Making History:
Penland Weaving Institutes, 1929-1938

Craft instruction at Penland, known initially as the Penland Weaving Institute, was conducted under the auspices of the Penland Weavers and Potters. The summer workshops grew out of Lucy Morgan’s desire to provide advanced training for the women working in the home-based weaving industry she had established in 1923. Under the leadership and guidance of Morgan and weaving instructor, Edward F. Worst, the program grew from a few days of weaving demonstrations in 1928 to six weeks of craft instruction offered during the summer of 1938.

While learning to weave at Berea College in 1923, Lucy Morgan had become familiar with the work and writing of Edward F. Worst, a noted Chicago public school educator, weaver, and author of the authoritative book, Foot Power Loom Weaving (1918). Morgan enlisted the aid of Worst as she sought advanced training for the women working in the Fireside Industries (later known as the Penland Weavers and Potters), the community craft cooperative she had established upon her return from Berea. During the summer of 1928, Worst visited Penland and spent a few days instructing the community weavers in advanced techniques. The following winter Morgan spent nine weeks in Chicago honing her weaving skills under Worst’s tutelage with the intent of sharing this newly acquired knowledge with the Penland weavers.

At Morgan’s invitation, Edward Worst returned to western North Carolina to give a week’s instruction in weaving. Word spread that he would be teaching a summer course and people outside the Penland community began to inquire if they also might attend. Lucy Morgan later declared the summer of 1929 as the founding of Penland School of Handicrafts because both the local weavers and seven students from outside the community gathered together at Penland to receive instruction under Edward Worst. Worst taught weaving every summer, many times without remuneration, until his death in 1949.

The primary intent of the institutes was to provide the Penland weavers and neighbors with instruction in traditional crafts. However, Lucy Morgan soon realized that these workshops had become a nexus for a craft community that would extend well beyond the Penland mountain top. Bonnie Willis Ford described this phenomenon in an article printed in the January 1936 issue of The Weaver.

One of the most gratifying things connected with all the six Institutes has been the fact that there have been gathered during these years, from the four corners of the continent, people who, by their very presence, enthusiasm, and good sportsmanship have created such a spirit of good fellowship on the Penland hill top as to be felt long after they returned to their widely-separated places of abode and work.

The early weaving institutes met first in Morgan Hall, a residency and dining hall for the Appalachian Industrial School, and later in Ridgeway Hall, a two-story classroom and dormitory for the Episcopal mission school. The Appalachian Industrial School served as the umbrella institution under which Morgan organized her community weaving program. Looms were set up on Ridgeway’s large front porch. Mixed in with the clacking of shuttles and treadles was the thunderous noise of children roller skating on the upper porch. The competing sounds of the skates and the need for additional room for the expanding summer institutes led to the construction of the Edward F. Worst Craft House in 1935.

Craft House was named in honor of Edward Worst who played an important role in the early development and expansion of the craft school. His national reputation drew many new students to the remote Penland community and his skill as an instructor in weaving, design and bookbinding kept many of them registering for successive institutes. Through Worst’s influence classes in other media, such as basketry and pottery, were added to the curriculum. Edward Worst’s commitment to the work at Penland was as strong as his energy was indefatigable. Paul Bernat, founding editor of The Handicrafter magazine, was a frequent guest at the early institutes. After attending the 1931 institute, Bernat noted that:

It seemed as if Mr. Worst was devoting all his hours to weaving, depriving himself of all relaxation in the desire to attack one more point in this complex subject. The mass of detail that he attacked was bewildering; there were excursions into draft writing; earnest coping with the intricacies of double weaving; a resume of eight-harness weaving, round-table discussions on texture, design, color harmony, and the trends in weaving. Throughout the Institute Mr. Worst maintained a tireless pace, commencing early in the morning, often only desisting at night when the fingers of sleep closed in.

Worst felt strongly that classes should be open to students of all skill levels – a practice that continues today at Penland School of Crafts. Another enduring philosophy established during the initial institutes and extending to the present time was the informal structure of the classes. Paul Bernat, again reporting on the 1931 institute, observed that:

No hidebound restrictions were laid down for the routine conduct of the Institute, and its sessions did not run along greased rollers; but in the element of haphazardness much was gained. In the arts it is time we learned that efficiency is not necessarily conducive to beauty, and that following through processes faithfully in no measure adds to the artistry. The weavers attending, all of whom had a working knowledge of the craft, gained much more through these dartings in their field than a systematized course could have given.

In the beginning summer institutes were one week long; but, in 1933 classes were expanded to two weeks and by 1938 there were two summer sessions of three weeks each. Early weaving institutes included instruction in simple bookbinding and demonstrations in making pottery and pewter ware. In 1932 classes in basketry, leather-tooling, and ceramics were offered. Edward Worst’s son, Louis, a craft teacher in the Chicago public schools, taught the basketry classes. Howard C. Ford, assistant professor of art at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College taught pottery with the assistance of Rissie Tipton of Penland. Tuition that summer was $10 per person; room and board was set at $2.50 per day.

Each new institute built upon previous ones with the introduction of new crafts and additional instructors. The interest in the weaving classes was so great that Rupert Peters, a 1935 Institute student, was asked to return the following year as Worst’s assistant. Clyde Miller’s jewelry making classes, first offered in 1935, soon outpaced all other crafts, except weaving, in popularity.

