I had been meaning to visit Berea for some time now. I knew it was a weaving center dating back to the early days of the crafts revival in the US, which started in the late nineteenth century. And had I known how much of the weaving heritage still exists, I’d have visited sooner.
First, you need to know that Berea started as a grammar school in the mid 1800s. Founder John Fee started first the school, and then an academy and college with a radical idea – that the school was open to all, regardless of sex or race. This was unheard of in a state where people were enslaved, and it did not go over well with some of his neighbors. After the Civil War, the school grew, still an anomaly in the former slave states.
That all ended in 1904 when the state of Kentucky passed a law forbidding the education of Blacks and White together. Reluctantly Berea became a school for Whites only, with a separate school founded to serve their Black students. At this time the focus of Berea changed to one that served the children of Appalachia who could not afford to pay for most colleges.
They instituted a work-for-tuition program that exists to this day. A few hours work a day in the school’s Boone Tavern or the Berea farm covered tuition, with extra work granted to those who needed to cover room and board. Even as late as the 1970s when I was applying for college, Berea was known as a school where kids from the greater Appalachian region could attend college in exchange for work. I know that at least one girl from my high school attended Berea,
In the 1890s the Arts and Crafts Revival was spreading across Europe and North America. At Berea the idea came about to capitalize on the interest in handicrafts by seeing if any of the women in the surrounding area could produce handwoven articles for the college to sell in order to raise additional funds for the school.
By this time, even in Appalachia, cheap mass-produced textiles had all but replaced handwoven goods. Many women still spun wool and flax, but the yarn was used primarily for knitting. But many families still had old looms stored in their barns, and many of the older women still retained the skills needed for weaving.
So a program, called the Fireside Industries, was started where the school paid local women to bring in handwoven goods in exchange for either cash or money applied toward the tuition of a child or grandchild. Berea College resold the goods through a network of women’s clubs. Eventually it was decided to let students learn to weave, with the sale of the finished goods being applied to tuition. A weaving master, Anna Ernberg, was hired, and eventually a log house was built to house the looms and a store for the crafts sales. The Log House, built in 1917, is still used as an outlet for student and local crafts today.
A few years later the looms were relocated to a smaller log building behind the large Log House. Today it still houses the Berea weaving program. The students use modern looms, with some of the original ones that had been developed by Ms. Ernberg on display in another building.
The weavers of Fireside Industries were girls who made smaller woven goods such as napkins, placemats, scarves, and handbags. In the mid 1920s a program was started in which boys were set to weaving on the larger looms that would produce fabric yardage. This program ended in the 1940s, but Fireside Industries continues, making scarves, throws, pillows, and other finely woven items. The proceeds still go to support the college.
We got lucky because even though classes at Berea were still two weeks away, there was a woman working in the weaving cabin, and we were treated to a small tour. There were several different types of looms set up waiting for projects to be finished.
One thing that makes the program at Berea so important was that it was so influential in the development of other weaving programs across the Southern Appalachians. Many of the developers of other weaving centers such as the Penland School of Crafts and Crossnore School trained at and obtained looms from Berea.
A scarf in progress…
and a throw.
And yes, I did my bit to help fund the education of a Berea weaver. With each item you get a card with the name of the maker, along with a little booklet explaining the crafts program.
At one time the town of Berea was home to four thriving weaving concerns – Fireside Industries and the Mountain Weaver Boys which were associated with the college, and Matheny Weavers and Churchill Weavers which were independently owned. Matheny closed in the 1940s, but Churchill remained in operation until 2007. There is a small display of Churchill artifacts in the town’s historic depot.
Churchill Weavers was a large business, at one time running their own stores across the US. I was lucky enough to run across this lovely shawl at my Goodwill bins!
The story of the weaving revival in the Southern Appalachians is a fascinating story. If you are interested in learning more, the best book I know of on the subject is Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Phillis Alvic.