The Rich Arts and Crafts Heritage of Asheville
Artists and craftspeople have long been an integral part of what makes Asheville, North Carolina, unique.
Asheville has quite a reputation for its community of artists and craftspeople, and the quality creations that emerge from their imagination, talent and hard work. This town has become one of the most sought-after places to enjoy and appreciate arts and crafts, making it an ideal home to both artists and art lovers. The River District in Asheville which once sat as a semi-ghost town with abandoned, empty warehouses, has evolved into a trendy areas of studios and galleries. Twice a year, the artisans open their workspace to the public for Studio Strolls.
Asheville’s presence as a leader in the arts and crafts industry is nothing new. In fact, Asheville has long been a leader in recognizing and appreciating traditional mountain crafts that have been handed down over the generations.
Frances Goodrich and Allanstand Cottage Industries
Frances Goodrich wasn't thinking about arts and crafts when she decided to move to Buncombe County in 1890. At that time the region was impoverished and targeted as a place with a great need for missionaries and social workers. Goodrich came into Asheville as a missionary for the Presbyterian Church. The Yale-educated Goodrich had the potential of a promising career in fine art, but what she found in the mountains of Western North Carolina shaped the rest of her life as well as the entire history of arts and crafts in this region.
In neighboring Madison County, Goodrich met a woman who showed her a 40-year-old bed coverlet hand woven by a relative. Its intricate Double Bow Knot pattern, and the quality of the weaving and the natural chestnut die inspired Goodrich. She encouraged women in the community to learn weaving so they could earn needed income and preserve a craft that was beginning to die out. She founded Allanstand Cottage Industries in 1897 which helped market the homespun items at a roadside stand as well as through a mail order catalogue. In 1908 Goodrich transferred the business to downtown Asheville. Through the years she added other quality handicrafts made by locals: baskets, quilts, wooden furniture, brooms and hooked rugs.
The Southern Highland Craft Guild took over operation of Allanstand at its spring meeting in 1931. The Guild runs the Allanstand Craft Shop at the Folk Art Center (milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, 828-298-7928), and hosts two annual craft fairs at the Asheville Civic Center featuring the creations of more than 900 craftspeople across nine southeastern states.
Edith Vanderbilt and Biltmore Industries
While George Vanderbilt was building his famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, his wife, Edith, familiarized herself with local people and the crafts they produced. Edith, a woodcarver and a needlepoint artist herself, wanted to hold craft classes so area residents could learn a skill to help them make a living.
In 1901, Edith hired Eleanor Park Vance and Charlotte Louise Yale, two women who had moved to Asheville and started a craft school, to teach at the new Biltmore Estate Industries. Determined to have the highest quality instruction in their craft education program, the Vanderbilts sent Vance and Yale to Scotland to further their education about the art of weaving cloth from wool.
News of the emerging Biltmore Estate Industries reached the New York Times, which on May 19, 1906 published an article which said in part, "Nothing but wool from sheep raised on the estate is used in making these yarns, and the fabrics are all covered with vegetable dyes, strong and fadeless." It also said, "The object of this enterprise is not to make money but to give employment to poor women who would not otherwise be able to earn a living."
Following the death of George Vanderbilt in 1914, Edith sold Biltmore Estate Industries to Fred Seely, the son-in-law of E.W. Grove, who created Asheville’s famed Grove Park Inn. Under Seely’s direction Biltmore Industries flourished to the point that he left his position managing the Grove Park Inn to give his full attention to The Homespun Shops, as they were also known.
Harry Blomberg bought the business in 1954, and kept the looms running for another 25 years. When he died, ownership transferred to his two daughters and son-in-law. They revitalized the craft school's six, English-styled cottages in 1992. Like a phoenix emerging from the ashes, Biltmore Industries found new life with the opening of Grovewood Gallery (111 Grovewood Road, 828-253-7651) and several studios for local artisans. An industry magazine named Grovewood Gallery the 2008 Craft Retailer of the Year.
Handcrafted in America
The tradition of helping local artists and craftspeople market and sell their work continues. A group called Handmade in America formed in Asheville in 1993 to promote craft and culture for the benefit of the region’s community and economic development. The organization maintains an online directory that lists artists, galleries, resources and events in Western North Carolina.