Tag Archives: Handwoven

Folk Art Center of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild

Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway as one is traveling south into Asheville, is the Folk Art Center. It’s mainly a crafts store that sells the products of craftspeople who are members of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, which has been around, officially, since 1930. It was born from the Crafts Revival Movement, which was the rural twin of the Settlement House movement made famous by Jane Addams in Chicago.

I’ve written quite a bit about the Crafts Revival Movement, and I’ll link to some of those articles at the end of this post. For the most part, it was driven by a desire of middle class and wealthy women to help women in poverty through the production of traditional crafts.  Remarkably, some of the efforts of these women still survive, as in the case of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild.

And while I find some of the ideas of one hundred years ago to be more than a bit patronizing toward the people of Appalachia, the efforts were sincere, and did actually lead to women in the Southern Mountains being able to make and market crafts, and thus to bring in badly needed cash to their families. It also helped establish a strong renewal of craft traditions in the Appalachians.

The Southern Highlands Craft Guild is also in possession of a nice collection of crafts and other artifacts from the early days of the Guild. Upstairs at the Folk Arts Center is a small, but interesting museum of some of the items in the collection.

Besides textiles, there are baskets and other woven items, like the late 1930s or early 40s tilt hat seen above. It was made by Alice Pratt of Asheville from braided cornhusks, lined in silk.

This 1930s handbag was also made from cornhusks, backed with burlap. The maker was Isadora Williams of Knoxville, Tennessee.

This is the coverlet that pretty much started the crafts revival. In 1894 it was given to a missionary, Frances Goodrich, who was working in the area north and west of Asheville and she was so taken with it that she thought it might be a way for the local women to make money. Unfortunately the coverlet was around forty years old at the time of the gift, and most women, even deep in the Appalachian Mountains had given up weaving due to the availability of cheap mass-produced textiles.

But Goodrich was persistent, and soon old disassembled looms were located and reassembled. Women who had given up the labor of weaving returned to the loom as Goodrich and others started co-ops in which to sell the coverlets and other crafts.

There are other coverlets on display, like these three from North Carolina, Kentucky, and South Carolina.

Here is a very rare survivor, a dress made for handwoven linsey-woolsey. The museum was a bit short on details, but dated the dress to around 1900. There are a few mended spots, but otherwise the dress seems to be in wonderful condition.

People who follow me on Instagram have already seen this piece, but it is just too special not to share here as well. This is a “cow blanket” though that is most likely a misnomer. It was made by Kate “Granny” Clayton Donaldson. Donaldson lived in Marble, NC, and sometime in the 1920s or early 30s she started crocheting figures and animals from her homespun and dyed wool. The story is a bit sketchy, but through an association with the nearby John C. Campbell Folk School (founded by another woman, Olive Dame Campbell} she began attaching the figures to pieces of fabric to make a decorative blanket or hanging.

Quite a few of Kate Donaldson’s blankets survive. They are in the collections of art and folk museums, and occasionally one comes up for sale.

A personal note – my father was born in Marble in 1927. It’s very likely that his family knew Kate, as Marble is a tiny place, where everybody knows everybody else.

Biltmore Industries

Fireside Industries, Berea

Penland School of Crafts

Crossnore Weavers



Filed under Curiosities, Museums, North Carolina

Avoca Handwoven from Ireland

I’ve written about Avoca before, or rather Graham Wynne, whose family owned Avoca for years wrote a great piece for The Vintage Traveler about the relationship between Avoca Handwoven in Ireland and the Carol Brown company in Vermont.  It’s a great story if you have not already read it.

Last week I found a cap with the Avoca Collection label.  The cap is made from a beautiful handwoven wool, very similar in texture to the dress I have from Carol Brown.  And while the Carol Brown dress was easy to date based on style, the cap is a bit harder, being a classic style with a small brim that snaps.

There are some clues on the label, the Woolmark, which was first used in 1964, and the Ginetex care symbols.  These symbols were created in 1963, but were first used in Great Britain in 1975.  Actually, all the information I’ve ever found and read about Ginetex has been very confusing, but I did learn from the Ginetex site that in 1983 a fifth symbol, that of the tumble dryer, was added.  If that information is correct, then I can safely date my cap between 1975 and 1983.

Not that I really care, but I do like to know the stories behind things.  Avoca is still in operation, with wovens still being produced.  The company is now very different, with it having a line of fashionable clothing and housewares.  I could not find on their site where woven caps were still being made, although scarves and throws are offered.

