly 150 quilts on its designated route. Among the county’s more unusual quilts: in the town of Turkey, watch for a quilt embellished with…you guessed it..a turkey!