North Carolina Crafts - Take Home Handmade Treasure

Posted November 9, 2006 10:11 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2007 1:18 p.m. EST

It's hard to imagine that a simple handmade object from the North Carolina Mountains could ignite a major American arts movement. But a little over a hundred years ago, it did.

The object was a woven double bowknot coverlet, given as a humble gift of friendship to Presbyterian missionary Frances Goodrich. So taken was she by the coverlet's meticulous handiwork, Ms. Goodrich was inspired to save the fast-disappearing mountain traditions that had gone into producing it. The result was the formation of Allanstand Craft Shop, opened in 1895 and presently America's oldest continuously operated craft shop.

Today, two North Carolina organizations in particular are dedicated to carrying on the time-honored handicrafts traditions Ms. Goodrich made it her life's work to preserve – each of which is worthy of a day trip (or longer). Both organizations provide oases of craftsmanship and beauty in an increasingly pre-fab, homogenized, mass-produced world.

The Southern Highland Craft Guild
Housed in the Blue Ridge Parkway's Folk Art Center (five miles outside of Asheville), the Guild has promoted crafts made by accomplished Mountain artists for seven decades. The Center is now home to Allanstand, which occupies 3,000 of its 30,500 square feet, as well as three other craft shops. Walk into the building, and you're surrounded by the finest work of the Guild's more than 700 member artists: ornate quilts and baskets, magnificent pottery, jewelry, woodwork, lovingly crafted paper, glass, metalwork and more.

Selections from the Guild's Permanent Collection, a 3,500-piece assemblage of craft objects dating back to the turn of the 20th century, can be seen at the Center during special exhibitions. From April through December, you can also observe craftspeople at work in daily demonstrations, as well as take in a host of other special events.

To find out more, go to or call 828-298-7928.

Penland School of Crafts
Much like the Southern Craft Guild, the impetus for Penland's founding was provided by a visionary and determined woman: Lucy Morgan. Similar to Ms. Goodrich, "Miss Lucy" had observed firsthand the impoverished conditions of what was then a woefully isolated area. She noticed in particular how the machine-made goods of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to threaten the age-old mountain tradition of handweaving.

So, in 1923, with just three looms, Miss Lucy established the Penland Weavers to help revive the vanishing craft and supplement the locals' subsistence-level incomes. The looms hummed with the activity of skilled hands, and it wasn't long before additional instruction was offered in pottery, spinning and dyeing, and other traditional arts.

Word of Miss Lucy's success quickly spread, which led to the establishment of the Penland School of Crafts in 1929. Lucy Morgan's inspiring mission is still being carried on at the School today, although with a somewhat more contemporary emphasis. In fact, the School's educational program has for years attracted world-renowned instructors, along with serious craft students who range from novices to professionals.

At the Penland Gallery, you can see and buy work by resident artists and students, as well as Penland's instructors. The Gallery also presents special exhibitions, twice-weekly tours of the campus and occasional craft demonstrations. But be forewarned, visiting here may seduce you into becoming a student yourself.

Located near the charming town of Spruce Pine, Penland School offers one, two and eight-week classes in books and paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron metals, photography, printmaking, textiles and wood.