Institute faculty included members of the Penland community who brought craft skills learned from family members or through Lucy Morgan’s community craft program. Local craft instructors included, among others; Emma Conley who taught dyeing with native plants; flax spinner Harriet Conley; local weavers Beatrice Green, Georgia Morgan, Ellen Fortner, and Mary Grindstaff; John Morgan who taught basketry; potter Rufus Wyatt; and Arthur Woody and his daughter, Decie, who taught chair seat weaving.

During the 1930s, vocational and occupational therapists, home extension agents, handicraft teachers, and a scattering of professional weavers joined the community weavers as institute students. Those coming to Penland from outside the community primarily were learning new craft skills and honing existing ones that they would take home and apply in their professional work with others. The 1935 institute students included individuals representing four American Indian schools – Sequoyah School, Tahlequah, Oklahoma; Indian School, Concho, Oklahoma; Pine Ridge Indian Reservation School, Pine Ridge, South Dakota; and Cherokee Indian Reservation School, Cherokee, North Carolina.

Weaving Institutes also included students and guests representing private and government craft programs. In addition to 40 Penland weavers, others attending the 1931 Institute included Clementine Douglas of the Spinning Wheel in Asheville, North Carolina; Mrs. N. W. Johnson, director of weaving at Crossnore School, Crossnore, North Carolina; LaDelle Allen, manager of the Craft Shop at the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Anna Lalor Burdick, Federal Director for Vocational Education for Girls and Women, Washington, DC; and, George W. Coggin, State Director for Vocational Education, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Sample from Isadora Williams' Notebook
Sample from Isadora Williams' Notebook

It was not unusual for students to give demonstrations or instruction in their individual craft specialties. Naida Ackley and Kathleen Campbell, occupational therapists from Marion, Virginia taught leather tooling during the 1932 and 1933 Institutes. Home Marketing Specialist Isadora Williams taught card board weaving during the 1935 Institute and during the 1936 Institute Reba Adams, a Home Industries Specialist from Athens, Georgia, taught the group how to make whisk brooms out of long leaf pine needles. Fellow institute students Anne L. Fisher and Frances Goode from Palmer Lake, Colorado gave demonstrations in the spinning, weaving and knitting of Angora rabbit wool.
In addition to craft instruction and demonstrations, students participated in field trips to Roan Mountain and to the various gem mines in the area. Evenings were spent around the fireplace listening to stories or viewing lantern slides illustrating the history of Penland and its neighbors. The slides were taken by Bayard Wootten, a noted photographer and cousin of Lucy Morgan. Sometimes students and instructors would visit Penland neighbors like Doc Hoppas, known for his mountain tales. Hoppas and his family were accomplished musicians who often entertained weaving institute participants with old mountain ballads and dance music.

During the 1935 Institute, extracurricular activities included presentations and exhibitions of work by visiting tapestry artist Joy Kime Benton, from Hendersonville, North Carolina and Wilma Stone Viner, tapestry weaver and dyer from Saluda, North Carolina. Burnley Weaver, wood and linoleum block printer from Biltmore, North Carolina demonstrated block printing and exhibited a number of his prints. Stuart Nye, also from the Biltmore community, exhibited his hand-made jewelry and on another evening Bessie Trimble and Angelique High White Man, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota gave a program of Lakota songs and dances.

By 1936, the content of the summer program had become so diverse that the original name, Penland Weaving Institute, was discarded in favor of a new name – Penland School of Handicrafts. After Penland School of Handicrafts was incorporated in 1938, the institutes began to be known simply as the summer sessions and were no longer under the auspices of the Penland Weavers and Potters. Legal ties to the Appalachian School were severed and the Penland Weavers and Potters began operating as a department of the newly incorporated craft school. By then the course of instruction had expanded to include weaving, pottery, jewelry making, metal-crafts, shoe making, color and design, puppetry, corn shuck crafts, flax and wool spinning, vegetable dyeing, chair seating, lapidary, knots and braids, and American Indian pottery and bead work.

Weaving Institute participants traveled from all over the country to attend classes at Penland and by the 1940s and 1950s there were students and instructors from around the world, as well. In her history of the Penland Weavers, Bonnie Willis Ford wrote that the “effect of the Institute on the work at Penland and on the community has been tremendous. It has literally converted a little mountain community into a veritable mecca for crafts loving people.”

In an article for The Handicrafter magazine, Lucy Morgan reflected upon the 1934 Weaving Institute, expressing sentiments that would typify for many the Penland experience for decades to come.

As one grateful member of Mr. Edward F. Worst’s institute conducted each year at Penland, I would like to share with those who could not be with us some of the things taught in last summer’s classes. Twenty-two looms were threaded with as many interesting weaves, requiring from two to ten harness shafts, and some of them were threaded two and three times during the two weeks. New weavers, weavers with little experience, and veteran weavers who came for new vision and new enthusiasms, sat at looms on the long porch and played, not on a harp of a thousand strings, but on looms with a thousand charms, and made music in the souls of the creators of beauty.

- Michelle A. Francis, 2008

See More: About the Penland School of Crafts