Fiber in North Carolina

image fo Billie Ruth Sudduth
Billie Ruth Sudduth

The creation of the first cotton textile mill by Lincoln County’s Michael Schenck around 1815 marked the beginning of the textile industry’s migration from New England to North Carolina. By the 1920s, the state was the center of the textile business in the United States and the industry remained an integral part of the economy for most of the 20th century. But N.C. has always enjoyed a rich tradition of fiber arts, from river cane baskets to coverlets woven in cotton or wool, from traditional quilts to innovative museum-quality tapestries.

Cherokee basket making can be traced back thousands of years. The abundance of river cane gave the tribe a reliable source of material and also a spiritual connection to nature and place. More recently, white oak has been used as a material for baskets made in a traditional double-weave style. Lottie Queen Stamper was a significant influence in reviving traditional Cherokee basket making, teaching at the Cherokee boarding school from 1937 through her retirement in 1966, and many contemporary weavers including Lucille Lossiah, Shirley Taylor and 1989 N.C. Heritage Award recipient Emma Taylor have carried on the tradition. Sales outlets like the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee have supported the work of traditional fiber artists and offered training to new generations.

cherokee basket
Eva Wolfe, doubleweave rivercane basket
Photo by Rob Amberg
The traditional craft of weaving was revived by Allenstand Cottage Industries (today, the Southern Highland Craft Guild), created by Presbyterian missionary Frances Louisa Goodrich in 1897 to help not only Madison County weavers but also basket makers and woodworkers generate a subsistence living. The organization opened a showroom in Asheville in 1908 and moved to its current home at the Folk Art Center in Asheville in 1980, making it the oldest continuously operating craft shop in the U.S.

Weaving was also taught at Biltmore Estate Industries in Asheville from 1901 to 1917, and at the John C. Campbell Folk School which opened in 1925. The Penland Weaving Institute, founded in 1926, grew to include such a diverse range of content that it changed its name to the Penland School of Crafts in 1936 and still includes fiber arts among its core course offerings.

The craft of quilt making remains an extremely popular social and educational activity in N.C., with 70 local quilt guilds operating throughout the state including Quilters by the Sea in Wilmington, A Gathering of Quilters in Murphy and the Stanly County Three Rivers Quilt Guild in Albemarle. There are two statewide quilt guilds, the Western North Carolina Quilters Guild in Hendersonville and North Carolina Quilters in Winston-Salem.

Lisa Klakulak, handbag
Photo courtesy of Piedmont Craftsmen, Inc.

Today, fiber artists carry on craft traditions but also take them in remarkable new directions. Blowing Rock master weaver Mike Harman, a 2007 N.C. Heritage Award recipient, is a sixth-generation weaver of heirloom-quality textiles using a water-powered industrial loom. Internationally known Bakersville basket maker Billie Ruth Sudduth, a 2005 N.C. Fellowship recipient from Bakersville, creates patterns based on Fibonacci numbers found in nature. Her work can be found in the Mint Museum Uptown at the Levine Center for the Arts in Charlotte, the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery and the Museum of Art and Design in New York. Susan Brandeis, a three-time N.C. Arts Council Fellowship recipient (1992, 1997, 2003) from Raleigh, combines hand weaving, digital printing and stitching techniques with sophisticated digital sewing equipment in her work. Vita Plume, a 2011 Fellowship recipient also from Raleigh, weaves and dyes patterns in fiber and merges them with portraits on a digital loom.




The North Carolina Arts Council is a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.
Susan Kluttz, Secretary; Pat McCrory, Governor