About Me

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Recent retiree--35 year's experience teaching reading, English, adult basic education and volunteer leadership skills. Started this blog to exchange ideas and commentary with friends and others having an interest in joining the discussions. Greatest life accomplishments include: 1.organized my 3rd grade class to check out library books for me to get around librarian's weekly limit--Amazon.com, the Mullins Elementary 3rd Grade Class of 1956 is still waiting for "thank you" notes; 2. volunteered in the Peace Corps, island of St. Kitts, West Indies; 3.taught adults to read, earn their GEDs., and speak English as a second language; 4. bought a border collie puppy for $6, got evicted rather than give him up, and began a life-long love affair with all things "Dog"; 5. joined a physical fitness boot camp in my mid-50s--don't mess with someone who's been doing regulation pushups in wet grass at 5:30 a.m.; 6. walked across Northern England with best friend Sally--over 80 miles from the Irish to North Seas; and 7. travelled to many foreign countries for pleasure and work.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kentucky Barn Quilts

In mid-December my older sister and I headed out from Louisville on a four hour drive to eastern Kentucky. It had been over a year since we had been back to Pike County where we were born and raised. In 2008 a fire destroyed my sister's apartment building in Pikeville. I moved her to Louisville so I could do a better job of caregiving. She was happy with her new apartment in the city, but she wanted to see her old apartment and we both wanted to visit my elderly Aunt Draxie who still lives on the family farm. A long roadtrip with my sister can be a challenge because, sadly, we don't have a lot to talk about. However, on this trip we would be traveling part of the time on one of Kentucky's Quilt Trails. Once we left I-64 and got on more rural roadways of eastern Kentucky we were on the lookout for the brightly colored graphic quilt designs painted on barns--like this flower basket on an old rusty tin-roofed barn.

Quilting in Kentucky is a functional art form. Country women saved scrap pieces of fabric and sewed them, usually by hand, into bed covers that provided warmth and beauty for their homes. Mothers taught their daughters to cut out, piece, and quilt these traditional bedcovers. The patterns were handed down through the generations. The quilt designs had names like: Flower Basket, Little Dutch Girl, Log Cabin, Flying Geese, Bowtie, Grandma's Wedding Ring.

The idea for barn quilts probably originated with the hex signs that were painted on barns in Pennsylvania. Painting quilt patterns on barns was first done in the mountains of West Virginia and then spread to Kentucky and North Carolina as a way to celebrate rural life. Kentucky's Quilt Trails were organized by the Kentucky Arts Council.

We had not been driving long on KY-460, a quilt trail that runs through eight eastern Kentucky counties, when we spotted our first barn quilt: I pulled off the road and tried to get photos without getting run over by the traffic. My photos aren't great because the barns were usually at a distance from the highway, but you can see the variety of barns and patterns that we spotted.

The next quilt was the flower basket on the tin-roofed barn above--which was my favorite for it's rough weathered beauty. Next we spotted this newer barn with the Bowtie pattern painted in bright orange, green and yellow: As I mentioned earlier, we made this trip in mid-December so there were Christmas decorations out. Look closely at the barn and you'll see a simple star over the quilt. At night it's quite common to see barns lit with these huge stars. A lovely sight when you're driving through the country on a winter's night.

We were having good luck with our barn quilt hunt. In less than 100 miles we spotted five barns with quilt paintings--all very different. The next one was in a small community by the highway. It was painted to resemble print fabric which would commonly be used for quilts:

Once we got into Pike County we had to leave the main highway and drive this narrow road to the end of Joe's Creek hollow. If we met an oncoming car, one driver would have to pull off the road--please not me--to let the other car pass. My Aunt Draxie, who is in her late 80s, lives alone on the family homeplace which is nearly a hundred years old. She is a true mountain woman in the best sense. She is a keen quilter so after lunch we admired her latest creations, including this pansy appliqued quilt top: Aunt Draxie was really enjoying sharing her quilts so we kept digging through the quilt chest and found this treasure. This embroidered muslin bedspread was over a hundred years old and had been a gift to my Aunt Draxie from her aunt. This cover would have only been used for special occasions like when the house was cleaned for Sunday or when company came. I was fascinated by the embroidery stitches--quite different from modern embroidery, perhaps because of the heavy thread used many years ago.

