Date of this Version
Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario
The Appalachian subculture of America is well known for its tradition of handcrafts, and Berea College, Berea, Kentucky, played a seminal role in promoting that tradition throughout its 150-year history. This study looks at the first five decades of Berea College’s renowned handweaving program, the beginning of what is known today as the Student Crafts program. It explores the connection between Berea alumnae and the settlement school movement that promoted social change in the Appalachian region, specifically the contribution of Berea College’s Appalachian Crafts Revival to reform in Appalachia.
The historical record is full of references to Berea College students who passed through student craft industries in their labor assignments, prepared to return to their Appalachian communities to work in the settlement schools and to do their part in the struggle for justice in the face of industrialization and rapid change in the mountains. While details on individuals are scarce, there are numerous comments in the annual reports of the Superintendents of Fireside Industries from the early 1900s through the 1940s, to indicate that their student workers returned to the mountains to be active in the settlement schools. Education, cultural appreciation, dignified labor, and economic justice were common themes shared by the settlement schools throughout the mountains. Settlement schools students who went on to higher education returned to become teachers, business people, husbands and wives, and professionals in healthcare and social work.
Berea College’s third president William G. Frost began marketing mountain woven coverlets to college donors outside the region around 1893, which according to Allen Eaton was the beginning of the Berea College initiated Appalachian Crafts Revival. Frost recognized the possibilities for employment of mountain craftspeople at a time when industrialization had diminished the production of crafts in the large urban centers of the country, and consumerism had found its way into the Appalachian Mountains, ending what had been a survival skill of the 18th century. Consumerism entered mountain communities through country stores and the arrival of the Sears Roebuck mail order catalog,3 and gave mountain women freedom from the labor of producing textiles for the family on their own looms. By the late 19th century when Frost made his first field trip into the mountain communities, many mountain looms were sitting idle. Craft production was primarily the work of the elder generation of women in the communities; those who had learned to weave from their own mothers were keeping the textile traditions alive. In 1896 and 1897, Frost’s annual reports to the college trustees articulated his desire to establish some industry that would allow students to earn towards their education at Berea College. The popularity of mountain textiles among New England donor circles inspired him to make crafts one of those industries for Berea’s needy students, and also for weavers in the southern mountains.