I love the colors used in this fabric.  The medium blue must be the warp, or the base yarns through which the weft is woven.  The weft varies from green to blue to violet. It makes for a very interesting textile, much more so than using the same color year for both the warp and the weft.

Today you can tour the Avoca Mill.  Field trip anyone?


Filed under Curiosities, Vintage Clothing

Biltmore Industries, Asheville, NC

1919 ad from Vogue magazine

For years I’ve been looking for an item from Biltmore Industries, and last week it finally happened.  A little background about this enterprise:

Biltmore Industries got its start in Asheville when two women from New York moved there to start a craft school.  In 1901, they met the Vanderbilts – Edith and George – who funded the school, and who changed the name of the school to Biltmore Estate Industries.  Over the next few years Edith Vanderbilt worked hard to develop the weaving and woodworking aspects of the school, creating a  program known for the excellent weavers it produced.  A shop was opened in Biltmore Village where the finished cloth was sold.

In 1917 Mrs. Vanderbilt sold Biltmore Estate Industries to Fred Seely, son-in-law of the owner of the Grove Park Inn, a luxurious Craftsman style inn.  The name was shortened to Biltmore Industries, and the entire operation was moved to the Grove Park grounds.

In its heyday, Biltmore Industries ran ads in magazines such as Vogue, and its quality was renowned.  Asheville was a destination for rich tourists, who would buy the fabric and take it to the many local tailors to be made into fashions appropriate for “country wear.”  The business ran 45 hand operated looms in order to fill the demand for the cloth.

The Great Depression severely hurt Biltmore Industries, and the death of Fred Seely in 1942 almost did the business in.  But it was revived in 1953 by a new owner, who ran it until 1981 when production of the cloth ended.  Today, the buildings have been restored and are used as  a craft shop and small museum.  I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never visited the museum, but that will be remedied very soon.

So what did I find?  A jacket made in the late 60s or early 70s from a medium blue homespun.  The jacket itself is rather boring, but its not the garment that is important to me, it is the fabric.  The fabric would have been bought in the Homespun Shop at Grove Park, and then the buyer would either sew it into a garment, or have a tailor make it.  Interestingly, this has a lining of Oleg Cassini print acetate, which was available in fabric shops at the time.

And it answered a question that I’ve had:  Was there a Biltmore Industries label?

An ad from 1948.  Ads were no longer in Vogue, but rather, in tourist publications.


Posted by patti shreeve:

I worked there, in the gift shop,about 26 years ago.The owner at the time also owned the Cadillac dealership. There were still weavers, though most of the equipment was in sad disrepair. But the place was great, encouraging quotes in craftsman lettering on the walls, beautiful brass coffee urns for the workers. I don’t know about a craft school, what I heard was that Mrs. Vanderbuilt was employing Scotch-Irish immigrants who came with a knowledge of making tweeds from their previous life in Great Britain. 

Saturday, December 5th 2009 @ 4:31 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Patti, that is so interesting. The building is still open and there is a museum. I’ve GOT to fit it into my schedule! 

There is some information on the Grovewood Galleries website: http://grovewood.com/history.php According to it, Mrs. Vanderbilt actually sent the founders of the school to Scotland to learn more about wearing from the experts there.

Sunday, December 6th 2009 @ 5:02 AM

Posted by Mod Betty / Retro Roadmap:

I knew my pal Patti would have some interesting info to share on this post, glad I forwarded it to her – I told her I always learn something reading The Vintage Traveler!:) 

Sunday, December 6th 2009 @ 6:23 PM

Posted by patti shreeve:

I told Mod Betty about the day the weavers unloaded a bunch of old raw wool and camel’s hair in my garage. I lived in Fairview at the time. The owner told the weavers to take it all to the dump and I thought I could do something with it(they didn’t want to just toss it out). I made some felt and used it for doll’s hair, I was making funky clay dolls while studying ceramics at UNC-A. Some was already spun and I could knit it.
Some was just too far gone. But I still have some. They were still taking orders for there famous tweeds. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the museum ‘tho they’ve kinda messed up the wonderful old Grove Park. 

Monday, December 7th 2009 @ 2:04 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

Oh my gosh! That is just unbelievable about the wool. I glad you were able to save it. I agree about the Grove Park. Looking at old photos of it makes me really sad. 

Mod Betty, thanks for bringing like-minded readers my way!

Monday, December 7th 2009 @ 5:34 PM


Filed under Advertisements, North Carolina, Textiles

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 toll 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.


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



Filed under North Carolina, Textiles