An American Patchwork: Barn Quilts and Hex Signs in the Rural Landscape

Detail from “Red Barn” by Timothy Eberly (Unsplash) showing a barn quilt square

One (or, more accurately, two) of the more unique features of the American rural folk art landscape are found prominently displayed in cheery colors on barns across the United States. I’m talking here about hex signs and barn quilts. Unfortunately, even in the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania where these somewhat-related arts got their start, many people mistakenly think they are all hex signs. Let’s break it down.

Hex Signs

Hex signs are the older form of folk art, coming to us from the Pennsylvania Deitsch (“Dutch”) traditions. This circular style of art was born out of what is called fraktur, an elaborate form of illumination that was popular among the Fancy Dutch from 1740-1860. These “stars in circles” or “barn stars” or “stars and flowers,” as they were most often called by the people painting and using them, appeared in the Pennsylvania landscape in the mid-1800’s. They featured hearts, stars, flowers, birds (the thistle-finch or distelfink), tulips, compass roses, and the tree of life as prominent symbols. 

Most often, the symbols radiate around a 6- or 12-spoked wheel, and they always appear on a circular base. It is the commonness of the 6-rayed star as the central design element in the “sterne und blume” (stars and flowers) that has given rise to one belief that “hex” is a mispronunciation of the German word for six (sechs).

On the other hand,  since “hex” derives from the German word for Witch, many people believe the term points to the signs’ talismanic virtues. Certainly, encoded into the signs are a great detail of plant, animal, geometrical, and color symbolism — all of which are commonly employed by magic-users in their talismanic motifs. Skeptics, though, point to the fact that these signs weren’t even called “hex signs” until the 1920’s when a local farmer used the term “hexefoos” (witch’s foot) in reference to them. For the hundred or so years before that, they had been called some variation of “barn stars” or “stars and flowers.”

Actually, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that the “Fancy Dutch” — those Deitsch folk who, unlike their Amish and Mennonite cousins with their “plain” ways, eschewing art, music, and elaborate decoration (except in quilt-making) — might still have folks among them practicing Braucherei/PowWow, Hexerei, and maybe even Urglaawe. While Braucherei and Hexerei practices are often considered akin to English Cunning Craft in the sense that they blend folk magic with Christian faith, Urglaawe is understood to be a Heathen faith. (It is also understood that Urglaawe is a modern term that wouldn’t have been in use when the hex signs first emerged; but then, neither was the term “hex sign.”)

Indeed, it was in the mid-20th Century that the hex sign business as a whole took off. Books got written, Jacob Zook came up with an easily replicable process for making hangable barn signs, and others were able to reproduce his (now codified and explicitly pontificated) designs for mass production and sale  to tourists. So what was once only to be found on the barns of the Fancy Dutch in central and southeastern Pennsylvania spread to barns and houses throughout the rural American landscape. 

Quilt Making

During all that time, quilts were being stitched by both the Fancy and Plain Dutch — and, really, by women in every US state and territory. You’d (wrongly) think that quilting was something most women had been doing for centuries already, but in fact it was the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800’s (around the same time that cheap paint made barn painting and “barn stars” more common) that made quilting possible for women without great wealth. Prior to this point, textiles simply weren’t available readily or cheaply enough for women to justify the time, cost, and effort to cut, piece, stitch, and quilt together the layers of fabric needed for a bed-covering. Textile mills and the Singer sewing machine changed everything!

During the 1800’s, we see quilt blocks and patterns of all sorts developed and shared among women — down the road and across the country. Quilts even became important in the Civil War effort, in the Abolition movement, and (like our hex signs) in everyday talismanic virtue. Protection, grace, faith, friendship, blessing, abundance, and more were stitched by the mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and wives who took up needle and thread to craft these lifelong, practical pieces of folk art.

Detail from “Barn Art (1)” by Nicholas A. Tonelli  (Wikimedia Commons) showing four hex signs

Barn Quilts

However, it wouldn’t be until 2001 when giant quilt squares would start popping up on the sides of barns and buildings in the US. That’s when Donna Sue Groves in Ohio realized her vision of honoring her mother Maxine’s quilting legacy by creating the first Barn Quilt Trail — an organized project in which patterns like the Ohio Star (the first ever barn quilt square), the Snail Trail (the one at Donna Sue’s place), or any of the hundreds of others from the quilting repertoire are linked together by arts councils, 4-H clubs, school groups, quilting guilds, and more. Traditional quilting patterns (on large wood or metal squares) now adorn quilt trails in forty-eight US states and into Canada.

So, how can you tell the difference? I feel like once you realize that barn quilts exist, it’s easy to spot which “barn art” is a quilt block and which one is a hex sign. But just in case, here’s a quick run-down:

Works Consulted:

Hex Signs

Strange Experience: The Autobiography of a Hexenmeister—Personal Encounters with Hauntings, Magic and Mysticism by Lee R. Gandee

The Red Church, or The Art of Pennsylvania German Braucherei by Chris Bilardi

Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols by Don Yoder

Hex Signs History — https://hexsigns.com/pages/hex-story

Urglaawe – Rob Schreiwer’s site on Heathen braucherei — http://www.urglaawe.org/Englisch.html

Quilts, General

Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths edited by Laurel Horton

The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750–1950 by Roderick Kiracofe and Mary Elizabeth Johnson

American’s Quilting History — http://www.womenfolk.com/historyofquilts/

Quilt Discovery Experience — https://www.nps.gov/home/planyourvisit/quilt-discovery-experience.htm

Barn Quilts

Barn Quilt Trail History — http://barnquiltinfo.com/history.html

[Laurelei Black is an American folkloric Witch, Aphrodite woman, and author.]