Tag Archives: weaving

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

Project – Handwoven Belt

I hesitated before writing this post because I’m sure it’s going to give some of you the impression that I have too much time on my hands.  It is true that I no longer have to show up at a workplace at 7:55 every morning, but I find there are always interesting ways to spend one’s time.  And while a little weaving was fun, I don’t think I could take a steady diet of it.

I wisely chose to do a project that would be quick.  The actually weaving of the strip for the belt was accomplished over the course of an afternoon, interspersed with other tasks.  I just could not keep it up for longer than about five minutes or so.  Something has definitely been messing with my attention span.

I used a light blue cotton yarn for the warp and a darker blue wool yarn for the weft.  I haven’t quite gotten the knack of keeping each row of weft pressed down evenly, but I found that I could adjust the thin spots with my fingers after the weaving was finished.

I already had a nice leather and buckle piece that I’d saved from an old belt where the canvas was in poor shape.  I’m always picking up things like that when I run across them at the thrifts.  One never knows what will be useful!

My weaving would not be sturdy enough on its own, so I needed to interface and back it with another fabric.  I just happened to have a piece of Liberty Tana lawn that was the right size.  Another thing I always buy when I see them are Liberty neckties.  There is an amazing amount of fabric in a tie, well worth the fifty cents they usually cost in thrifts.

After cutting the interfacing to the right width (a couple of millimeters less than my woven piece) I wrapped the cotton fabric around it and pressed the cotton to fit.

I then stitched the backing to my woven piece.  I waxed the thread for a bit of body.

I trimmed the edges and secured the loose ends through all three layers.

There were already stitch holes in the leather where the original canvas was sewn on.  I used the very same holes for my stitches.  I used silk buttonhole twist, again waxed for strength and body.

When expert leather workers hand stitch, they use two needles and two strands of thread that go through the holes from opposite sides.  It makes for a strong stitch, but I did it the easy way, doing every other hole and them going back in the other direction.  Here I am half way and ready to reverse my path of stitches.

And here it is all finished.  It actually was a very quick project, with maybe two hours total in the making.

And here’s a photo showing how it looks when worn.

This may be my one and only weaving project, but I’m glad I did this one.  I like the belt, and I have a new appreciation for all the work that women used to have to put into the production of garments.




Filed under Sewing

Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Today’s book review features a book that, quite honestly, will not be to everyone’s taste.  In fact I almost did not buy it after spotting it at an estate sale months ago.  I wasn’t sure it would fit in with my current interests, and I already had a huge stack of books waiting to be read.  It was written by a Harvard professor and had hundreds of footnotes, and my fear was it would be a bit too academic (meaning dry…)

But the subject matter drew me in.  A quick look through The Age of Homespun revealed that this was a book about colonial textiles and the stories behind the objects.  I’d not done any real reading of American colonial history since my college days, but it was my first historical love and my university degree.  So I thought this book might be a nice change of pace.

Ulrich examines twelve homemade objects, all from New England and all having to do with textiles.   There is a chapter for each object and the stories the objects reveal.  Each one was so engrossing that I have only read a chapter a day to give myself time to properly digest all the information.

What could have been a dry examination of physical objects was instead a carefully woven account of how objects reflect the history of the time of their manufacture, how people related to these objects, and how these stories can be revealed to us today.  Ulrich used many sources to gather the information for the book, but what really struck me was just how much information still exists from hundreds of years ago.  Those New Englanders were real record keepers.

I was also impressed at how many diaries from the period were kept and handed down through generations of a family.  I don’t even have my own teenage diary, so to see that many diaries were kept and treasured is interesting.  Even better, Ulrich actually had access to diaries from some of the families who made the objects she featured in the book.  The diaries along with family histories and public records helped to paint a vivid picture of these people’s lives through the objects that survive.

Quite a bit of the book is concerned with the production of cloth.  For many families, producing yarn and fabric was a way to obtain other necessities and small luxuries.  The system of trade was complicated, but it worked for a society in which money was scarce.

To best enjoy and appreciate this book, one does need to have at least some knowledge of the history of New England.  A lot happened in that region between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the Shot Heard Round the World at Lexington in 1775.  Ulrich pulls from this extensive history in interpreting the objects.