Late in the day we reluctantly left my Aunt Draxie and drove into Pikeville so my sister could see her old apartment building. She was satisfied with just a passing look at the building and said she was happy to be a city "girl" in Louisville. We drove back home and before leaving the KY-460 Quilt Trail we ended the barn quilt search with this last example, a patriotic red, white and blue:Although I've been a city dweller for over thirty years, these beautiful quilts and visiting my dear Aunt Draxie reminded me that I'll always be proud of my mountain roots.

Note: if you are interested in learning more about barn quilts, the Kentucky Arts Council has published Kentucky Quilt Trails Views and Voices which describes the community by community establishment of these quilt trails by folk art scholars. The book includes pieces by both literary and visual artists describing the impact of quilts on rural life in Kentucky. It also includes interviews with the families who participated in the project--how they chose the patterns for their barns, its significance to the family, the history of the barn itself. The introduction to the book is written by Silas House, a rising young Kentucky writer. House has earned national critical acclaim for his novels such as Clay's Quilt , The Coal Tattoo, and A Parchment of Leaves.


Jan n Jer said...

Very interesting Faye...I just learned something new...this would be a trip I would love to do...those old barns with the quilts painted on are so rustic and quaint. Its always so nice to go back to our roots and stir up good memories. Thanks for sharing something I never knew!

Debs said...

What a fascinating post. I've never heard of barn quilts before, but love the idea.

The Church Lady said...

Hi Faye! That sounds like a lovely road trip that you and your sister took. The barn quilts are so pretty! As you know, I live in PA, so the PA Dutch hex signs on the barns are very popular here. Also the giant tin stars hang on many barns and houses. I have a giant star on the side of my garage.

I love that name, Draxie. Your Aunt looks like a strong, healthy lady. She has quite a collection of quilts. They are really neat.

KittyHawk said...

I liked SIlas House's ELi the Good, also.

Nice post, Faye.

Hoosier Girl said...

Oh my gosh, this is great! I am soooo going to do this. You know you and I really need to meet sometime. I work in Louisville every day!

Thanks for sharing this. I love quilts!


Faye said...

janis--this roadtrip to visit my aunt was a trip back to my childhood. We drove past the place where I was born--at home--in a two room house over 60 years ago. Have you checked out the Dutch hex signs on barns in rural PA?

debs--folk art is very important in Kentucky. These barn quilts are just one more way for us to remember our mountain heritage.

church lady--is your star lit? Nothing more spectacular than seeing these simple stars suspended in the night sky--the element of surprise adds to it. My aunt is a very admirable woman. I've written about her life as a young wife in the mountain before--a hard life that she made the best of.

kittyhawk--thumbs up for the new Silas House "Eli the Good"? I'll put it on my spring reading list.

hoosier girl--you work in Louisville? I'm following several bloggers in Kentucky and Indiana. We should have a Kentuckiana Blogger's Lunch. We learn enough about each other through blogging that we'd most likely enjoy meeting each other in the real world.

Celeste said...

What a beautiful trip with a beautiful ending. I love the old barns, and the quilts just dress them up.

My family has it's roots in the mid-west (Ohio). I miss being able to go back to old stomping grounds.

Thanks for coming by my blog.

laurie said...

wow. i want to go there! i want to see that! i bought an old quilt from a farm in tennessee about 20 years ago. it is falling to pieces now (thanks to dogs) and i think it's time to replace it.

you know i was born in kentucky, right? but i've never driven around the state.

Patience-please said...

We saw a barn quilt once, but I thought it was simply a very creative farmer. This is fascinating, Faye!
I just love your blog.

Faye said...

laurie-I do remember your mentioning being born in KY--Louisville?--in one of your great family tales. Kentucky is a beautiful touring state, especially the mountains in spring and fall. And, like TN and NC, great places to find handworked quilts.

patience-has Bill spotted any of these quilt barns on his painting rambles? Do you know, I've never visited the Quilt Museum in Paducah--always working when I was there. Have you?

celeste-if you ever return to OH you could probably see some of these barn quilts. Like in KY, they were done there as well through the OH Arts Council. BTW, I'm glad you're blogging again.

BeckyB said...

I loved this blog, thanks for posting. My sister and I just came home from Kentucky, tracing our roots there and fell in love with the quilt barn art.


Mary said...

Thanks for the link! Very nice! My posts on barn quilts are linked on the side of my quilt blog.