Museum cabin with rugs, yarn, and spinning wheel on display

In Praise (and Preservation) of Mountain Crafts

Author: RoAnn Bishop

March is National Crafts Month and a good time to examine the history of handcrafts in Western North Carolina and the schools that still teach them. Long before Europeans arrived in the southern Appalachians, Indigenous people used the mountains’ rich natural resources to create objects they needed to survive. When English, Scots-Irish, and German immigrants began settling here in the mid-1700s, they, too, learned to transform nature’s raw materials into items essential for daily life. 

weaving machine 1910
Interior of a weaving room in 1910. 


More than a century later, industrialization brought cheap, machine-made objects to many Americans but not to North Carolina’s highlanders. Isolated by mountains, the Appalachian people continued to rely on their traditional craft skills.  
When factory goods finally reached Western North Carolina in the late 1800s, the old-time crafts began to die out. Teachers and missionaries started to promote the continuation of handicrafts not only to help preserve a declining culture but also to improve the lives of the makers and the local economies in which they lived. A crafts revival resulted. 

Some of the nation’s most esteemed craft institutions developed from this revival. Olive Dame Campbell and her friend, Marguerite Butler, founded the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown (Cherokee County), NC, in 1925. Named after Campbell’s late husband, the school was based on the Danish tradition of adult folk schools. It now offers weekend and week-long classes taught by expert instructors in more than 50 subjects rooted in Appalachian traditions. 

blacksmith shop at the John C Campbell Folk School
The blacksmith shop at the John C. Campbell Folk School. 


The Penland School of Craft in Mitchell County is one of the leading craft schools in America. Lucy Morgan, a local teacher, established the school in 1929 to revive the Appalachian art of hand-weaving. Within a few years, she added other crafts. Today, the Penland School offers workshops in numerous traditional handcrafts. 

Dr. Mary Martin Sloop and her husband founded the Crossnore School, a group home for children in Avery County in 1913. She later started the school’s Weaving Room to preserve the art of weaving, provide an income for area women, and support the school’s work through the sale of their hand-woven goods. The school currently offers public weaving classes three times per year. Many fine examples of traditional Appalachian crafts can be seen (and purchased) at the Folk Art Center in Asheville, NC. The center houses the Southern Highland Craft Guild, established in 1930, and the Allanstand Craft Shop, the oldest continually operated craft shop in America. 

Sewing and quilting at the museum's Pioneer Day.


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