Biltmore Industries
The Evolution of the Craft Industry in Western North Carolina.

Asheville, North Carolina is known for its many fine art galleries as well as folk craft galleries. This art industry is so prevalent due to many early craft collectives, guilds, and cooperatives that later became industries that drove the economies Southeastern states in the early twentieth century. Biltmore industries led primarily by Edith Vanderbilt brought crafts into the Asheville community, which later led to a highly trained craft industry work force. This abundance of trained work provided employees to fill the market that had been created by surrounding craft industries in Tallula Falls, Georgia, the Penland School in North Carolina, and Berea College. As the craft industry grew in the southeast, art became an important part of the economics of Western North Carolina, and continues to be important to the Asheville area to this day.

Edith Vanderbilt lived with her Husband George in a cottage on the Biltmore Estate, a large tract of land bought by George at $2.25 per acre in 1890. Edith had long been a woodcarver and needlepoint artist, and therefore got involved with her local church group at All Souls Church in Biltmore. As she learned to weave, and showed off her woodcarving skills, many local boys became interested and asked for lessons. In 1901, Edith held the her first woodcutting class in her own kitchen with four boy students. These classes grew in popularity, and Edith soon recruited the help of Charlotte Yale and Eleanor Vance. As more and more children grew interested in crafts, the super intendent took notice and offered Vanderbilt and Yale teaching jobs at Asheville High School, however, due to increased demand at Biltmore Estate Industries, they were forced to decline. However, woodcarving and cabinet making classes were nonetheless inducted into Asheville High School curriculum the following semester with alternate instructors.

Fabric production was very crude in the early 1900’s, wool was carded by hand, and was dyed from natural dyes made from roots and herbs in the area(yellow from hickory bark, and black walnut bark etc.) At one point, Edith Vanderbilt sent Vance and Yale on a trip to London and Scotland to study weaving techniques, and ultimately to retrive a one hundred year old fly shuttle loom. Fly shuttles had been the standard original model looms that had been brought from Europe; however, the shuttles were prone to defect, therefore weavers became accustomed to pushing the cord through by hand. This practice led to American made looms being primarily manual rather than using a fly shuttle. The loom which was brought to America and used as a model for woodworking classes to duplicate. Reintroducing fly shuttle looms to American craft workers revived traditional methods of weaving, and increased production of woven goods as well (because fly shuttle looms were much easier to produce work on quickly). Edith Vanderbilt also visited other craft studios in the area. In fact, she purchased two wool mechanical cards used to clean fleece of burs, bugs, and dirt from the Reems Creek Mill. In 1915 Edith visited the Tryon Toymakers and Woodcarvers to hone her skills in woodcarving.

Young people in Asheville were being raised with the presence of industrious art and craft influences all around them, at church and at school, and many parents worked in the craft industry as well. Biltmore Estate Industries was not alone in hiring people from the community to meet the growing demands for folk art and crafts such as hand woven fabric and handmade cabinets and furniture. By 1910 Biltmore Estate Industries was teaching cabinet making, woodcarving, weaving, and metal work. Asheville High was had folk art curriculums in weaving and wood work. The Penland School offered higher education in crafts as well as the Pine Mountain Settlement school and Berea College. Biltmore Forrest was cut to provide ample wood supplies for the growing furniture and cabinet industries, and the hillsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains was provided perfect fields to raise sheep as Edith Vanderbilt had done prior to receiving the old loom from England.

John C. Campbell (who founded the John C. Campbell Folk School) called Biltmore Estate Industries a “Church and independent school,” in that it began with church groups, and grew to be an independently funded school, separate from any institution or government agenda. It then spread its influence to public schools and eventually to a market which came to drive the economy of Asheville and much of western North Carolina. However, as Mrs. Vanderbilt aged she grew less industrious, and eventually was forced to sell Biltmore Estate Industries to Fred L. Seely. When the operation moved off of the Biltmore Estate and behind the Grove Park Inn in 1917, Seely shortened the name to simply Biltmore Industries. For a long while, the “Homespun Shops” survived solely through Seely’s personal contributions. However, the demand for fine handmade linens grew, and Biltmore Industries rose to meet the demand. At the peak of production in 1933, Biltmore Industries employed seven women and forty men full time on looms.

The early craft industry in western North Carolina was driven by community towards industry, rather than most modern work models which stem from industry towards profit. The doors to the Homespun Shops are carved with the adage “Life Without Industry is Guilt, Industry Without Art is Brutality”, this saying perfectly summarizes how Biltmore Estate Industries under Edith Vanderbilt aimed to build character and give young people an urge to be both creative and industrious in life, which later gave the craft industry an elegant pride in its own work. To this day, Asheville, North Carolina is an art town, the streets are lined with art galleries, craft shops, independent film theatres, and art supply stores. This culture is rooted within the earliest influences of industry in this area, primarily, Biltmore Estate Industries.

Works Cited

Eaton, Allen Hendershott. Handicrafts of the southern Highlands. New York, Dover Publications, 1973.

Goodrich, Frances Louisa. Mountain Homespun. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1931.

Jones, Bruce. “The Story of Making Biltmore Handwoven Homespuns”, “Biltmore Estate Industries: An Arts & Crafts Enterprise in Asheville”, and “We Grew From a School…” Assorted Short Articles from Grovewood Gallery archives, Asheville, NC.

Whisnant, David E. All that is Native & Fine. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.