Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Revival of Weaving in the 20th Century

In the same year that the Alice T. Miner Museum opened its doors, a new organization was founded in Chicago by a group of women interested in the study and collection of woven coverlets. While Alice herself doesn’t seem to have been a guild member, she knew at least one of its organizers: Georgiana Long Gunsaulus, the widow of Frank W. Gunsaulus, who shared with her late husband and with Alice an interest in collecting and preserving examples of early textile art.

The founding of the Coverlet Guild in 1924 was perhaps the logical outcome of an interest in the art and history of weaving that had been developing since the early 1900s, and which intersected with a number of other contemporary movements. Alice’s coverlet collection might be seen as an outgrowth of her interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement (evident in the scrapbook articles she saved from the 1890s) as well as her connections to the Colonial Revival. It also brought her into contact with individuals who were attempting to revive or preserve weaving in Appalachia in an effort to “uplift” mountain women—a project that was itself influenced by the Progressive movement and the settlement houses of Chicago.

Tools of textile production on display
at the Hull-House Labor Museum
Proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Appalachian craft revival, and Progressivism all believed in the ability of handicraft to improve people’s lives. Handwork provided a creative outlet and a vehicle for self-expression; it could be a way to counteract the homogenizing forces of industrialization and mass production; and on a more practical level, it might provide income for people (women, especially) whose economic opportunities were limited. Many different crafts were promoted (metalwork, pottery, bookbinding), but weaving was especially beloved by all three groups. It was fairly easy to learn and produced useful goods; it had connections to early American history but also was an important part of many of the cultures from which immigrants came; and it was a craft traditionally performed by women in their own homes.

In his 1904 report for the Bureau of Labor, “The Revival of Handicrafts in America,” Max West recorded the activities of dozens of organizations dedicated to reviving hand weaving (mostly in the southern mountains) and rug making (in New England). All were founded by educated, middle- to upper-class women (many of whom had spent time at Hull House or another settlement house) who came to rural communities and worked with local women to revive their craft traditions. 

Women preparing to warp a loom using traditional
methods, North Carolina, ca. 1910
The Appalachian region was the obvious target for this kind of reform work. Communities tended to be economically depressed and isolated, and life was considered especially hard for women, who lived largely without modern conveniences. But because these areas had been “left behind” in the race toward modernization (as reformers saw it) textile production and other handicrafts had never died out completely. There were still plenty of women in the Appalachian south who knew how to spin and weave, using knowledge and patterns that had been passed down from the early nineteenth century.

Blue Mountain Room, White House
Already in 1904, West reported, “There is a constant and apparently increasing demand for hand-woven fabrics, notwithstanding their expensiveness as compared with factory-made goods. Aside from the popularity of old-fashioned blue-and-white coverlets for decorative purposes, handmade linsey-woolsey and cottonades are coming into vogue for outing and golf skirts, and even to some extent for men’s clothing; and there is also a growing demand for hand-woven linen and other cloth to serve as the backgrounds for art embroidery, etc.” The Appalachian weaving revival got an important boost in 1913, when first lady Ellen Wilson redecorated the White House’s Blue Mountain Room using traditional textiles made by Emelda McHargue Walker, a Tennessee weaver who worked with Allanstand Industries, one of the major weaving centers in North Carolina.

Allanstand Industries product display, 1910s
Women living in rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains were receptive to the idea of producing coverlets and other textiles as a source of income. It was something that many of them already knew how to do, the materials were readily available, and the products could be shipped inexpensively. Perhaps most importantly, it was work they could do at home and was compatible with childrearing and other household duties. Whether women felt the kind of creative satisfaction that proponents of handicraft assumed they would is another story. Most of the time, weavers did not get to decide what they made. They were given patterns and materials by the managers of weaving centers, who designed products that would appeal to middle-class consumers. Weavers felt pride in their technical skills and doing a job well, but it was not necessarily an uplifting, aesthetic experience. Still, in a region where currency was in short supply, weaving provided a reliable source of cash income. 

The founders and managers of weaving centers also hoped that their work would preserve the traditions of weaving. However, the pattens, tools, and materials they used were modern ones, suited for the production of large quantities of textiles for sale in urban markets. Over time, weaving centers tended to shift production from coverlets and other large items to smaller pieces like towels and placemats that required less time and skill. But women did keep weaving (indeed, the Allanstand Craft Shop is still in operation), and the craft centers do seem to have encouraged a greater appreciation for antique textiles, which helped to preserve them and led to the creation of groups like the Colonial Coverlet Guild.

So where do Alice Miner and her coverlet collection fit into this story? We’ll get to that in the next post, when a visitor from the Kentucky mountains pays a visit to the North Country.

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