In his book The Handcraft Revival in Southern Appalachia (University of Tennessee Press, 1991), Garry Barker explains his reasons for living with a houseful of crafts. “Every handcrafted piece,” he wrote, “tells a story, evokes a memory of a very real person, adds a special warmth and character to daily life.” Barker moved to Asheville in 1965 to work at the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild. Now known as the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the group sponsors the ever-popular Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands (see box). The four-day event is one of two main fairs organized by the guild, whose headquarters is in the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just north of town.
The guild’s history traces back to a snowy December day in 1928, just three days after Christmas. Lucy Morgan (“Miss Lucy” to all who knew her) had not yet founded the Penland School of Crafts, but she had already formed The Penland Weavers and Potters, a cooperative of local craftsmen. Meeting at the group’s center in Mitchell County, a small band of craft enthusiasts discussed the possibility of forming a guild. It must have been a challenge to navigate the rutted, wintry road out of Spruce Pine, but a good dose of enthusiasm and optimism brought the determined band together.
The group reconvened exactly one year later, in the waning days of 1929. This time, they met in Asheville at a place called The Spinning Wheel. It was owned and operated by Clementine Douglas, known to everyone as “Clem.” Douglas’ shop was as much a living-history museum as a sales outlet. Located at Beaver Lake, the reconstructed, pioneer-style mountain cabin was outfitted with regional crafts.
The Penland Weavers and Potters and Douglas’ Spinning Wheel were typical of the kinds of organizations and small commercial enterprises the ad hoc group wanted to support. They called these cottage industries “production centers” — hubs of craft activity. Some grew into schools that actually taught crafts. Others functioned as places local makers could bring weaving, baskets, woodcarvings or pottery to sell to a broader market.
In the early years of the last century, no one really knew how many of these cottage industries, craft co-ops and school-based programs existed. Their beginnings were diverse, but most were started and run by a growing population of “teachers and preachers” — educated outsiders who came south to establish schools and missions with funding from national philanthropic organizations. John C. Campbell traveled the region conducting a study of mountain life. His main focus was the local population, people born and raised here who were part of the authentic mountain culture that so fascinated him. But in his travels, he met others like himself — a growing population of outsiders who had settled permanently in the region as “mountain workers.” From 1913-19, Campbell organized an annual conference each spring to share stories and strategies. After his death in 1919, his widow, Olive Dame Campbell, directed the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers. In 1925, she established a folk school in her husband’s name.
Allanstand Cottage Industries was a successful Buncombe County weaving center run by Frances Goodrich, a Yale graduate who had come to the North Carolina mountains as a young woman to establish a mission here. By the 1920s, Goodrich was one of the movement’s aging matriarchs. No longer able to operate Allanstand, she donated the property to the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, giving the group its first real home. The Allanstand sign still welcomes visitors to the Folk Art Center today.
On those two chilly December afternoons, representatives of Penland, The Spinning Wheel, the John C. Campbell Folk School and Allanstand joined those from the Crossnore School in Crossnore, N.C., and Berea College in Kentucky. Together, this handful of like-minded individuals decided to form an organization modeled after the medieval craft guilds, which guarded the technological secrets of craft production in order to protect — and promote — their work.
In 1930, the Conference of Southern Mountain Workers met at the Farragut Hotel in Knoxville. Rooms were $4 a night, and a single bed could be had for $2.50. The guild held its very first official meeting at the conference, unanimously adopting a constitution and bylaws along with the name Southern Mountain Handicraft Guild. Within two years, they’d changed the name to Southern Highland Handicraft Guild. That one lasted until 1995, when the current name was adopted.
If there was a “godfather” of crafts during this period, it was scholar and author Allen Eaton. An experienced curator, Eaton was tapped as an expert in crafts and often provided guidance to the fledgling group. His philosophy is woven throughout the craft-revival movement.
“We must think of the handicrafts not only as a means of making a living but as a way of life,” he wrote. I agreed with Allen Eaton then and think his ideas still apply today. When someone buys a work of the hand, the purchaser is not simply acquiring a casserole, woven jacket, carved spoon or basket. Invested in the work is a part of the maker, whose creative expression is an intentional act. This intentionality is what makes craft what it is — not its material, function or cost, as so many would have us believe.
Living with a handcrafted object, one shares in the values of craftsmanship, not just as a passive consumer but as an active beholder. Drinking our morning coffee in a finely made mug, for instance, we have an opportunity to participate in a second creative act that elevates our ordinary, everyday experience. Likewise, by buying a handmade object, we have an opportunity to support — and thus help preserve — the skills and aesthetic lifestyle that underlie the thing created. In buying that pot, you’re buying into a set of values — the very ones that now fuel the creative, dynamic community that is Asheville today.
[Anna Fariello, a professor at Western Carolina University, directs a project documenting North Carolina's craft revival. She is co-author of Objects & Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft.]
This year marks the 59th season of The Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands. The summer edition happens Thursday through Sunday, July 20-23 at the Asheville Civic Center. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the first three days, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.