The early decorative arts of Appalachia were the hand-pieced quilts, handwoven coverlets, split oak egg baskets, and other “necessary” crafts once common to every remote household. In the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee, art was often the result of need. The nonindustrialized Appalachian people were self-reliant, making do with materials at hand, crafting the cabins they lived in and all the furnishings, growing the flax and raising the sheep for the carding, spinning, and weaving of cloth for their clothing, and making any needed household implements, farming tools, toys, and bedding from the materials at hand.
The color that came into the Appalachian household came from natural material and natural dyestuffs, from walnut hulls and indigo, from inventive hands and minds adding “art” to everyday living. Intricate weaving patterns and dyes added life to the traditional coverlets, and surely many households contained “showoff” quilts made for marryings and buryings.
Just as the mail order catalog and better transportation began to give the mountaineers access to consumer products and a different, less self-sufficient way of life, a regional movement to preserve and market the traditional crafts got underway. Settlement schools and missionary workers saw the crafts as a means of generating cash income for a cash-poor people, and the “revival” of Appalachia's handicrafts began. The Pi Beta Phi School in Gatlinburg was a leader in the hand weaving arena, both in teaching and production, and the Arrowcraft Shop provided the early market. In Kentucky, Berea College's “Fireside Industries,” and in North Carolina, Frances Goodrich's Allanstand Cottage Crafts, the John C. Campbell Folk School, Penland School, and Clementine Douglas's Spinning Wheel Shop provided similar outlets.
In 1929 these efforts merged to create the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, the major organization devoted to Appalachian crafts, which held its first official meeting in Knoxville in 1930. In 1935 the Tennessee Valley Authority created Southern Highlanders, Inc., a crafts marketing program to work in conjunction with the Guild to operate retail stores in Norris, Tennessee, the Rockefeller Center in New York City, and in Washington, D.C. The TVA's program also included craft training such as O. J. Mattill's woodworking classes, which gave many Gatlinburg area woodworkers a start in the crafts business.
During the mid-1940s the Rockefeller Foundation sponsored Marian Heard's survey of Appalachian crafts, which led to the first Craftsman's Fair of the Southern Highlands, held in 1948 on the grounds of the Pi Beta Phi School in Gatlinburg.
The Southern Highlanders and the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild merged in 1950, extending the Guild's territory westward to Nashville. Phenomenal growth in crafts marketing and education across the region dramatically altered the craft objects which were once the “necessary” creations of mountain people. During the past fifty years, many artists and craftspeople from other regions have moved into Appalachia, bringing new skills and new artistic directions. As a result, the traditional self- or family-taught craftsperson is now part of a distinct minority.
Preservation efforts such as the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, the Guild's recognition of “Heritage Members,” and state folklife efforts, are helping to preserve and perpetuate tradition, but the face of Appalachia's decorative arts is changing rapidly. Today's working craftspeople are more likely to be college-trained professionals whose work is derived from traditional mountain sources. But increasingly, the crafts are not intended to function in traditional ways and have become purely decorative. For example, quilts are now decorator showpieces seldom used on beds, and while the mountain coverlet (or “kiver”) is no longer a significant part of Appalachian craft production, it is perhaps the most studied of the earlier art forms.
Organizations such as the Tennessee Association of Craft Artists (TACA) promote craft as art, though many members' work is very traditional; the Foothills Craft Guild in Oak Ridge has also been active for many years. Strong Appalachian craft organizations have maintained the effort begun during the 1930s, and today's craft professional benefits from the work done over the past half-century.
The marketplace introduced changes in production. Better looms for weaving tighter, straighter seams were introduced early in this century; quilts are now assembled from all-new materials and are often machine quilted and lighter in weight than earlier quilts, which were intended for warmth. Powered saws, sanders, planers, and carving tools have allowed woodworkers to expand and experiment. Electric potter wheels, ram presses, jiggers, and casting molds have influenced pottery design and production. Baskets are often free-form, woven from commercial strapping and dyed bright colors and seldom used for gathering eggs or carrying vegetables to the market. In almost every medium, technology has influenced the finished product.
Appalachian crafts have largely managed to avoid the popular “country” look pushed by magazines, though as always there are craft makers whose designs and production are market-driven. Nevertheless, contemporary Appalachian decorative arts have responded to general market influences and now differ little from those of most of the United States.
The crafts culture, however, remains as a direct descendant of the mountain heritage, and today's crafts work is, essentially, the modern equivalent of the work of a century or two centuries ago. Contemporary Appalachian craftspeople work for different reasons than those of their ancestors, but the common thread linking past and present is quality, material, and skill.
Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands (1937)