The Quilt Trails

I was inspired to travel a leg of the North Carolina Quilt Trail to learn more about the stories it shares, the handmade craft it recognizes, and the journey it takes you on through the Southern mountains of Appalachia.

The Quilt Trails

For as long as I can remember, I have gone to North Carolina during the summer to visit my family. Our family had a small, rustic cabin in Yancey County growing up and there wasn’t a summer I missed. I have such fond memories of making mudpies from the rocks and flowers in our driveway and visiting the craft fair filled with local artisans each August. I love being surrounded by quaint mornings, beautiful scenery, and a whole landscape to explore. One of my favorite things to look for while traveling through the scattered mountain towns are the quilt blocks hung on the side of barns, businesses, and homes. They are eye-catching and unique and I just had to learn everything I could about them.

What is the Quilt Trail?

The quilt trail at large is a popular American folk art fueled by the involvement of the local communities they are placed in and often share the towns’ history and local family stories. There are numerous quilt trails throughout the US and Canada, but the largest concentration of quilt blocks is in Western North Carolina which just so happens to be where I visit each summer. It is an art installation at the heart, rooted with tradition and storytelling while still being tremendously visual in mixing new and old.

The Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway is one of the most popular quilt trails to follow. Between Yancey County and Mitchell County, the Mt. Mitchell Scenic Byway has over 200 quilt squares distributed through the landscape. Traditional quilt patterns are the most common inspiration for the quilt blocks patterns. However, there are a few special ones custom-designed to help tell a special story of the town or a family. A notable spot on the Mt. Mitchell Byway is a working quilt-block sundial in the town square of Burnsville. This is the only working quilt-block sundial in the world, might I add.

History of the Quilt Trail

The quilt trails project started in Ohio in 2001 by a woman named Donna Sue Groves. Groves painted the first patterned block of the trail on the side of her tobacco barn to honor her mother, Maxine, a talented quilter. As the quilt square caught peoples’ eye and sparked conversation, many jumped on board with the idea, choosing to hang painted quilt squares on their own barns and homes to share the stories of their own families.

From Ohio, the quilt trail spread to 30 other states and into Canada. The project was recognized as a way to drive appeal, tourism, and economic development in these small US towns.

Due to its success, many small towns have adopted the project as a way to drive appeal, tourism, and economic development. There are numerous quilt trails to travel along, each with their own map, stories, and iconic scenery; a way to explore and appreciate the modest towns of the US and the culture they offer our country. At the start of many of the quilt trails, you can stop by the community centers to grab a map and sometimes hire a tour guide to take you along the stretch to share the stories of each quilt square.

How to make Quilt Blocks

Most of the Quilt Trails have committees to lead the charge of the quilt projects for their communities. Families and individuals submit a request to become a part of the quilt trail with either a family story or family quilt as the inspiration. Family quilts are the most common inspiration for the patterns, however, is there is no family quilt the design if created with traditional geometric patterns. Here are a few common areas for inspiration of quilt blocks:

  • Tribute to a lost loved one 

  • A farm’s history 

  • Family history; sometimes family initials 

  • Business inspired (general store block or dentist office block)

  • Local schools

The first blocks were painted directly on barn walls but are now painting on a treated plywood or metal that are mounted to their final location. Traditional squares are 8×8 feet, made of plywood or metal, and combined in the end. The material is treated and prepped before the pattern is marked and painted. Acrylic exterior paint combats the weather that occurs to the quilt blocks. Local community residents, artists, clubs, scouts, and schools typically paint the quilt blocks.

Inspiration from the Quilt Trail

Growing up and visiting North Carolina every summer was such a huge part of my life.  it means the world to take my kids there in the summer to create memories of their own. I was inspired to do a proper tour of the quilt trail by the quilt squares I catch glimpses of on my drive to see my family as well as by the vintage quilts I have sourced and fallen in love with from around the Southeast. Through my exploration of the quilt trail, I learned more about vintage quilts and the craft of quilting. The different visual blocks from each barn inspired me too. Some of them traditional and some of them more based on the stories of that particular barn or family.

From the traditional, yet unique quilt designs I saw along the trail, I was inspired to create my own line of quilts. My friends at Belk and I created a classic line of quilts that nod to the patterns, colors, and experience I saw and had along the quilt trail of North Carolina. Groves’ homage she paid to her mom when she put up the first quilt block in Ohio paid much inspiration.

There are so many reasons I love the quilt trails. The character, beauty, community collaboration, and stories of the blocks are so special. I deeply resonate with the efforts to keep stories around for the next generation to learn from and love.

Continuing your Education

It has been such a treat to dive into the history behind the Quilt Trails that freckle our country. I hope to continue my education of these heirloom-inspired spots around the country, like vintage quilts, and continue to hear the special stories of those that I meet along the way. If there are other places you suggest I check out, please pass them forward to me!

Here are a few books I have used to learn about the Quilt Trails.

Shop Our Selection of Vintage Quilts

My love for the history of the Quilt Trail has only made me cherish vintage quilts even more. Anytime I am sourcing for our vintage goods shop, I always keep my eye out for these beautiful treasures.

shop vintage quilts

heirloomed is a lifestyle brand with a mission of “keeping heirlooms around for another generation.” Our blog features stories about family recipes, creating traditions with your family, interior design and entertaining by mixing new and vintage pieces, classic style, and small town + historic travel. Our shop features a collection of “goods inspired by the past, for generations to enjoy” with an array of products and meaningful gifts including linen apronstabletop linensartceramics and beyond. Learn more at www.heirloomedcollection.com

I’m an old soul based in Atlanta, GA and mom of 3 with a deep love of all things from the past with a story to tell, on a mission to keep heirlooms around for another generation - whether it be a tradition, splattered family recipe, or historic home.

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