Whatever the object, and whoever the maker, craft is always a form of creative expression. That expression might take the shape of a bowl, a candlestick or a quilt. It might be a basket, a carved wooden toy or a tapestry. Or it might be a gate forged in iron or an ornament blown in glass. Whatever form it takes, craft requires an idea, an interesting material to work with and a skill for bringing it to life in a unique way.
Jewelry by Janine Dunklebarger
Historically, craft items served a functional purpose, with appearance playing a secondary role. Commonplace jugs, plates and storage vessels for everything from pickles to beans were shaped by hand, making the craftsperson an essential member of his or her community. But when the industrial revolution brought factories to the state, household items like these could be mass produced more cheaply by machine, reducing the importance of the craftsperson and leading to the decline of traditional craft making as a livelihood.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a revival of interest in craft, not only in response to mass production but as a means of addressing poverty and improving people’s lives. This movement was particularly strong in North Carolina, where cottage industries taught marketable skills, particularly weaving and woodworking, to people in rural communities, increasing their incomes and connecting them with new tourist markets. Allanstand Cottage Industries, founded in 1897, is now Allanstand Craft Shop in Asheville. The Southern Highland Craft Guild, formed in 1930, now represents 900 craftspeople regionally. The John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown opened its doors in 1925. The influential Penland School of Crafts was founded in 1929 and went on to become a leader of the studio craft movement in the 1960s.
Penland founder Lucy Morgan instructs a weaver, 1930s. (Bayard Wooten/UNC Library at Chapel Hill)
The Cherokee Indian Fall Fair, established in 1914, marked a revival of interest in authentic Cherokee craft and has been a major annual event for nearly 100 years. Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual was founded in 1946 to preserve and advance the arts and crafts of the Cherokee Indians.
In the Piedmont, Seagrove’s 200-year-old pottery tradition never really disappeared, but was reinvigorated by aficionados Jacques and Juliana Busbee of Raleigh, who opened Jugtown Pottery in 1922. Jacques, who had studied art and design in New York City, and Juliana, a photographer and illustrator, identified early traditional designs from the region and provided work for local potters by selling their wares at a tearoom owned by Juliana in New York and opening up new markets. Jugtown trained new generations of potters through an influential apprenticeship program which ran from 1969 to1980. In the Catawba Valley, where a pottery tradition developed in the early 1800s, potteries all but disappeared in the 1940s, but the craft was kept alive by master potter Burlon Craig. With a revival of interest in the 1970s, he served as an important teacher to new generations.
In Winston-Salem, the Sawtooth Center for Visual Art is one of the oldest community visual arts programs in the country and the premier school in central N.C. for craft and arts education. Piedmont Craftsmen, a guild founded by craft artists and collectors to honor the work of the hand, was established there in 1963 and today displays a wide range of contemporary craft in its exhibition space as well as at its annual Piedmont Craftsmen’s Fair.
In eastern N.C., traditional crafts like decoy carving have been supported and preserved by the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum on Harker’s Island, as well as the Core Sound Decoy Carver's Guild, established in 1987. Along the Outer Banks, artisans of all types maintain working studios that take traditional craft in new directions of creativity, and Columbia’s Pocosin Arts brings new life to crafts like metalsmithing and jewelry making, embellishing, and glass slumping and fusing.
In recent decades, N.C. craft has enjoyed the benefit of strong advocacy and promotion from organizations like Handmade in America in Asheville, the Center for Creativity, Craft and Design in Hendersonville and the N.C. Pottery Center in Seagrove. Charlotte’s Mint Museum Uptown, Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of Art and N.C. Museum of History, and the Hickory Museum of Art have become places not only to see but also to buy authentic craft from our state.
With its diverse cultures, rich historical legacies and endless reinvention, N.C. nurtures artists and institutions that honor our heritage in craft and those who push its boundaries in creative new directions. Whatever your area of interest, you will discover something to love when you explore North Carolina craft.