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Barn Quilts: A Little History & DIY in Ten Steps

Hey Farm Friends,

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@xoxofarmgirl) have probably seen the barn quilt I made and its path from start to completion. If not, no worries. It's here. And, because it's simpler to do than (maybe) it looks, here's a How To for you as well.

I used to sew quilts for babies, when I had some babies of my own. I used bright colors and bold borders with simple patterns for my "Quilties" and had a great time making them. I still have the ones I made for my kids. Good times.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I guess I don't quite have quilts out of my system yet. I have a deep love of Gee's Bend quilts and their story. Gee's Bend, a small black community in Alabama, has a strong tradition of making use of scraps and remnants to create stunning quilts mostly in a "my way" pattern of self expression and freedom. The tradition of quilt making has been passed down from one generation to the next starting in the early 1920s and continues today. I went to an exhibition of Gee's Bend quilts at the Whitney Museum in 2002. I saw more of them some years later at the Outsider Art Fair too. I wish I had bought one.

Quilts and quilt-inspired patterns spring up unexpectedly from time to time without warning. Fashion runways in 2017 and 2018 were full of them. Isabel Marant created a quilt inspired sweater with a red turning star that I love and wear. Add Dior, Calvin Klein and Off White to the list. Quilt inspo overload. The runway has shown off some beauties and I covet this green (men's) parka with a bold quilt lining. I actually saw a woman coming out of the subway in this one day at Prince Street and nearly swooned. (Alas, it's a $5,000 item!)

Anyway, let's get out of the city and head to the country where my utilitarian DIY barn does the trick for my furry friends, but is no architectural marvel, by any stretch. It's a simple barn -- plywood faced and now painted a gray to unify it and blend it with the adjacent woods -- that has been modified to suit separate quarters for my three goats (together in one stall where they snuggle) and my donkeys (who alternate between two stalls (also snuggling in the same stall together), depending on when housekeeping comes. It includes a simple tack room (my favorite office) and a hay room. The donkeys have an open covered area that faces their big field. Little by little I have added walls to protect them, first from the winter winds and then from the summer heat. The walls, originally temporary, continue to grow and stay. Just recently, each took on an operable window adopted from my neighbor's old camper. DIY to the hilt.

I am not sure what turned me on to the idea of a barn quilt, but one day I went down some "new idea" rabbit hole (this happens a lot) and came back out with some images of cool designs for inspiration. While I like all barn quilts, in principle, I favor the more modern, less typical patterns where a star emerges subtly and not all at once.

Barn quilts have been around for 100s of years. Typically, they are eight feet square and hang high on large barns as a sort of family coat of arms. When you'd drive by in your horse-drawn cart on a dirt road between fields, you'd see a barn with a black and white pattern on it and know whose it was and where you were. In the early 2000s a trail of barn quilts emerged in Ohio following a popular barn quilt project by a woman who aimed to honor her late mothers and her Appalachian roots. If you google "barn quilt trail" you will find they exist in nearly every state, Ohio being a lead example.

Whatever your reason, your pattern, your colors, a barn quilt is a beautiful way to enliven your barn. So, that's what I set out to do. It's a good project for the winter, when the skies are gray and there's an occasional mood to match.

Here's how to get started:

Step One: Find a pattern you like. I mean, google some images or go to your local library or bookstore and check out a book on quilts. I think the patterns that emanate from the center of a square are best. For me, I chose a pattern that made use of a simple grid of squares, each of which was divided into a triangle. Some have a similar grid but focus on a diamond shape instead and others are all together more painterly. It's all a matter of what you think you can handle. In my humble opinion (IMHO) simple is the best way to start.

Step Two: I am lucky that I live near a pretty big hardware store with a good lumber department and some staff that like to help. In the city, when you mention the word "barn" and, well, you look like me, the guys get a quick smile and are curious enough to lend a little extra help. So, on my first trip to the hardware store, I ordered a piece of pressure treated plywood. Because they come in 8-foot sheets and I had it cut, I went home with two 4' x 4' square panels. Pressure treated lumber weighs a lot too... so make sure you can carry it or enlist some help.

