Biltmore Industries Handwoven Homespun

1924 ad for Biltmore Industries in Vogue magazine

In the late 1800s, some of the women who moved into Western North Carolina from outside the area were dismayed to discover that many of the “traditional” crafts, such as weaving, had died out in this area.  It’s rather puzzling that they would have expected people here to still be processing their own fabric when spinning wheels and looms were gathering dust all over the US.  Nevertheless, the prevailing thought at the time was that people in WNC were living in a sort of pioneer timewarp.

That, of course, was not the case, but popular literature had painted a picture of “mountain folk” that included Elizabethan speech, Old World Ballads, moonshine stills and spinning wheels.  Some of the newcomers were so upset by what they did not find, that they set about to make it happen.

In the case of Biltmore Industries, the woman in question was Edith Vanderbilt, wife of George Vanderbilt, multi-millionaire and builder of the Biltmore House.  In 1905 she along with social reformers and teachers Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance, formed Biltmore Estate Industries, a school of sorts that was to “reteach” the forgotten skills to area people.  Mrs. Vanderbilt went so far as to send the women running the school to Scotland so they could study Old World weaving techniques.

Wisely, the decision was made not to try and recreate rustic, traditional textiles, but instead to make fine woolens in fashionable colors.  This was, after all, a business, and the product had to be marketable.  So even though they were marketed as a  traditional product, the woolens were made for the modern consumer.

By 1916, there were 8 looms, and the enterprise was highly successful.  The next year, Mrs. Vanderbilt sold the operation to Fred Seely, the son-in-law of the owner of the Grove Park Inn.  The name was shortened to Biltmore Industries, and Mr. Seely built six English cottage style structures on the grounds of the hotel in which to house the operation.

Vintage postcard showing the inside of the weaving shed

Mr. Seely took the operation to a national audience by placing ads in magazines such as Vogue. As demand grew, looms were added.  In 1920 there were 40 looms in operation.  The fabric they produced was of excellent quality.  There was a retail store on the property in which the yard goods were sold, the Homespun Shop.  Visitors to Asheville would often buy the fabric and then take it to one of the many tailors around Pack Square to have it made into a suit or coat.

Seely’s death in 1942 took a toil on Biltmore Industries.  The equipment fell into disrepair, and output dwindled.  But the business was revived in 1953 when it was bought by Asheville car dealer Harry Blomberg.  It remained open until 1981, when the last lengths of cloth were woven.

Today, the Homespun Shop is open as Grovewood Galleries, which sells crafts and art.  The old weaving shed holds Harry’s antique car collection, and one of the smaller buildings is now the excellent little Biltmore Industries Museum.

Biltmore Industries loom

A roll of labels.  The buyer was given a label to sew into the garment made from the handwoven woolen fabric.  The purple and white label below is from the 1940s.

A few samples of Biltmore Handwoven, which shows a large range of colors.

A few samples of Biltmore Handwoven, which shows a large range of colors.

This jacket was made as a sample in the late 1940s.

Antique cars inside the old weaving shed.

A few months ago I was lucky enough to find a 1960s or 70s jacket made from Biltmore Handwoven Homespum.  I posted about it then, and I’ve bumped up that entry and it follows this one. I’m also going to make it my mission to visit some of the other crafts cooperatives and schools that were started about the same time.  Many of them are still in operation, but not in the same manner as they were 100 years ago.

Comments:

Posted by Sarah:

Fascinating piece! I wonder if Edith Vanderbilt was at all influenced by the William Morris/Arts and Crafts ideas about returning to traditional craft skills and venerating the work of the skilled artisan?

Not to mention a strong dose of romanticism and nostalgia for a lost age – in Morris’ case Medieval times (I expect Edith skipped the socialism part!)

Tuesday, April 20th 2010 @ 11:50 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Sarah, yes, you are correct. Vanderbilt and the other founders of Southern Applachian craft schools were quite familiar with both Morris’s movement and that of American Arts and Crafts leaders like Gustav Stickley and Elbert Hubbert.

Saturday, April 24th 2010 @ 4:36 PM

2 Comments

Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

2 responses to “Biltmore Industries Handwoven Homespun

  1. Pingback: Currently Reading – Miracle in the Hills | The Vintage Traveler

  2. Pingback: Homespun Museum at Grovewood Village | The Vintage Traveler

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