Growing Trend: Barn Quilts

Posted: January 19, 2018

Colorful quilt squares are beautifying local barns.

Barn quilts are becoming popular country landmarks in DeKalb County. They provide special points of interest for those traveling the countryside while honoring our farming heritage and the talents of local quilters and artists.

Decorating barns dates back to the Colonial days when colonists painted folk art patterns on the sides of their barns to celebrate their heritage.

The concept of barn quilts started in Ohio and has spread throughout rural America with its two-fold purpose of adding extra appeal to the exterior of barns and other buildings and providing trails for tourists. Notably, Wisconsin has several barn quilts decorating the sides of many of their stately dairy barns, and rural communities which organize quilt trails.

A barn quilt is typically one quilt block design painted onto a piece of plywood. The design represents a geometric shape oftentimes resembling those in a quilt. There are hundreds of quilt patterns and likewise as many different barn quilt designs.

In DeKalb County, there are nearly 40 barn quilts. Some of them are featured in this issue. As interest in barn quilts continues to grow locally, the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau hopes to develop a webpage where the public can access information and facilitate their own self-guided tour.

Barn quilts bring a renewed interest to rural communities revering agriculture, art, history, and local culture.

Sharlyn Larson
She’s a farmer’s daughter & quilter.

Sharlyn Larson has made hundreds of quilts. She started making quilts in high school and never stopped.

Her most memorable quilts are the ones she has hand stitched for her family – the wedding ring quilt for her parent’s anniversary, quilts for her children made from clothing that her parents once wore, and baby quilts for her young granddaughter. Each of her quilts has her name and date sewn into them for posterity.

Sharlyn’s grandmother helped her learn to sew at a young age and inspired her to be a fine seamstress. For years now, Sharlyn has kept busy with alterations and a sewing business. She’s sewn wedding dresses and lots of t-shirt quilts.

Last year, the quilter became interested in making a barn quilt to dress up the side of their barn.

“I decided it was something that I wanted,” said Sharlyn. She read books to learn more about the art of making barn quilts and then chose colors that she liked and would look nice on their yellow barn.

She selected one of her favorite quilt designs, Farmer’s Daughter, which also represents who she is. She grew up a farmer’s daughter helping her father, the late Paul Brummel, run their family farm. Sharlyn and her husband Jeff now reside on the home farm in rural Shabbona.

Last summer, Sharlyn painted her 8’ x 8’ barn quilt block and then with the help of neighbors it was installed in August in time for the county Barn Tour. The barn quilt was placed on the east side of their cattle shed, next to the century-old barn which was featured on the Barn Tour along with other barns.

“I like it because I quilt,” said Sharlyn. “It’s the Farmer’s Daughter design and represents an old-fashioned art.”

Jean Klock
Many barn quilts were painted by this farm woman.

The northern part of DeKalb County has the most barn quilts, thanks in part to Jean Klock. Jean deserves credit for the barn quilt momentum – she’s painted 10 barn quilts for Kirkland and Kingston barns and buildings.

“I like seeing the finished products on the barns,” said Jean. She’s flattered that the barn quilt movement has caught on in the county. “We’re in a strong farming community and I hope the interest grows.”

What piqued Jean’s interest in barn quilts was seeing them in McHenry County, Illinois and southern Wisconsin. She said to herself, “Our barn needs a quilt.” So five years ago, she painted her first barn quilt block for her family’s red barn on Ault Road, southeast of Kirkland. She chose the Maple leaf pattern for their Maple Hill farm. Then she painted another for her garden fence using the seasonal pattern.

Once the neighbors saw the attractive barn quilts, they wanted one too and before long Jean was painting several barn quilts. Her mother-in-law Thelma was among those who were interested. Thelma said, “If the barn has a quilt, the house should have one. I had the perfect spot (on the north side of her ranch style house).”

Jean used to make fabric quilts but she prefers to paint quilt squares and teach others how to master the art of barn quilts. She has taught classes and given talks throughout the community. Her goal is to inspire people to “make their own barn quilt and choose ones that have special meaning.”

Averil Schreiber
There’s history behind her barn quilts.

The barn quilt blocks on Averil Schreiber’s barns, known as Temperance and North Star, are more than just pretty designs. They are part of her children’s ancestry and the farmstead’s history.

“I love the barn quilts because of their history and their connection to agriculture,” said Averil.

The Temperance barn quilt positioned under the gable of her machine shed represents her children’s heritage that dates back to the mid-1800s. Their ancestors from Ripley, Ohio made Temperance quilts to raise funds for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization of women against alcohol. Averil’s son now has the family Temperance quilt while Averil has a photograph of it. She chose the Temperance quilt pattern for her barn quilt to pay tribute to her children’s family history.

Averil’s family came to Chicago from Oxford, England in 1948. Her father taught at the University of Chicago, where Averil earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. For years she worked with older adults and now is retired after being administrator of a local retirement home.

