Visitors to the Homespun Museum at Grovewood Gallery this weekend will have the opportunity to tour a room that most museum patrons never see—and that many Biltmore Industries employees likely wished they hadn’t.
Biltmore Industries Homespun Shops was renowned in the early 1900s for its quality woolens, painstakingly produced by local craftsmen and women under the direction of owner Fred Seely, the Grove Park Inn designer who purchased the operations—name and all—from Edith Vanderbilt. By 1933, 40 men and seven women were combing, carding and weaving 200 yards of the in-demand fabric every day.
Seely publicly proclaimed his preference for male workers, sniffing that women weren’t strong enough to run the hand looms and drum carders that transformed Western North Carolina wool into high-style suiting. After touring the factory, John D. Rockefeller Jr. wondered if Seely’s assessment didn’t miss the mark, noting that the nimble-fingered work seemed “hard for men, too.”
Biltmore Industries’ carding room, where workers sweated over machines that brushed, mixed and detangled fibers, is normally not opened to the public. But participants in an upcoming walking tour offered by the Homespun Museum will be invited into the rarely seen space.
“This is not something we do regularly,” Grovewood Gallery spokeswoman Ashley Van Matre says. “We probably do this tour about six times a year.”
The tour is conducted by Jerry Ball, a historian who has worked extensively with the Biltmore Industries archive at UNCA’s D.H. Ramsey Library.
“The tour is mainly the history of Biltmore Industries,” says Van Matre. “You get to see fabrics, bobbins and equipment.”
While Van Matre’s description may seem mundane, Rockefeller’s visit is testament to the thrill Jazz-Age celebs got from taking a behind-the-scenes stroll through the Homespun Shops, which famously clothed first ladies, crowned princes of Europe and Thomas Edison. Seeing a worker wind a Biltmore bobbin was the flapper’s equivalent of watching Marc Jacobs hem a dress.
“Would a woman like your suitings?” an unabashed fan wrote Biltmore Industries in 1921. “Does a child like candy? You may have one guess.”
Biltmore Estate Industries was launched in 1901 by George and Edith Vanderbilt, who had become fascinated by the work of two do-gooders determined to improve young Appalachians’ economic prospects by training them in craft. Eleanor Vance and Charlotte Yale were each paid $970 a year by All Souls’ Church in Biltmore Village to conduct wood-carving classes, an enterprise that so charmed Vanderbilt that she purchased the school and sent the women to the British Isles for further study. They returned to Asheville with their first loom.
After George Vanderbilt died in 1914, Edith Vanderbilt struggled to keep the Industries’ eight looms running on pace with demand. Three years later, she sold the thriving company to Seely. Much to Seely’s disappointment, Vance and Yale—who in 1915 relocated to Tryon to make toys—refused to rejoin Biltmore Industries. But their absence didn’t dim Americans’ affection for the distinctive soft, silky wool, available in the nation’s snazziest clothing shops.
“Once the garb of the poor man, now the rich man wears it,” National Magazine headlined a 1925 story about the simple fabric.
Biltmore Industries branded wools for two presidential families, issuing “Coolidge Red” for Calvin’s wife, and “Hoover Gray” for Herbert. The more populist Franklin Delano Roosevelt preferred the company’s ready-made white, although the company presented him with a loom when he visited the factory.
Already wounded by the Depression, Biltmore Industries was further weakened by Seely’s death and changing tastes in fashion, which turned from homespun to machine-made textiles after World War II. While the company kept producing homespun till 1980, style-minded shoppers no longer clamored for the wool. The abandoned complex was reopened as a museum in 1992, although the carding room was left off-limits.
“This is your chance to see the old carding room,” Van Matre said of the tour. And as a window into a forgotten time, it might just be a chance worth taking.
who: Walking tours of a 1917 Arts and Crafts enterprise
what: A rare, behind-the-scenes look at a piece of local history
where: Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road)
when: Saturday, June 7 (11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) and Sunday, June 8 (1 p.m.). Both events are free. www.grovewood.com or 253-7651)