Many Tennessee craft traditions have their roots in the handmade housewares that rural families had to make for themselves, including things like quilts, baskets, coverlets, candles, and furniture. These items were fashioned out of materials that could be raised or harvested nearby, and colors were derived from natural dyes such as walnut hulls and indigo.
Many of the same crafts were produced by African Americans, who developed their own craft traditions, often with even fewer raw materials than their white counterparts. For example, African-American quilts often used patterns and colors reflective of African culture. Blacksmiths were often African-American, and these skilled artisans developed both practical and decorative pieces for white and black households.
As the lifestyles of Tennesseans changed, and more household items were available in stores and by mail-order, crafts were produced for sale. In 1929, the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild was formed and held its first meeting in Knoxville. In 1950 the Guild merged with Southern Highlanders Inc., an organization established by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the group’s marketing and promotion efforts pushed westward towards the Cumberland Plateau and Nashville.
Today, artists from around the United States have settled in Tennessee to practice modern forms of traditional crafts of quilting, weaving, pottery, furniture-making, and basket-making, among others. While market forces have promoted a certain false folksiness among some artists, a great many of today’s practicing artisans remain true to the mountain heritage that gave birth to the craft tradition in the first place.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Tennessee, 5th Edition