Friday, April 4, 2014

Barn Quilts a New Idea of an Old Tradition

There is nothing quite like curling up on the couch on a chilly day with a cup of cocoa and a good book wrapped in a well-worn quilt. Many children receive their first quilt from a relative when they’re born and often that quilt was made with them in mind featuring animals, boats, or bonnets. Wedding quilts are a traditional gift, sometimes embroidered with the names of the women who helped quilt it. Quilts are prized for their complexity and beauty and  can be worth a lot of money, especially if they're hand-quilted . Quilting is a traditional handicraft for women; a skill many girls learn during their childhood. 

The tradition of quilting goes back to ancient times. Quilted fabric is first seen in Egypt around 3400 BC. The act of piecing quilt patterns became popular during the mid-1800s. This new method of quilting has brought some interesting things to light. Patterns were cut from a paper pattern pinned to the fabric, but in the 1800s paper was scarce on the western frontier. Pioneers often used letters to cut their quilt pieces; these letters acted as both the pattern and the insulation.  The letters from inside pioneer quilts have become a primary source of information on pioneer life.

Since quilt block patterns began to gain popularity the patterns are innumerable.  Patterns can be anything from animals to abstract combinations representing an idea or emotion.  This traditionally female craft is a way of expressing congratulations, sympathy, or grief. From the tradition of quilting, Barn Quilts have emerged. Barn quilts are replicas of quilt squares that are made of wood, usually 8 x 8 feet in size and hung on barns or buildings for passersby to see. They can be found in 30 states and Canada. And Geary County is now a part of this growing attraction in the Flint Hills.

There aren’t many barn quilts in Geary County, but they are growing in number. The first barn quilt to join the Flint Hills Quilt Trail is hanging on a house just north of Chestnut on the east side of Jefferson. This barn quilt honors the K-State Wildcats and showcases two other quilt block patterns.  The second quilt block on the Flint Hills Quilt Trail hangs inside the Geary County Historical Museum.  Located in Gallery II or the Homestead Gallery, this quilt block is smaller than more traditional Barn Quilts, but represents a volatile time in Kansas History.  The quilt block’s pattern is Kansas Troubles.

The Kansas Troubles pattern goes back to the time of Bleeding Kansas, but there are no records of what women called the design then. The pattern name appears in print around 1890. “It doesn't matter how many little triangles there are; it is the rotational repeat that makes it a Kansas Troubles.”[1] There is a Kansas Troubles Quilt in the Spencer Art Museum’s collection dating to the 1850s.

The newest Barn Quilt to join the trail is the schoolhouse quilt block at Spring Valley Historic Site, K-18 and Spring Valley Road.  Made by the Thom and Char Grelk, this quilt pays homage to the country schoolhouses that grace not only Geary County but nearly all frontier towns.

The Flint Hills Quilt Trail is a collection of Barn Quilts in the 22 counties of the Flint Hills Region. There are several Barn Quilts in Geary County, please see the Flint Hills Quilt Trail website for details. Other counties in the area with their own Quilt Trails are Riley and Dickinson, and many of DK County’s Barn Quilts were made by the high school students in Abilene.  The Barn Quilts hanging on Jefferson and at the museum were made by Tom and Char Grelk.  The museum has added a Schoolhouse quilt block, also made by the Grelks at the Spring Valley School House.

For more information on the Flint Hills Quilt Train please visit their blog at or Facebook page at

Kansas Troubles Barn Quilt located at Geary County Historical Society.
Schoolhouse Quilt Block at Spring Valley Historic Site.

[1] Brackman, Barbara, “Civil War Quilts: Reproduction Quilts and Fabrics.” January 2011