How to Make a Real Barn Quilt

Sep 26, 2016 10:00:00 AM / by Andi Reynolds

In 2007 I was lucky to be part of the fledgling Washington County, Iowa, barn quilt effort. Following what other communities had done since the first barn quilts were created in 2001 in Ohio (, about a dozen citizens gathered to discuss how to decorate the many barns in this very agricultural part of the world with quilts. Several years later, the project received a gubernatorial commendation and Washington County became known as “The Barn Quilt Capital of Iowa” for having more quilts on barns than any other county (well over 100). This is my recollection of what our committee did and how my husband and I made our own barn quilt.

Then we made a plan. It included dividing the large county into four quadrants to make the logistics manageable. We would decorate barns in each quadrant by turn (because everyone had jobs, many also farmed, the weather played a huge role, there were only so many of us to do the work, etc.). The plan also involved writing a letter sent to area barn owners asking their permission to allow a quilt on their barn, and deciding what kinds of barns and locations to be included. (One fun location was on a barn side that faced drivers as they pulled through a fast-food restaurant.)

We created a colorful notebook of traditional quilt blocks so we could show barn owners what the results would look like. Someone kept track of who we talked with and whether they said “yes,” “no thanks,” or “maybe.” (Some of the “no” and “maybe” folks changed to “yes” once the quilts started going up and they saw how beautifully the quilts enhanced their property.) We tried to have each barn quilt be a different block, but if someone wanted a duplicate, changing the colors worked fine.

As to colors, what we showed each barn owner was just a suggestion. Many already had some kind of color scheme going for their home and wanted the quilt on their barn to match. Some chose university or sports colors. Blocks in the heavily Amish quadrant reflected quilt colors typical in that community. And some blocks just screamed the colors to use, such as Corn and Beans (yellow and green). Most barns were red or white, and almost every color combination used showed up well against either background. Someone kept track of who chose what block and colors.

We raised money to cover the cost of supplies – board, fasteners, tape, paint, brushes. The labor was volunteer and many times equipment such as bucket trucks or lifts to reach the quilt’s position was donated, but money still had to be raised for rented equipment and supplies. Also, we looked ahead and realized that long term maintenance and repair would need to be funded.

We approached local businesses and had a good response (once a few quilts were on the barns, people “got” it and money was easier to raise.) Some people became sponsors, paying for a quilt or more whether they had a barn or not. And we created items to sell: a self-guiding trip brochure to the decorated barns, note cards, and lapel pins of several blocks. (Author’s note: I’ve been away from this project since 2008 and additional items may have been added.) In the brochure, each quilt’s photo was accompanied by a brief story on the owners, farm or barn. This helped boost the historic value of the barn quilts, the driving tour, and tourism. For information about the Washington County, Iowa, barn quilts and tours, including pattern ideas and kits go to

To make a barn quilt we used a couple of configurations based on four feet. For example, a small quilt might be a single 4-foot square piece of marine grade MDO 3/4-inch plywood. A larger quilt would be two pieces of 4' by 8' plywood. Some quilts were on point.

The face and edges were primed with exterior paint. The block design had been measured out on computer by a committee member; this served as the blueprint for taping off each color area or section to be painted. Sections and edges were painted twice (with exterior or marine grade paint) and allowed to dry between coats.

How the quilt was fastened to the barn varied depending on the barn’s construction and the size of the quilt; even the small quilts were heavy. The largest quilts had to have either frames or supporting horizontal boards attached to the outside of the barn; the quilt was then attached to this support system, which was bolted securely from the inside of the barn.

In some cases, a narrow overhang piece was attached to the top edge to keep water and snow out as much as possible, to protect the supporting frame from the elements, and to prevent birds from nesting or marring the surface with their – ahem – gifts. It always took at least two people for the smallest quilts and several more the large ones. Windy days were not good hanging days (and it’s always somewhat windy in Iowa).

The professional photographs taken of the Washington County, Iowa, volunteers working and their completed quilts are under copyright and serve to raise money for the committee, but I can show you the Carolina Lily quilt my husband and I put on the closest building we had to a barn on our almost-three acres in Keota, Iowa – a little red shed. The size of the shed and the sliding door mechanism as well as where the studs were located dictated that our quilt be 2 1/2 feet square and on point. Because the quilt was relatively lightweight and studs were in the right places, we screwed it directly to the shed.

My husband used an electric drill to attach our quilt to studs.



 It took a week of drawing, taping, painting and drying to complete this four-color, 2 1/2 square foot barn quilt.



The lily color matched the siding on our 100-year old farmhouse. The house and the shed and the quilt belongs to another homeowner now; I don’t know who. I hope they enjoy their barn quilt and don’t mind seeing it here in this blog.

After this photo was taken we painted the narrow shed trim bright white to make the quilt really pop.



The lily flower colors were as close as we could get to the house’s tan siding and blue trim.



When my husband and I left the state in 2008, the first quadrant in Washington County had been done and the committee was working on the second. Some barn owners saw the quilts going up around them and did their own. If you aren’t decorating hundreds of barns you don’t need a committee to help you because making a barn quilt is really simple: Choose a design, get the supplies together, paint a quilt block, hang it up. What a great way to decorate your barn, home, garage or shed and let your neighbors know about your passion for quilts!

By Andi Reynolds

Following almost five years as the executive book editor for the American Quilter’s Society, Andi Reynolds retired and has resumed the freelance life. She spends her time writing, quilting, cooking, and obeying the commands of her large dogs Lucky and Mousse. Her husband Dennis is the beloved co-leader of the pack. They live in Paducah, Kentucky. 





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Andi Reynolds

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