Becky Thomas has long admired the barn quilts of Kittitas County. More than 100 colorful wooden panels inspired by quilt patterns are hung on barns around Ellensburg and Cle Elum.
The artwork brightened her drives from Yakima to Seattle for training while she worked for Educational Service District 105. Kittitas County has the state’s first trail highlighting barn quilts, each a unique work of art usually reflecting some aspect of a family’s history.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she and her husband, Chawley, couldn’t pursue favorite retirement activities. They wanted to do something fun at home, yet outside the house. That got her thinking about making barn quilts.
“We went online and looked at some. (Chawley) said, ‘Shoot, I can do that.’ He’s been really good about constructing them,” she said. “I get excited about creating new patterns.”
Chawley’s shop, where he has made his polished rock art for years, became the couple’s barn quilt studio. Chawley and Becky have created 32 barn quilts of various sizes, almost all for structures within a few miles of their home on Ridgeway Road. That’s because they mount many of them with their own forklift, which Chawley doesn’t drive very far.
Exceptions include one for the Mahre family on Summitview Extension and another for the Hull ranch outside Tampico, along with one in Prosser, one in Ephrata and two in North Bend.
Becky used to quilt. She and Chawley also appreciate the beauty of Yakima County’s many barns, each a distinctive legacy of the region’s rich agricultural history. Barn quilts bring all that together into something they and others can enjoy.
“We have found a way to be creative with some artwork and also to honor our barns in the neighborhood and the community (and) make these old barns stand out,” she said. “All these old barns, they still are really being honored.”
Barn quilts near and far
Though barn quilts have been around for decades, the first barn quilt trail was created in Ohio in 2001, according to Barn Quilt Info, a website that highlights barn quilt trails throughout the United States. After painting a barn quilt to honor her mother, Donna Sue Groves worked with others to create a “clothesline of quilts” to spur tourism and economic development, the website notes.
Kittitas County enthusiastically promotes its barn quilt trail, which draws visitors from throughout the Pacific Northwest and states beyond. On centralwashingtonoutdoor.com/barn-quilts, people can find a map of the trail and information about each barn’s history, its quilt block and sponsor. Links offer more information about barn quilts in and around the Ellensburg, Cle Elum, Denmark, Manastash and Teanaway areas of the county.
Becky was inspired to do the same thing in Yakima County. After she retired in 2003, “this was in my heart and on my mind,” she said. With the pandemic keeping them close to home, the time was right. Chawley, an art major in college who worked as a bricklayer and ran Thomas Northwest Masonry for years, was ready for a new project.
There’s no map for the barn quilts created by Becky and Chawley, but some roads in western Yakima County offer the chance to see several. Take Ridgeway Road off Ahtanum Road to see a high-peaked white barn with its quilt of red, white and blue, the colors of the flag of Norway. The pattern is Nordic Star, also reflecting the property owner’s Norwegian heritage.
Kris and Ola Vestad bought the property in 1978. “We are new to the neighborhood,” she said. The neighbors, who include Becky and Chawley just to the west, have been great.
One day last spring, Becky told Kris she wanted to give her a present, Kris recalled. “She said, ‘I’m going to give you a gift and I don’t know if I should tell you ahead of time or just deliver it,’” Kris said. Becky mentioned it would feature the colors of the Norwegian flag for Ola, who was born in Norway.
“Sure enough, here came this beautiful quilt square,” Kris added. Chawley put it up early last spring.
Ola died in July but was able to enjoy it for a few months. “I just think it’s delightful,” Kris said. “We were lucky it was a gift.”
Other quilt squares
Gilbert Road off Ahtanum, past Wiley Heights Covenant Church, is home to a few more barn quilts, all on the right side of the road. The Thomases made one for the barn built by the Gothberg family in a Cog Block design of yellow and blue, the colors of the Swedish flag. The area is known as Swede Hill because of its many Swedish settlers, which included Becky’s parents. Her dad homesteaded there.
The barn quilt for Russ Carlson, at the intersection of Gilbert and Carlson roads, is the Air Castle design with his Flying V cattle brand. Another one on Gilbert Road, the Union Square design on a barn owned by the Mellander family and built by August Dahlin in the 1920s, couldn’t go up until the owner painted her barn a bright white.
“All summer she painted that barn all by herself and then put it up,” Becky said.
Other barn quilts include cattle brands, such as the Northumberland Star design on a barn in Ahtanum for Talbert Taylor with his Diamond T brand, and the Friendship Quilt design for the Hull family, whose brand is Diamond H.
Family historian Thomas Hull grew up with Chawley and Becky as neighbors. He and his family know them well, but weren’t aware of their barn quilts until the couple made one as a gift almost a year ago. The historic barn that displays it, on land near Ahtanum State Forest, was likely built by Homer Drake, who began homesteading the property about 1914, Hull said.
“He raised hay. ... There’s also a milking shed on the west side of the barn. He had some cattle as well,” he said of Drake.
With his expertise as a stonemason, Chawley fixed the rock chimney on one of two cabins on the property. The family encouraged Chawley and Becky to begin staying on the property every now and then, which also helped with security.
“One day they called my parents up, (saying) ‘We’ve got a gift for you,’” Hull said. “It was really meaningful to us to incorporate a symbol that’s important to our family into a quilt we could then display.”
The artwork Becky and Chawley create makes a difference for many.
“They’re just such a fascinating and interesting couple. They find these little projects, not only for them to enjoy, but to benefit the community,” Hull said.
‘They should last a long time’
Becky and Chawley make every barn quilt with the owners’ heritage in mind. “Each one has a reason or a purpose why that person got that artwork,” Becky said.
She gets inspiration for her barn quilt designs from family histories and internet searches. Chawley builds them in different sizes, starting with a large square or rectangle of 1/2-inch-thick plywood. He then glues on a frame, flips it and countersinks screws into the frame, fills and sands them before they’re painted.
“I put on a couple coats of primer, a couple coats of paint and two coats of sealant,” he said. “They should last a long time.”
He has the hard part, Becky said. “He builds them and hangs them,” she added. “I do the fun part.”
Though they aren’t cheap to make — the cost of plywood in particular has increased — and she and Chawley don’t charge for their artwork.
“People ask if they can pay us for these, but for one thing, we wouldn’t know what to charge. For another thing, we’re not doing it to make money,” Becky said.
Instead of charging for their barn quilts, they ask that recipients donate to Northwest Harvest, the Yakima Union Gospel Mission or the church of their choice.
“It’s kind of a win-win for everyone. We do the artwork and keep busy. Hopefully the food bank or the mission or someone else can benefit from the effort as well,” she said.
Becky and Chawley benefit as much as the recipients because they feel good being able to give and to share. Look for more of their barn quilts to go up in West Valley and possibly elsewhere.
“We’ll just keep building them,” Chawley said.