Step Three: To be honest, the wood sat around for a while. I gathered other materials in the meantime, bit by bit. A set of acrylic paints with a rainbow of colors and some larger tubes to use as extenders and to alter the shades as needed. White is handy. So is a light taupe, at least for what I was doing. Even for the more popular colors, a small amount of paint goes a long way. I also got some outdoor primer in white. And some paintbrushes with a flat edge and painters tape to mask off the different sections. For the finishing touches I stocked up on spray cans of matte varnish. Add to that a small tarp and a stash of paper towels or old rags and voila. The pressure mounting, I jumped right in.

Step Four: It was time to get started. So, I painted the whole board, including the edges, white using the primer and a roller (add that to the list at the hardware store). Once I did that, I realized there were some cracks and pretty big grooves in the board. So, back to the hardware store, again. "Hey, how's the barn thing coming?" Ha!

I picked up some all weather wood filler, a plastic spatula and some sanding blocks in various grades, went home, filled in the cracks, walked the dog and returned to sand them smooth. Then I applied another quick coat of primer and waited for it to dry.

[One Note: I did not set out to make a museum quality painting. I had more of a grab-it-and-growl mentality, but whatever works for you is fine. If you get really close to my barn quilt you will find imperfections. As per the surface, it is not a fine piece of wood. But it worked just great for me.]

Step Five: At four feet wide (48 x 48 inches), I marked off six equal divisions of eight inches across and then down for a total of 36 squares. Of course, another trip to the hardware store (this time with the dog) led me to an amazing T-square that helped me mark things off perfectly without any wobble. So many helpful inventions, all waiting for me in one store (thanks Ace)! Having selected my quilt pattern, I also divided each square into two triangles making sure they went the right way to create my desired pattern. Keep a picture of what you want to create handy or you will surely make mistakes and have to undo them.

Step Six: I laid out my paints on each triangle, marking some with scribble for repeating colors like white and gray and taupe and sea foam green. Some colors I knew I would use directly from the tube and some I knew would be a process of trial and mixing. I started with the easiest ones first. I also tried to paint a few triangles freehand and then decided that taping them off was a better idea. So, little by little, day by day, I would paint a few triangles. Sometimes I would go by color and other times by section, depending on my mood. And finally, each triangle was filled. I should mention that I tracked my progress by taking pictures at each stage. That's not something that always occurs to me until I am finished with a project, but it was really satisfying to look back and see how it progressed.

Step Seven: For about a week, I would visit my painted board and spray it with the matte varnish. Sometimes once a day and sometimes twice, until it seemed well coated. Please be sure it is in a well ventilated area, because the varnish can pack a punch. Each time, before I started I wiped down the dry surface of the board with a dry cloth just to make sure I wasn't lodging unnecessary dust onto the surface. At the end, the paint looked protected and the surface gained a nice matte luster.

Step Eight: One more trip to the hardware store, believe it or not, led me to another department where I purchased a piece of trim that I primed and affixed to the edges of the board. I thought the trim would give it a more finished look and would prevent weather from getting inside the board (which was not perfect in the first place). I affixed it with a hot glue gun that I had hanging around from my Martha Stewart days and reinforced it with small nails every eight inches.

Step Nine: Finally done, I brought my finished barn quilt to the barn and with the help of a friend, mounted it flush against the barn. We pre-drilled four holes in the quilt, at an intersection of triangles, symmetrically around the pattern and then screwed it directly to the barn. I am sure there are myriad ways to do this, but this way worked pretty well.

Step Ten: I loved all the steps, but seeing it up on the barn was the best of all, made better only by the donkeys standing in front of it (and not chewing on it!).

I hope you might consider making a barn quilt too... it's a great way to make good use of a polar vortex and to bring a little more spring into your winter days. If you do, send me a picture. But if you just dream about it, that's fine too.

XOXO Farm Girl

#barnquilt #diy #barnquilttrail #geesbend #hardwarestore #winterproject

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