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Mountain Handicrafts in North Carolina

The landscape of Western North Carolina is defined by its ancient mountains, rising and falling in a sea of wavelike patterns across the horizon. They change with each season, renewed in spring by delicate pastels that gradually deepen to the dark green foliage of summer's cooling shade. Fall's spectacle follows as verdant peaks give way to a carnival of color, until winter once again exposes the rugged terrain, softened from time to time by blankets of deep, white snow.

It is one thing to admire the mountains and their seasons, but it is quite another to make a living off this uncompromising land. In the eighteenth century when Daniel Boone roamed these mountains, harsh frontier life demanded much from its Native Americans and European settlers. Isolated by the steep landscape, they relied on nature for their needs, turning rivercane into baskets, clay into vessels, and native hardwoods into instruments and furniture. In turn, they created a uniquely American art form.

A number of individuals and institutions have helped this mountain region achieve its reputation for craft excellence. Earlier this century, the Southern Highland Craft Guild, John C. Campbell Folk School, and Penland School (see stories, pages 116, 238, 80 respectively), to name only three, established settlement schools that fostered the bountiful native talent.

Today, HandMade in America, an Asheville-based nonprofit organization, continues this tradition. With the help of entrepreneurs, small businesses, associations, educators, regional institutions, and corporations, HandMade is implementing a 20-year strategic plan that establishes Western North Carolina as the geographic center for handmade objects in America. A bold stance, for sure, but crafts grow here as naturally as the rhododendron and flame azalea. In fact, today as many as 4,000 full- or part-time artisans working in the region contribute $122 million to the local economy—earning them the nickname "the invisible factory."

One of HandMade's more recent successes is The Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina, a 120-page book that organizes this diverse area into seven trails and features 350 craft studios, art galleries, historic bed and breakfast inns, fine dining, and historical sites. The Blue Ridge Parkway serves as the connecting link for the 1,000 miles of trails. HandMade staff explored and enhanced what was already here in abundance—natural beauty and handicrafts. They combed the trails, negotiated with independent craft artists to open their studios, offered training sessions for all participating sites to ensure knowledgeable staff along the routes, and rigorously authenticated everything along the way as truly handmade in America. The program is so successful that other states and communities are calling on HandMade to share its strategies for garnering recognition and guaranteeing responsible development of native beauty and natural resources.

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