Mountain Artisans shows just exactly how important timing is in business, and in life in general. After President Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, there were dozens of agencies set up to implement hundreds of programs that were meant to help the poor. Mountain Artisans was started by a worker in the arts and crafts department of the Department of Commerce, Florette Angel. Ms. Angel was in West Virginia to help a group of quilters figure out how to market the projects they were making using traditional quilting skills.
It was a good time to be starting a crafts cooperative. Not only was there the Federal assistance that sent Ms. Angel to the quilters, it was 1968, and interest was increasing in alternative lifestyles such as the back-to-the-earth movement. The American Bi-centennial was coming up in 1976, and interest in history and heritage were growing.
Even so, the project got off to a rocky start. Interestingly, there was money to spend on studies of impoverished people and how they could make money, but there was no money to pay for needed craft supplies. All the young women who were working to start the business had no experience and they were working without pay.
Help arrived in the person of Sharon Rockefeller, whose famous name helped open doors. She put the group in touch with the famous Parish-Hadley decorating firm, which arranged for meetings in New York, including one with Diana Vreeland at Vogue. Through Vreeland, Oscar de la Renta ordered some of the fabric being pieced by the women in the co-op. The group was on its way.
They also benefited from some excellent press coverage. Whoever was in charge of public relations did a fantastic job, getting a feature in Life magazine, and mentions in Newsweek and New York Magazine. The Associated Press and United Press International regularly distributed features on the co-op.
Dorothy Dembosky Weatherford, a local artist, donated her talents as a designer, and her work led to a distinctive Mountain Artisans style. She liked big bold blocks of color, much in the style of the late 1960s and early 70s.
By 1972 the co-op was a success, and Weatherford won a special Coty award that year for “reviving native handicrafts.” According to an account from the AP in 1972, there were 160 full time quilters, with an additional 60 working part time. Total sales for the previous year had been a half a million dollars. A showroom was planned for New York.
The success of the group is nicely documented in this book by Alfred Allen Lewis. Published in 1973, it is a book typical of the time, with the story of the co-op intertwined with directions for making projects based on those of the Mountain Artisans. I’m not so sure how easy it would be to actually follow the directions, but there are lots of photos of the quilters sitting and sewing along with diagrams showing the design and construction process.
The clothes, which were mainly floor-length “hostess skirts”, were sold in high-end stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Joseph Magnin, and Neiman Marcus. The co-operative also made patchwork pillows and quilts. These items occasionally come up for sale today, and they are easily identified because they are labeled.
In appreciation for all the support she had given them, the group made a quilt for Sharon Rockefeller’s first baby. Designed by Weatherford, it was not the average baby quilt made from sweet pastels. I’ve got to wonder if the Rockefellers still have it.
The early 1970s were an interesting time. People were discovering traditional handicrafts such as quilting, knitting, and sewing, and there was a definite Little House on the Prairie vibe going on in fashion. The women running Mountain Artisans were wise to capitalize on this interest.
But fashion changes, and the homespun look died with the passing of time. After July, 1976, interest in “tradition” waned, as Americans discovered the pleasures of disco. Mountain Artisans closed in 1978.