Currently Reading – Gift from the Hills

I really hope you all are not tired of reading about the Crafts Revival of the early 20th century.  I know the topic is not exactly mainstream “fashion,” but the movement was important to the time, and was really much more widespread than just the Western North Carolina weaving schools I’ve written about.  There were crafts schools all over the US, and they were teaching everything from metal work to pottery.

Gift from the Hills is the story of Miss Lucy Morgan who founded the Penland School of Crafts in 1929.  What makes her story especially interesting is that she was actually from the North Carolina mountains, while so many of the women who were involved in establishing crafts schools were from the North.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries,  the educational systems of our country were largely under local control.  In poorer, rural areas, most children were being educated in the typical one or two room school that served their community, but increasingly, private groups such as churches began to see that these children were getting an inadequate education for the modern world.  All over rural areas and small towns, groups built private schools to meet the need for a higher level of education.  It’s hard to imagine even today, the level and quality of these private schools.  Many parents actually moved so that they would be close enough to send their children to one of them.

In the case of Penland, the Episcopal Church started a school called the Appalachian School under the direction of Lucy Morgan’s brother.  By the time she arrived there to teach in 1920, it was both a boarding school and a school for the local children.   In 1923 she escorted a young girl to Berea, Kentucky where she was to attend the Berea Academy.   Instead of returning home to Penland immediately, Lucy decided to stay in Berea and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to weave.  This was the beginning of a weaving program at the Appalachian School.

Once she returned to Penland, she set up a program where she taught local women to weave and helped them obtain looms.  Before long Penland had a money-making venture that benefited both the school and the weavers.   The school built a weaving cabin that contained five looms where weaving was taught and practiced.  The finished products were sold, providing the weavers with much needed cash.

Penland School of Crafts actually puts its founding year as 1929.  By that time the crafts operation was completely separate from the Appalachian School, they had introduced other crafts such as pottery and they began accepting adult students from outside the area.  Throughout the 1930s the school struggled, with Miss Lucy using much of her own money to keep the school from financial failure.

But it did survive, and is still open today, though the Appalachian School closed long ago.  They teach workshops on a wide variety of crafts , but weaving and other textile crafts are still a major part of the program.  And they still encourage local residents to participate, especially by offering a big discount for classes that otherwise would not be filled to capacity.

This photo is from a 1940s  postcard, and shows the weaver on the porch of the weaving house.   Looms were set up outside in a long row until the late 1940s when Lily Mills of Shelby, North Carolina, a maker of yarns for hand-weavers, provided the money for Penland to build the Lily Loom House.

I was recently in the area and took a few fast photos.  I hope you can see what a beautiful setting this is for a school.

That’s the corner of the Lily Loom House on the right.

Where the weavers set up the looms – the porch of the Craft House

The Lily Loom House

The Craft House

This wall is behind the Pottery Shed.

And this short slide show tells the story with photos of Miss Lucy and the school.


Filed under Currently Reading, North Carolina, Textiles

14 responses to “Currently Reading – Gift from the Hills

  1. liz weisz

    It is a very inspirational story, thank you for sharing it.
    I think I would enjoy this place, what beautiful surroundings:)


  2. sarahc

    Thanks for posting – seeing the loom reminded me of the loom, larger than the one in the photograph that my grandmother’s elderly neighbor had set up in her living room in upstate NY when I was a child. I wish I’d asked more about it then.


  3. Absolutely fascinating, I wish I could enroll there this hot summer


  4. Mei

    My parents are weavers! They have been weaving since the early 1970s, full-time. It’s very tricky, and they have a huge loom, too. I linked to their Etsy shop if you guys are interested in looking. 🙂


  5. I would love to take a class here. Have you ever taken one? I have browsed the catalog before. Thanks for sharing the background.


  6. Debbie Hansen

    I live here in NC and Penland is the crown jewel of the craft schools. I have been to Arrowmont and John C Campbell, and dream of the day I get to go to Penland. The classes at Penland are longer, it is hard to get enought time off work.


  7. nicole

    I was there two summers ago…we were so excited because I am from Maine and we were staying up in the mountains. Long story short a group of 6 and two cars and getting lost , finally got there and IT WAS CLOSED ON MONDAYS…stupid us! I did get to meet Jane Peiser ( a real thrill as I lOVE HER WORK) and the folks at Barking Spider pottery ( got a nice casserole dish there) and walked the grounds. It is beautiful there and I am def. going back next time we go to Charlotte( where my mother-in-law lives) no way am I not going to!


    • I’m glad you at least got to walk around the site. But do go back. There is always an exhibit or two in the visitor’s center, and some of the instructors will let you slip in and observe the class. It’s a fun day.


  8. Pingback: Lily Mills of Shelby, North Carolina | The Vintage Traveler

  9. Brenda Keathley

    I am seeking an instruction manual on a Lily Table Loom that has 2 headless. I have had the loom for many years but there is no warp instruction., there was a completed warp already on the loom and I complet d the weft. Can you advise me as to where I might acquire original manual?


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