I learned from 28 years of teaching history to pre-adolescents that the best way to study and learn it was not through the memorization of facts and dates.  The best history students were the ones who looked at the past and could draw conclusions about cause and effect and overlapping influences and see that historical events did not happen in isolation.  This book is a masterful example of that kind of history.

All this go me to thinking about weaving and how treasured a textile would be if one had to either grow or trade for the raw materials, then process the fiber into yarn, and then do the weaving in order just to have the cloth.

In the midst of all this textile pondering, I happened upon a little tabletop loom at an antique store.  I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to leave the store without the loom.  But I was not quite out of the woods.

Now this little flea market find was more my speed!  At least it didn’t take up six square feet of table space.

So yes, I am now trying my hand a some very simple weaving.  I figured that anything suitable for a ten-year-old couldn’t be too complicated.  And it makes a nifty bit of fabric.

Okay, it is a bit loose, but this is my first try.  Do you think all my family members should get handwoven belts for Christmas?


Filed under Currently Reading

Lily Mills of Shelby, North Carolina

We tend to think of the textile industry as makers of fabrics, but there really is a huge range of products that can be classified as textiles.  My state, North Carolina, has long been a grower of cotton, and much of the industry here involved the production of cotton products.  Much fabric was made, especially in the big denim mills like Cone, and also jersey knits were an important product.  Equally important were products like towels, socks, stockings, and bedding.  But one of the largest components of the industry was the spinning of yarns.

Lily Mills was located in Shelby, on the edge of cotton country in the piedmont of North Carolina.  It was founded in 1903 as the Lily Mill and Power Company by John Schenck.  It was one mill of a growing industry in the area, and by the 1940s, there were twenty spinning mills in the Shelby area, some of which were also making products that were then marketed by Lily Mills.

The range of products made by Lily is pretty amazing, everything from regular sewing thread to yarns for handweaving to heavy rug yarns.  To help promote their yarns they also published instruction booklets and marketed small looms for the home weaver.

Probably one of the most interesting things about Lily Mills was their relationship with the Penland School Of Crafts.  Penland, located near Spruce Pine, North Carolina, continues to be a highly regarded school for craftspersons.  In the late 1940s Lily Mills helped finance the Lily Loom House at Penland.  Weavers who attend classes today still work in the Lily Loom House.  In return, weaving instructors at Penland wrote booklets for Lily Mills, such as Practical Weaving Suggestions.

By the looks of the variety of booklets on eBay and Etsy, Lily Mills must have published booklets for every yarn they made.  There is an astounding amount of material.  And though I’ve never seen an example, I’ve read that during the 1940s they also marketed sewing patterns.

I found these sample cards a few weeks ago while traveling through the area.  I was struck at how fresh the colors remain.

There was no date on either card, but I’m guessing that the code at the bottom of them dates them to 1961 and 1962.

And while it has nothing to do with textiles, the Lily Mills has an important connection to the development of bluegrass music.  In the early 1940s banjo player Earl Scruggs worked at Lilly Mills and stayed with a fellow musician.  The area around Shelby was evidently a hive of three-fingered banjo pickers.  The style Scruggs developed became the standard for the bluegrass banjo.


Filed under North Carolina, 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

Crossnore Weavers

About a month ago I posted about a book I’d been reading, Miracle in the Hills, the story of Doctor Mary Sloop and her work in Crossnore, NC.   Last week I finally had the chance to take a day and visit Crossnore to see the weaving operation that Dr. Sloop started in the 1920s, and which still exists.

This is the weaving house the kids built.  After fire destroyed the weaving house, the community banded together to build a new structure to house the weavers.  The children of the school literally passed rocks up from kid to kid from the river to the road where the rocks were loaded onto a truck for the trip up the hill to the construction site.

For years the weaving continued in the rock house.  Today there is a modern addition on the back of it where the weaving continues.  The weaving room is also full of displays about the history of the Crossnore weavers and the weaving program.

The rock wall to the weaver’s left is the original outside wall of the back of the house.

There are still weavers who produce some of the traditional patterns, but much of the production is in modern blends in fashion colors.  Soft and cozy shawls and scarves are a popular product.

They also do online orders, so if you are looking for a genuine handwoven article where the proceeds will go to help children in need, You might look on the Crossnore Weavers site.


Filed under Made in the USA, North Carolina, Road Trip, 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