Dogwood Crafters a premiere showcase for mountain artisans
The mountains of Western North Carolina have a rich history of handmade arts and crafts, and nowhere is this heritage of creativity and pioneering spirit more apparent than at Dogwood Crafters. Located just off Highway 441 in the quaint little town of Dillsboro near Sylva, the cooperative has been a driving force behind the area's craft scene since it was first established in 1976. Today, Dogwood Crafters continues to build on its reputation as a premiere showcase for mountain artisans to feature both traditional and contemporary arts and crafts.
The historic town of Dillsboro, which grew from the railroad depot in the late 19th century, is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of its Lights and Luminaries Celebration the next two weekends, Friday and Saturday evenings starting at 5:30 p.m. The artisans of Dogwood Crafters have been instrumental in bringing the holiday celebration to life every year, so it's a perfect time to show up early and come by to see all the fine craftsmanship on display at the shop.
The history behind the heritage
Located a stone's throw away from the historic Jarrett House — which was first built in 1884 — and across the street from the railroad tracks responsible for the establishment of the town of Dillsboro in the early 1880s, Dogwood Crafters remains a vivid reminder of a rich heritage of mountain arts and crafts.
Less than a year after the very first Mountain Heritage Day was celebrated at Western Carolina University in 1974, the founders of the Mountain Heritage Center, together with several local business people and crafters, realized that the popularity of handcrafted items was waning at the time, that crafts were potentially dying out and that they should do what they could to preserve them. In December 1975, the small group came together with others interested in forming an Arts Council for Jackson County, and collectively decided it was feasible to open a local art and craft cooperative, similar to the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild in Asheville.
With a little convincing and a $1,000 Bicentennial Grant from the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, the co-op originally rented a house on Church Street in Dillsboro for the first year of operation. Homeowners Wade and Becky Wilson shared the group's vision of Dillsboro as a craft center, and agreed to rent the house for only $100 per month, sharing the space between the shop and the Bicentennial Office. Known as the Jackson County Craft Co-op at the time, the organization held a "clean-up day" in April and invited craftspeople to bring in samples of their work. Later the same month, the name of the cooperative was changed, and less than five months after the initial meeting, Dogwood Crafters hosted its opening craft fair on May 8, 1976.
Then in 1977, Dogwood Crafters moved into a building made up of adjoining log cabins that were built in 1936 and had been rented out as Cannon's Cottages, until the landlord combined the first two cabins to provide more space for the craft shop. The third cabin was added later on, and now after 37 years, Dogwood Crafters still stands in the place of the vacation cottages to welcome local residents as well as visitors to Western North Carolina, introducing them to a dynamic living heritage of mountain arts and crafts.
Then and now
It was only three years after the grand opening that Brenda Anders, the current president of Dogwood Crafters and one of the longest-term members, first joined the cooperative in 1979.
"I wasn't here when Dogwood Crafters first started, but I got here as soon as I could!" she likes to joke. Her name may sound familiar as she hosts a cooking segment on WLOS-TV. Multi-talented in everything from cooking to ceramics, Anders has been around long enough to see other craft cooperatives come and go, and attributes Dogwood's success to the caliber of the craftspeople, the quality of the crafts and the wide variety of items found exclusively at the shop.
The efforts of Dogwood Crafters and other similar organizations to share the merits of handcrafted work has helped to promote arts and crafts over the years. Now, more than three and a half decades after the original founders feared people no longer valued traditional crafts, there has been a resurgence of interest as handmade, high-quality craftsmanship has become more popular in a modern culture characterized by mass-produced, often disposable, goods.
Anders is also proud to point out that the success of the store has led to personal success for many of the individual crafters.
"Some of our crafters make well over $20,000 to $30,000 or more a year on their crafts," said Anders. "Others may just do it more for fun, or simply to supplement their income. One couple even put their son through college with the income from their crafts."
The store has been consistently busy enough that board members decided to purchase the building in recent years, and are on track to accomplish their goal ahead of schedule with the help of community fundraisers, bake sales, and whatever other creative ideas they can conjure up.
