More than half-a-century ago, as the industrialization of the Southeast reached its zenith, Bessie Jordan grew alarmed at the rural craft traditions that were disappearing as Hendersonville’s urban sprawl began swallowing surrounding farms and homesteads. A longtime teacher and sometime principal in the Hendersonville school system, Bessie brought into her classrooms her love of one particular heritage craft: weaving.
She taught the venerable art to hundreds of students over 30 years and set up a weaving program at the original site of Hendersonville’s Opportunity House. Today, some two decades after Bessie’s death, her spirit hovers over Historic Johnson Farm, where the modern-day successor to Bessie’s efforts, Heritage Weavers And Fiber Artists, carries on her legacy in what was once the farm’s boarding house for summer visitors.
“Bessie could be considered our founder,” says HWFA president Ann Mullican during a recent tour of the meticulously restored building amid the muted clacking of looms. One of Bessie’s own looms is on display in the main downstairs room of the house, along with photographs and examples of patterns Bessie collected from around the country and wove on her loom, one of more than a dozen owned by HWFA, from simple inkle and rigid heddle looms to more sophisticated four and eight-shaft looms for advanced work. “Our mission is to pass on the tradition of weaving and working with fibers,” Ann says, “especially to children, which is why we’re so lucky to have had the chance to move here from Opportunity House.” The move happened four years ago, when Historic Johnson Farm’s advisory committee received a matching grant from the Blue Ridge Mountain Heritage Area to restore the 90-year-old house, which had been vacant since 1958.
The members of Heritage Weavers boast a history as textured and colorful as the scarves, shawls, rugs, hats, and wall hangings their looms have produced. Ruth Howe, HWFA’s Education Coordinator, met Ann seven years ago at Opportunity House, where Ann was the weaving instructor. “I’d always done handwork since I was a child,” Ruth says. “I knitted and sewed, but then I decided I wanted to know more about fiber and weaving, so I went to Opportunity House and the first person I met was Ann.” A few years later, Ann asked Ruth to teach classes to beginners. “She was a great student and always ready for the next challenge,” Ann says.
Both women were among the small group of weavers who approached the farm’s advisory committee about using the old boarding house as a center for heritage fiber arts, working in collaboration with the Hendersonville school system, which administers the farm. Many of HWFA’s 50 members pitched in for the detail work on the house renovation, from painting walls to finishing floors. “The house had been left pretty much untouched since 1958,” Ruth says. “There was just the original wallboard on the walls, and there was some water damage to the downstairs bathroom, and the floors had never been finished and sealed. But it was amazing how little overall damage there had been in those 50 years.”
Many HWFA members have been on the roster for decades, even when geography got in the way. Nan Miller describes herself as “one of our half-backs,” since she splits her year between Florida and Hendersonville. “But I’ve been a member for 21 years now,” she adds, “and always come back here to weave.” Carol Price says she’d been a HWFA member for 23 years after moving to Hendersonville from Canada. “I always loved to weave,” she says, displaying a collection of woolen shawls, silky and soft to the touch, on display in the upstairs hallway. “My daughter likes to spin, and these shawls are made from wool she spun herself.”
In keeping with the dedication to traditional, home-based crafts, HWFA’s fibers are hand-spun from wool provided by Jack and Jill, the farm’s resident sheep, who live just a few steps away from the boarding house in one of the farm’s pastures. They’re sheared by the farm’s own shepherd during the annual Spring Festival. Extra hands for carding and spinning come from a local 4-H chapter that HWFA sponsors, the Heritage Front Porch Pickers. The organization dyes its own wool, too, fleecy samples of which from Angora goats fill the bathtub in the upstairs bathroom.
HWFA derives its operating revenue from membership fees, tuition for weekly classes in weaving, spinning, knitting and rug hooking, and from its small gift shop on the premises. An estimated 2,000 visitors pass through its doors each year during daily tours of the farm or during “Gathering Days” when other civic and non-profit groups come to learn about fiber crafts over lunch. That’s in addition to three summer day camps for children offered each year and programs for school children organized in cooperation with the school system as part of its regular curriculum.
But despite all the activity, an atmosphere of tranquility fills the old boarding house, and a gentle flow of color, pattern and texture softens its old walls and glimmers from the looms as new work quietly takes form. “None of us can afford a psychiatrist, so we weave,” Ann Mullican jokes. “We’re a supportive group of friends, and weaving is our passion.”
Heritage Weavers and Fiber Artists
Historic Johnson Farm
3346 Haywood Road