Appalachian quilts tell stories

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Snuggling under my grandmother’s homemade quilts on a cold winter’s night and examining the different pieces of fabric in the warm daylight are fond memories of yesteryear. Making quilts was a necessity in the days when money was scarce. Patchwork quilts lay at the foot of every bed. She used remnants and scraps of fabric from old clothes and sheets for quilt pieces, and later, from cloth bought from a fabric store called Pieced Goods, in Portsmouth.

Every homemade quilt tells a story. Instead of ink and words, the fabric’s color, texture, quality, pattern, style and stitching give an account of why, what, where, when and how. A pattern is a repeating color, shape or design. And patterns were given names like Dutch Girl, Double Wedding Ring, Fan and myriad others.

According to The Alliance for American Quilts, “In early Appalachia, just about any piece of scrap fabric would find its way into a quilt. Cloth feed sacks were used so frequently that manufacturers soon abandoned the traditional depictions of livestock and grain and began to decorate them with attractive domestic designs. Quilts soon evolved into a form of expression, true works of art and often became wall hangings rather than merely traditional bedcovers.”

Viewing quilt blocks on the front or sides of old barns also sparks nostalgic memories of rural Appalachian history.

I read an interesting account in Appalachian Magazine, an online publication at A 2017 article, The Story of Appalachia’s “Quilt Barns,” provided a brief history of the quilting movement that placed painted wood replicas of quilt patterns on old or modern barns.

It all started in 2001 in Adams County, Ohio. Donna Groves painted a pattern of a quilt on wood and hung it on her family’s barn as a creative way to honor her mother, an accomplished quilter. Others followed suit, and 20 quilt blocks soon hung on barns in Adams County.

Suzi Parron and Donna Sue Groves documented the barn quilt trail in the 2012 book “Barn Quilts and the American Quilt Trail Movement.” In the 2016 book “Following the Barn Quilt Trail,” Parron travels across 30 states to collect quilt block stories. The book depicts colorful barn-quilt photos.

There are more than 30 counties in Ohio that have quilt barn trails. Visit to explore the quilt trails in Ohio’s counties. The Dairy Barn Arts Center in Athens, Ohio, hosts Quilt National, a biannual quilt show attended by 15,000 people.

“Quilt Trails Drive Rural Economic Revival,” an article in the online publication Appalachian Voices, discusses how to attract tourists by promoting local heritage. Visit

Born on the fringes of the Appalachian region, quilt barns have spread throughout 48 states.

In Kentucky, Morehead State University features a webpage (Center for Virtual Appalachia) with 200 quilt patterns from various Appalachian collections. You can browse, download and print the patterns at no cost. Visit

The Ohio Quilt Series is a collection of books about quilting by the Ohio University Press and their affiliated Swallow Press. The titles include “Philena’s Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio” by Lynda Chenoweth, “Album Quilts of Ohio’s Miami Valley” by Sue Cummings, “Uncommon Threads: Ohio’s Art Quilt Revolution” by Gayle Pritchard and “Quilts of the Ohio Western Reserve” by Ricky Clark. “West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echos from the Hills” by Fawn Valentine is another resource.

The Quilt Index lists names of patterns, sources and information on quilts, quiltmakers and quiltmaking. Visit

“Quilts tell stories; they illustrate history; they express love and sorrow; they link generations together; they are community; people gather to make them and experience them; they are art; they teach. Quilts matter!” The Alliance for American Quilts.

See the Portsmouth Public Library’s website for information about the Pieces & Patches Quilting group.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.

Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio.