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The Ashe County Barn Quilt Project: Country Roads and Colorful “Quilts”

Please don’t misunderstand me! Since moving west in early 2002, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the charming city of San Francisco, the rugged beauty of the Northern California coast, and the majesty of Yosemite. Even so, I’ve never quite overcome my homesickness for the place I left behind: the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina.

View from the Blue Ridge Parkway, right outside Blowing Rock, NC, on the cusp of the change from summer to fall

I lived (and quilted) in this part of the country for over 16 years, and never tired of the ever-changing mountain vistas, with their hourly shifts in color, light, shape, and line. One of my favorite pastimes was to hit the road on Sunday afternoon, exploring the rural byways in search of inspiration. 

Since 2005, visitors and locals alike have been treated to a new addition to the Northwestern NC landscape, one that pleases the eye without disturbing the natural beauty of the environment. If anything, this addition not only enhances the view, but celebrates the cultural history of the area as well. It’s called The Ashe County Barn Quilt Project. (Following photos courtesy of the Ashe County Arts Council.)

Star of Bethlehem, painted by Lyn Soeder on the barn owned by Ronnie Cooper, Fleetwood, NC

Decorative painting on barns is nothing new. German farmers who settled what are now the Berks, Lancaster, and Lehigh County areas of Pennsylvania were applying colorful designs to their outbuildings some 300 years ago. The current revival, however, traces its roots to Adams County, Ohio, where–in 2001–Donna Sue Groves, a field representative for the Ohio Arts Council, sought to paint a large quilt block on the side of a tobacco barn to honor her mother, a master quilter. The idea caught on, and a movement was born. Barn Quilt Projects sprang up quickly throughout rural Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, and other adjoining states with large agricultural regions.

Ashe County, situated just up the road from my former home in Boone, joined the movement in 2005, largely through efforts spearheaded by the Ashe County Arts Council and its executive director, Jane Lonon. Jane was excited and inspired by the opportunity to marry the area’s rich history of craft with its deep agricultural roots. (Christmas trees are the primary crop these days.) What better way than by showcasing a quilt block on a barn?

North Carolina Lily, painted by Loretta Weaver on the Francis barn, Warrensville, NC

 The Ashe County Barn Quilt Project is a work in progress. At present there are over 50 barns that have been decorated with the assistance (funding and labor) of the local Arts Council. Property owners can choose from two dozen or so different patterns, and can arrange to have their selection painted by volunteers, or undertake the job themselves, with guidelines provided by the Arts Council. “It’s not difficult,” Ms. Lonon explains. “It’s basically coloring by numbers and staying within the lines. We’ve had some local art classes volunteer, and we’ve even had a family or two tackle their ‘homeplace’ barn as a group project at a family reunion.”

Pine Tree, painted by the Ashe County H.S. Art Class on the Perkins barn, West Jefferson, NC

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, painted by the Ashe County H.S. Art Class on a Creston, NC, barn

In addition to honoring the area’s heritage, the project has increased tourism, drawing visitors deeper into this once easily overlooked corner of the state. At present, there are two driving tours mapped through the county, each passing more than a dozen painted barns while covering bucolic, scenic byways ripe with outstanding photo ops.

Blackford's Beauty, painted by Cathy Shepherd on the Jones barn, Lansing, NC

You’ll find more information about the Ashe County Barn Quilt Project by visiting their website. For information about similar projects in your area, or an area you plan to visit, check out the comprehensive website available through the American Barn Quilt Project. For a glimpse of the outstanding craft heritage of the Southern Appalachian region, check out this video, taken during Alex Anderson’s recent visit to Asheville, NC (about 100 miles SW of Ashe County), and which originally appeared on The Quilt Show website.

Squares and Stars, painted by Meghan Minton on the Witherspoon barn, Jefferson, NC

As autumn deepens, I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-tour of quilts and countryside. ‘Til next time, happy stitching.

Oops! How could I forget! We had lots of wonderful feedback on the post about Joen Wolfrom‘s new book, Adventures in Design. The lucky winner of the autographed copy is Sandy S., of Greer, SC. Congratulations, Sandy!

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