Tag Archives: crafts revival

Fireside Industries: Handwovens in Berea, Kentucky

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.



Filed under Made in the USA, Textiles

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

Currently Reading – Miracle in the Hills

I’ve written here before about the Crafts Revival Movement of the early 20th century.  For the most part, this revival was instituted by women, much in the spirit as the more famous Jane Addams and her work in urban Chicago.   Simply put, the movement was started by do-gooding Yankee ladies with a lot of time and money on their hands.

During the late Victorian era, Western North Carolina became a vacationing spot for the country’s rich.  Most of these visitors stayed in Asheville, which was fast becoming a resort town.  During the day, the visitors would take outings into the mountains, looking for a little local color.  The prevailing idea about people in the Southern Appalachians at the time was that they still continued to live as the pioneers did.  And while necessity sometimes made that true, the people were like people in any other region of the country – they embraced the conveniences of modern life as they became available.

Nevertheless, the prevailing thought at the time was that people in the Southern Appalachians 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 vacationers were so upset by what they did not find, that they set about to make it happen.

The few women who were still weaving became a valuable commodity, as the philanthropic rich set up settlement schools throughout the region.  In these schools, the dying arts of spinning and weaving, plus those of wood carving, basket making and pottery making were taught, often using the remaining crafters as teachers.  The idea was somewhat successful, mainly because it was a way for the students in the classes to supplement their income.  In a place where there was very little industry, many people were glad to have a way to bring in some much needed cash.

While the Crafts Revival really was successful in helping traditional crafts survive, it also helped perpetuate the stereotype of the Southern Appalachian inhabitants as backward and primitive.

The story is quite different in the book I’m currently reading, Miracle in the Hills, by Dr. Mary Sloop:

I love this photo of Dr. Sloop because it is so completely misleading.  The book, published in 1953, is a delightful  memoir sprinkled throughout with the most amazing stories of how she and her doctor husband moved to the North Carolina mountains from Davidson, NC in 1908 in order to set up a medical practice where none existed.

Her interest in education came about when she and the doctor realized that the children were not being educated because the one room school was inadequate .   When she could not convince the local authorities to build a better school in her community of Crossnore, she set about, rallying the community around the idea.  In 1913, the first building was completed, and by the mid 1920s there were several buildings, including dorms for children who lived too far away to travel to school from their homes each day.

Interestingly, one of the main sources of income was a thrift store that came about accidentally.  Dr. Sloop needed clothes for a young girl to attend high school in another community, but the girl had no proper clothing.  Sloop wrote to some cousins of hers, asking if they could spare some of their clothes.  They sent a large box full, but they were clothes that had been left over from a period of mourning and were totally unsuited to a young teen. Sloop’s disappointment in the gift faded when a local woman passing by said she’d like to buy some of the clothes.  A thrift store was born, and it is still open today.

In 1920 a weaving program was started at Crossnore, with the skill being taught to both the school children and to women in the community.  A sales room was set up, and the weavers also took in commissions from around the country.  Today, the weaving continues, and is still housed in the 1936 building that the school children helped build by collecting rocks from the nearby river.  Crossnore School is also still in operation, as both a children’s home  for children in need, and as Crossnore Academy, a North Carolina charter school.

I’m always looking for books on local history, especially those that involve textiles, and this one was an unexpected treat.   I spotted the book on etsy and took a chance.  Guess that old saying is true – you can’t judge a book by its cover.

I’ve got a trip planned to go see the weaving room (and the thrift store, of course) and I’ll post on my findings later on this spring.


Filed under Currently Reading, North Carolina, Textiles