By MICHELLE SCHMIDTIf you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably miss them. But if you know what you’re looking for and where to find them, you’ll start seeing barn quilts as you drive rural roads in the area.
Despite their name, barn quilts are not actual quilts, either of barns or on barns. A barn quilt is a large square of plywood that has been painted with a single quilt square pattern and hung on a barn. After a number of barn owners in an area do this, a coordinator develops what is called a barn quilt trail — a map that shows where these barn quilts are located and, often, a bit of information on the history of the barns and why the owners selected the particular patterns that they did.
So a barn quilt trail might be described as part roadside art, part heritage celebration and part countryside scavenger hunt. The practice has grown in popularity over the past 10 years in the East and Midwest where quilt trails are traveled by many locals and tourists each year. Barn quilts are popping up on barns in the Northwest and chances are, you’re going to start seeing more of them.
A trail begins
Last spring, Grangeville introduced the region’s first barn quilt trail. Annelle Urbahn wasn’t a quilter, but she learned about barn quilts in a magazine. She caught on to the idea’s rustic beauty, economic possibilities and historic value and got to work. She acquired a piece of plywood and painted a design called “Bear Paw,” taken from a quilt given to her by her grandmother.
“I wanted to do it to honor my grandmother,” she says. “She was from Texas and was a good farmer’s wife.”
She hung the barn quilt on her own barn in 2012 — it was the first one in Idaho County, she says — and began sharing the idea with others.
“I figured if I got several going, people would want to join in,” Urbahn says.
It’s been a slow process, but some have. Eight barn quilts are now located in the Grangeville area, with two rural ones near the Salmon River. Urbahn developed a map and visitors are beginning to take this small trail.
Urbahn has painted six of the 10 barn quilt squares on her map. She works with a 4-by 4-foot piece of exterior plywood — the 8-by 8-foot size is more visible from the road, but is also a challenge to create — and uses enamel paint to apply the design. It takes her around eight hours to finish the project, not including the dry time between coats.
Barn owners often select a pattern for its symbolism or sentimental value: Perhaps it came off a family quilt or represents the owner in some way.
“I also try to pick quilts that are unique and that quilters will recognize,” Urbahn says. Traditional quilting patterns are most typically used and the ones she paints are becoming increasingly complex as her skills advance.
If painting a 4-by 4-foot (or larger) piece of plywood sounds like a task, consider hanging it on a barn. The barn quilts are typically mounted near the peak of the barn in the center, but they can also be mounted on the side. Either way, it’s a big piece of wood and a long way up. Urbahn says she’s gotten help from both Avista and Idaho County Light and Power, who have provided their lift trucks and muscles for the community cause.
Different people hang barn quilts for different reasons, but besides its role in rural tourism, Urbahn says the practice celebrates the agricultural heritage of the area and honors those in it.
Dorothy Mader agrees. A Lewiston resident with farming roots in the Genesee area, Mader has become a barn quilt enthusiast in recent years. She’s read up on the subject and traveled quilt trails in Tillamook, Ore., and other parts of the country. She’s hung a barn quilt on the family barn in Genesee and encouraged other local barn owners to do the same.
Mader appreciates the barn quilt’s aesthetic value, but for her it’s much more than that.
“They remind people who we are as a country: hard-working and artistic on top of that,” she says.
For her, the barn quilts are a way to honor the women who helped make this country what it is: women who had the ingenuity, creativity and determination to save up fabric scraps and piece them together to make beautiful blankets to keep their families warm. It’s also a way, she says, to highlight and preserve historic barns in an area.
A movement in the making
Though the trail in Grangeville has begun, it’s a movement that is still waiting to catch on. It takes some effort to hang a barn quilt and even more to coordinate a whole barn quilt trail. But for barn quilt fans, once you’ve got the bug, there’s no getting it out.
“It’s funny,” Urbahn laughs, “now when I drive around, I’m looking at barns wondering, ‘Eh, how would that one look?’ ”
More information about barn quilts in Idaho County is available by contacting Urbahn at (208) 983-2333. For those interested in having a barn quilt painted, a couple options include Moscow artist Laurel Mcdonald at email@example.com or Lewiston artist Taun Allman at (208) 798-7474.