The North Star quilt pattern is mounted on her 1868 historic barn which was built by Joe Lanan’s family. She selected the North Star because it was part of the past. The North Star signaled that a building was a safe refuge for escaping slaves and on the path of the underground railroad in northern DeKalb County. The North Star was the guiding light to freedom for the slaves. The quilt block, mounted on the north side of Old Joe’s barn, honors this abolitionist heritage.

Averil commissioned Jean Klock to paint the two barn quilts in 2016. Averil had them mounted to the buildings in time for the county Barn Tour which featured Old Joe’s barn amongst others.

The rural Kingston woman is fond of her barn quilts. “I enjoy decorating the barns (with the quilts) as much as I enjoy decorating my gardens,” she said.

Diana & Jerry Carls
This couple picks Honeybee quilt block for their barn.

When Diana and Jerry Carls moved to the country 10 years ago they wanted everything that rural life had to offer. It was so serene and it was country living at its best.

They gardened and canned foods. The Carls raised honeybees in hives among their prairie grasses. They had a big red barn for their chickens and for storing vintage tractors. And they lived in a remodeled farmhouse on their five acres in rural Kirkland.

“It was a blessing for us to be here,” said Diana, about living in the country.

Previously, Jerry had farmed in northern Illinois and was a mechanic. Diana was raised in a small rural town in northwestern Illinois.

The country couple became intrigued by quilt blocks which they had seen on barns so they decided to have one painted and mounted on their late 1800s barn. They chose the Honeybee pattern, which was quite fitting based on the multitude of bees on their property and also because Diana had made quilts with the Honeybee squares. The barn quilt was a replication of one of the squares using the same red and blue colors.

“I like the warmth, the look, the colors of quilts,” said Diana. “It tells you how you feel and transcends to your property with the warmth in the barn quilt.”

Since they installed the barn quilt, many people have stopped by to admire it. Their barn quilt is one of three on Quarry Road, west of Kirkland.

But as good as the country life was for the Carls, the real estate brokers recently sold their property and moved into the city of Sycamore. They left knowing the new owner would enjoy the rural setting as much as they did and of course their Honeybee barn quilt.

Kris Aves
A sunflower brightens their century-old barn.

When Kris Aves decided she wanted a barn quilt her design was an easy choice. She picked the Sunflower pattern based on her interest in flowers and gardening.

“I wanted something different and yellow is my favorite color,” said Kris. “Also, my daughter’s favorite flower is the sunflower.”

Kris had admired her neighbors’ barn quilts so she asked one of them, Pam Metcalf, to paint her a yellow sunflower barn quilt. The 8’ x 8’ quilt square was installed three years ago on the Aves’ century-old barn on Irene Road, northwest of Kirkland.

“Barn quilts are fun because people drive by and look at them,” said Kris. She explained that the barn quilts are symbolic of country pride and iconic forms of folk art which attract people to rural communities.

Kris welcomes the idea of tourists coming to the Kirkland community to appreciate barn quilts as part of a future quilt trail. “It would be awesome for people to see things (like barn quilts) that they don’t know about.” She has been active in her community helping to develop programs that entice people to small rural towns.

Her barn quilt also is an extension of her interest in making fabric quilts. She began sewing as a young farm girl for 4-H, then later made dresses for her daughter when she was little, and eventually Kris became interested in quilting.

Kris divides her time between church youth group activities and involvement in community organizations.

Yet she still loves her gardens and has helped develop other gardens in Kirkland. So her Sunflower barn quilt is a nice complement to her real flowers in nearby gardens.

Lyn & Megan Exner
Their hobbies are quilting and painting.

With a quilter and a painter in the family you naturally have a perfect combination for having your very own barn quilt. Lyn Exner and her daughter Megan are quilters and also Megan is a painter.

Lyn has been making quilts for more than 15 years, ever since her children were young. She enjoys quilting for family and friends and taught Megan how to quilt. Megan earned superior ratings for her quilts at the state fair during her 4-H days.

“All the quilt patterns are so pretty and colorful that it’s hard to pick a favorite,” said Lyn. But if she must, the Yellow Brick Road design is one of her favorites. Megan likes the Layer Cake pattern.

Megan, a budding artist, likes to paint. She got the idea to make her first barn quilt as a fundraiser for the FFA. It was a Pinwheel barn quilt which her neighbor purchased. A few years later the same neighbor, Pam Metcalf, made a barn quilt for the Exners using the Lattice pattern. The 8’x 8’ quilt block is quite the attraction on the Exner’s regal red barn, highly visible as you travel north on Irene Road, outside of Kirkland.

“What I like about the barn quilt is that the design pulls together all the colors of the farmstead,” said Megan. Their farmstead has a unique history with its own sawmill built in the late 1800s. The wood milled there was used to build the barn on their property.

The Exners have seen plenty of barn quilts in their travels but particularly like their very own on their farmstead.

View more quilts here or follow the DeKalb County Barn Quilt Trail: