With only a brief glance at Western North Carolina’s growing list of galleries, stores, studios and museums, one can easily see that the art and craft industry has a significant footprint in the region. From the Southern Highland Craft Guild to the Folk Art Center to the Penland School of Crafts, there is a plethora of resources available surrounding art and craft in the region. Today, more than 4,000 craftspeople live and work in WNC, and the craft economy alone generates more than $206 million per year.
How did the mountains and foothills of North Carolina become one of the largest centers of handmade crafts in the United States? Originally, craft items were used in the region for functional purposes to serve as jugs, storage vessels and dinnerware. When the industrial revolution began to flourish in the 18th century and large factories popped up around the state, many household items started to be produced by machines rather than by hand. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a traditional craft movement began to rejuvenate an interest in craft, particularly in North Carolina, as a way to respond to the mass production and also provide an opportunity to address poverty in the region. People in rural communities were taught marketable skills, particularly weaving and woodworking, as a way to increase their income and connect them with the new tourist market that was coming to the area.
One woman in particular, Frances Goodrich, a Yale-educated Presbyterian missionary, was considered a pioneer for the region’s newly revitalized craft industry. After receiving a handmade bed coverlet from a neighbor as a welcome gift, Goodrich worked with local Madison County families to form a larger community operation. She opened Allanstand Cottage Industries, a weaving cooperative and marketplace, in 1897 as a way to build economic self-reliance for local craftspeople while also preserving the region’s heritage. In 1908, she moved Allanstand to downtown Asheville, and eventually, Goodrich and other local community members established the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the second oldest craft guild in the United States, which hosts 1,000 juried craftspeople from nine southeastern states.
Today, Western North Carolina continues to uphold the rich tradition of art and craft through both traditional and contemporary organizations, such as the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Asheville and the John C. Campbell Folk School, as well as fairs like The Big Crafty and The North Carolina Arboretum’s Carolina Craft Day. Universities and colleges, including Western North Carolina University, Appalachian State University and Haywood County Community College, now have entire curriculums and programs centered around craft. No matter what style or interest you may have, there is something for everyone when you unravel and explore Asheville and Western North Carolina’s thriving art and craft industry.
The North Carolina Arboretum’s Carolina Craft Day is scheduled for Saturday, September 24, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. inside the Arboretum’s Education Center. Craft demonstrations, musical performances and juried art and craft vendors working in fiber, paper, clay, metal and wood will be on site selling their work. For more information, please click here.