Essay by Timothy N. Osment
The widespread poverty that the Great Depression brought to Appalachia led to the founding of one of the area’s most valuable treasures: the Penland School of Crafts. Nestled deep in the hills of western North Carolina’s Mitchell County is the small community of Penland. It was there that, in 1923, a young school teacher named Lucy Morgan noticed the desperate living conditions of many of her students and their families and felt compelled to provide assistance. She had spent a recent vacation at Berea College learning to weave. Unlike the heavy looms common in the mountains of North Carolina, Berea used light-weight Swedish looms that were easy to operate and created delicate patterns. Returning to North Carolina, Morgan gathered together a group of local women and began to instruct them in her newly-discovered passion: weaving. The women decided to call themselves the Penland Weavers.
Lucy Morgan was determined to find a market for the goods her weavers produced. She began to distribute their weavings throughout the region traveling the rough, winding roads in an old Model-T Ford truck. Soon the Penland Weavers had their creations displayed in area hotel lobbies and on the shade porches of many local resorts. Lucy even secured a booth at the 1924 State Fair in Raleigh. Here she was able to meet with government officials who eventually awarded her funding to maintain her regional, vocational training school. Boosted by their new resources, the Penland Weavers were soon providing instruction, materials, and “loom time” to anyone interested. Word spread and the school’s popularity grew. Volunteers constructed a cabin and a large hall to accommodate new students.
One of the country’s leading experts on handweaving, Edward Worst, visited Penland during the summer of 1928. He published articles from his trip in a national magazine, contributing to the school’s reputation and significance. This exposure prompted additional growth. Adjacent property was purchased and new buildings constructed. Soon the school added additional classes and began to attract more students. In 1929, the Penland Weavers created a charter and renamed themselves. The Penland School of Handicrafts was born.
During the 1930s Penland continued to develop. Edward Worst joined a growing list of notable craftsmen and craftswomen associated with the school. Emma Conley demonstrated for students how to pick marigold, pokeberries, walnuts, and smartweed and turn them into brilliant dyes. In her booklet, entitled Vegetable Dying, Conley recorded her recipes for deep yellows, reds, browns, and purples. Adding to her legend was her misspelling of the word “Dyeing” which is a part of Penland folklore to this day. Another interesting individual was Aunt Cumi Woody. During her entire life Aunt Cumi, a wise, elderly mountain woman, had spun and woven everything in her family’s house, including their linens and clothes. For many years she shared that knowledge with hundreds of Penland students. She demonstrated how to shear sheep, spin yarn, color it with plant dyes, and weave it into intricate designs. Her coverlets are beautiful examples of a once-common pioneer life style. They remain featured in various publications and museums throughout the region.
In 1933 Lucy Morgan took a considerable gamble. She packed up her weavers and their wares into two mobile trailers and headed to the World’s Fair in Chicago. She need not have worried. Penland’s crafts were so popular that the school received immediate recognition and generated a profit before returning back to the mountains. Penland’s fame was spreading. Students began to request instruction in various crafts other than weaving. Morgan had little difficulty locating experts eager to share their knowledge and passion. Classes in basketry, leather-tooling, pottery, and wood-carving were added first. By 1934 metal and jewelry-making had joined the curriculum. As the enrollment at Penland grew so did its physical facilities. Most noteworthy is the beautiful “dreamhouse” constructed in 1935. This large log cabin is still the focal point of the Penland campus. It was named the Edward F. Worst Craft House in honor of the artist and teacher who helped Penland emerge from its infancy to become one of the nation’s preeminent craft schools.
No one imagined when Worst first visited the school in 1928 that he would teach there every summer until his death in 1949. Another historical addition was made possible by Lily Mills, a longtime supporter of the School. In 1947, when she noticed Penland turning students away due to a shortage of educational facilities, she donated $20,000 for a new building. The result was the Lily Loom House. Penland now includes over 40 structures on almost 400 acres. Penland’s mission statement proclaims the school’s goal of “enriching the lives of individuals by teaching skills, stimulating ideas, and promoting the value of craft in the world.” Over 1200 students learn at Penland every year.
Classes, designed by the instructors, usually include a mix of demonstrations, lectures, and studio work. Currently the school offers instruction in ten media: books & paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking, textiles, and wood. Workshops are at the core of its educational programs. The School offers one-or- two-week classes in the summer and eight-week sessions in the spring and fall. The spring and fall sessions, called Concentrations, are unlike anything else offered in craft, offering the focused intensity of a workshop. Penland has no permanent faculty—instructors and students come to the school for the duration of their class. Students take only one class at a time, making it possible to cover material in depth and to form close relationships with other students in a few weeks.
Penland also offers three-year residencies to artists, providing a stimulating environment for many who are at a transitional point in their careers. Visitors are welcome at Penland and can view and purchase the work of instructors, resident artists, students, and neighboring artists at the Penland Gallery. Tours of the historic campus are also popular. Especially interesting is the ability to visit and chat with resident artists in their own studios. Western North Carolina is recognized as one of the premier craft regions in the nation, and Penland is a proud bearer of that tradition. It is located approximately 50 miles from Asheville, NC, and is about a three-hour drive from the major airport hubs of Charlotte and Knoxville. Be sure to contact the school before visiting. Gallery hours and tour schedules can vary depending on the season and other events.
- Penland School of Crafts P.O. Box 37 67 Doras Trail Penland, NC 28765 828-765-2359 firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information please see:
- Gift from the Hills; Miss Lucy Morgan’s Story of her Unique Penland School Lucy Morgan and Legette Blythe, 1958
- The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience, Jean W. McLaughlin, ed., 2004
- The Story of the Penland Weavers, Bonnie Willis Ford, 1941
- The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, Jay Fields, 2003
- Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Philis Alvic, 2003
- Penland School of Crafts
- The Nature of Craft and the Penland Experience from the Traditional Fine Arts Organization
- History of Penland School of Crafts from mintmuseum.org
- The Craft Revival Project at Western Carolina University