By Emma Castleberry
Summer looks a lot different this year, but there are plenty of safe, socially distanced ways to enjoy the rich art and craft culture of the Western North Carolina region. One such option is driving a regional quilt trail. “With people taking limited vacations this year, it is a good time to peruse the back roads, take in the beauty of the mountains and enjoy viewing the quilt blocks on buildings and barns,” says lap quilter Georgia Bonesteel.
Donna Sue Groves is credited with being the founder of the barn quilt movement, which began in 2001. Groves honored her mother with a quilt painting on her Ohio barn and that small project grew into a county-wide effort, then beyond. Barn quilts are colorful quilting patterns painted on wooden blocks and attached to the sides of buildings—often barns—throughout North America. The North American Quilt Trail Project features more than 7,000 such installations on a driving tour throughout the rural US and Canada.
The Quilt Trails of Western North Carolina features nine counties with more than 200 quilt blocks, with the highest concentration in Yancey, Mitchell and Haywood counties. Quilt trails can also be found in Ashe, Avery, Madison, McDowell, Swain and Wautaga counties. Madison County alone features four separate quilt tours in four different parts of the county. “Madison County is filled with history and this is just one small example of our deep heritage,” says Sandy Stevenson, director of the Madison County Visitor Center. Stevenson adds that, while admiring the quilts, be sure to notice the historic barns beneath them. Madison County also has six self-guided barn tours.
The Quilt Trails of Western NC is a program of the Haywood County Arts Council (HCAC). “Each of the quilt trails feature blocks designed to reflect their heritage and culture,” says Leigh M. Forrester, HCAC executive director. “Many blocks feature local animals or birds and patterns of Cherokee design. They are a visual emblem of Appalachia and a true art form of the people of the mountains.”
Forrester explains that, long before the days of television, women around a quilting frame shared news, negotiated marriages and settled disagreements. “It has even been suggested that the quilters were early suffragists, for the cooperative effort of making the complicated patterns allowed women to bond in highly personal and effective ways,” she says. “One of the most dramatic uses of the quilt was as a map for enslaved people escaping through the Underground Railroad. The quilts they carried were festooned with symbols which led the way to freedom. The Drunkard’s Path pattern warned of slave catchers and dogs in the area, so you had to backtrack. Flying Geese, headed north, was a sign to ‘follow the birds.’ A shoofly pattern told you there were helpers in the area. The Crossroads pattern signaled you were in Cleveland, Ohio, and free.”
Many of the quilt blocks on display in Haywood, Yancey and Mitchell counties were handcrafted in Burnsville. New quilt blocks are hand-painted in Waynesville at the HCAC Quilt Block Studio. “Quilts are synonymous with our fabric culture not only in this area but as a universal graphic heritage,” says Bonesteel. “Taking the geometric lessons from the quilts has given us the chance to feature color, design and educational features from the past.”
The rural county roads are pleasant this time of year, particularly when viewed from a pleasantly air-conditioned car. “August is a perfect month to drive through the beautiful mountain communities of Western NC,” says Forrester. “Everything is green and fresh.” Drive one small trail near your home, or make a goal to see quilts in all nine counties—either way, you’ll get a safe dose of art, education and history.
Find driving maps and information at QuiltTrailsWNC.org.