The Story Behind Alabama Barn Quilts
August 20, 2019
Imagine driving on a county road past acres of farmland, when suddenly you spot what looks like a bright quilt hanging over the entrance to a rustic barn. This unexpected sighting of art is becoming more and more common around the state, thanks to the Alabama Barn Quilt Trail.
Regina Painter started the nonprofit organization after she went sightseeing in Tennessee after attending a quilt show. She saw a quilt block on a barn, fell in love with the idea and her wheels started turning. She sought help from the art department at the University of North Alabama, where student artist Naomi Skye helped her get the group started.
Barn quilts are the brainchild of Donna Sue Groves of Adams County, Ohio. A breast cancer survivor, she wanted to do something in honor of her mother, a celebrated quilter, while sprucing up her barn at the same time. In 2001, she painted a wooden square like a traditional quilt block and hung it on her mother’s barn.
All that history is documented in “Pieced Together,” a documentary about how the barn quilt trail movement began and how Donna Sue credited it with saving her life.
Likewise, Dale Robinson of Florence retired early because of complications from Parkinson’s disease. His wife Lisa read an article about Regina’s efforts in Alabama, and before they knew it the Robinsons were “heavily involved,” he says. Today, as a member of the Alabama Barn Quilt Trail committee, he designs and draws each barn quilt square in his garage before it’s painted and installed.
“It keeps me busy,” says Dale. “Five years ago, I didn’t even know what a barn quilt block was.”
The trail has 54 official sites, with three more blocks completed and awaiting installation and one more that’s still in progress in Dale’s garage – and there are some 30 requests for more to be made.
The quilt squares measure either 8 feet by 8 feet or 4 feet by 4 feet. Originally, they were made from plywood, but those were heavy and their colors faded easily and had to be redone. Now the volunteer group uses composite aluminum, which is lightweight and durable.
After Dale sketches the design, a small but dedicated group of volunteers including Regina, Lisa, and Janice Davis and her granddaughter, Elle Power, paint the blocks with industrial acrylic paint that doesn’t fade. Each one can take as little as three hours or up to two weeks to complete, depending on the complexity of the design. Another pair of volunteers, Anthony and Kitty Hackney, install the blocks on barns around Alabama.
Right now, most of the barn quilts on the trail are in the northern region of the state, but Dale would like to see them all over. Sometimes he and Lisa go on scouting trips, searching for barns that would make good candidates to host quilt blocks. The barns need to be in good repair and located where they can be seen from a roadway.
“We want people to be able to drive by and enjoy it and have a safe place to take pictures,” says Dale. “We encourage prospective hosts to find family heirloom quilts, and we re-create them, which makes it that much more special.”
The barn quilts are made and installed free of charge, thanks to a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the Alabama Farmers Federation.
Dale’s involvement “is a way for me to give something back to the community and make Alabama a better place,” he says. “Life has been good to me, and Parkinson’s is part of it. I don’t think about the fact that I have it, or dwell on it. There are plenty of things that I can’t do anymore as a result of the disease, but my philosophy is focus on what I still can do. And the barn quilt trail is one of those things.”
If you’re interested in finding out about volunteer opportunities or getting a barn quilt to add to the trail, contact Dale at firstname.lastname@example.org. A map of the trail is available at www.alabamabarnquilttrail.org.