The outside of the shop features an inviting, "country" front porch decked out at this time of year with holiday wreaths and decor. Just below the name, the sign above the door reads "a craft cooperative," and sure enough it must have taken a lot of cooperation just to get the sheer volume of crafts under one roof. For anyone who appreciates quality handmade items, Dogwood Crafters is truly a premiere showcase of traditional crafts. The work of nearly a hundred local crafters on display fills every nook and cranny of the old building. One could easily spend hours enjoying all the surrounding textures, colors and beautiful designs before settling on their purchase.
Ever since Dogwood Crafters reached more than 80 members back in 1977, it's been a challenge to display so many crafts without the shop becoming too cluttered, while still keeping the design fresh for repeat customers.
"That's the thing about crafters," said board member Nan Smith. "Once you start, you can't stop. It's addictive. Selling here helps to support my habit." Smith handcrafts ornate and complex bead designs sold at the store. "If I couldn't show and sell my work here at Dogwood Crafters, I would still be doing it and filling up my house instead." She said every crafter she knows of has the same compulsion.
One glance around the shop proves she's telling the truth. To make sense of it all, the crafters had to get organized, dividing up the various rooms in the store into categories of work, such as pottery, stained glass (in the sunlit window), painting, clothing, woodwork, and so on. Other rooms are inclusive of all sorts of craftsmanship, but revolve around a concept such as a seasonal holiday or a specific area of decor for customers' homes.
It's hard to describe the shop any better than Anders. "It's really a constantly changing variety of beautiful and fascinating items limited only by the imagination and skill of our artisans."
And while it may not be obvious to the average observer, there's a method to the craft madness.
"Each room is designed with a theme in mind," explained Anders. "One of our most popular rooms is the Lodge Room," which features crafts and decor items designed for customers' summer mountain homes or cabins. Paintings in the Lodge Room tend to depict scenes of mountain landscapes or wildlife. Decor items include wood carvings, wrought-iron coat racks, old farm tools and rustic sculptures and figurines.
Then there's the Pillow Room, which features much more than just pillows. Yet the name fits, because everything in the Pillow Room is meant to decorate or be used in the bedroom or bathroom, to pamper the senses with soft textures, exquisite aromas and beautiful patterns. It could almost be called the linen room, but while there are indeed a lot of embroidered pillows, throws and elaborate quilts, the room also offers scented handmade soaps and lotions, choice ceramic pieces to match the linens, smaller items such as custom made, inexpensive refrigerator magnets featuring miniature landscape scenes from original photographs, and much more.
Another room features original handmade clothing, ranging from colorful flowing scarves to knitted winter caps and mittens. Mixed in among the blouses, vests and full head wraps are handmade dolls designed to sit on the shelf or table. The room also features a wide variety of clothing accessories, including purses "recycled" from a man's tie and several types of jewelry and necklaces to accent the new outfit of your choice.
The prices for Dogwood's merchandise is surprisingly affordable, considering the quality and creativity that is invested in much of the work. "The secret is our jellies," said Anders, referring to the small room filled with every imaginable variety of jelly in decorative mason jars. "These are our best sellers. We sell enough jams and jellies to pay for most of our monthly operating costs, and that helps to keep costs down so that our crafters can keep more of what they make."
Of course with Christmas just around the corner, the main entrance room and much of the smaller rooms toward the back of the store are dedicated to holiday crafts and decor, including unique Christmas tree decorations – none of it made in China.
"Believe it or not, we actually sell more Christmas stuff throughout the year than we do at Christmas," said Anders, surprisingly. "A lot of people shop ahead for special gifts like our handmade items," she explained.
It's no wonder. Ornate wired natural wreaths hang on the wall next to a watercolor painting of a majestic elk, and a nearby mantle holds so many styles of hand-made and hand-painted Santas, snowmen and reindeer figurines that it would be difficult to settle on just one.
But even with so many items, each of the rooms is impeccably designed from floor to ceiling. "That would be the work of Bernice Spitzer, our design coordinator," explained Anders. "She does a wonderful job."
A member of the co-op and practicing crafter, Spitzer's artistic gifts obviously translate to coordinating and directing the design of each of the themed rooms. Not only is it her job to keep the shop looking fresh for customers who often return once a month or so, but she's also responsible for rotating the merchandise to prominently feature each members' crafts throughout the year. It turns out that Anders was the first unofficial design coordinator when the co-op started the practice way back in 1980. But now she can focus on her duties as president of the co-op, leaving the store's interior design in Spitzer's capable hands.
The strength of Dogwood Crafters has always been the solidarity among the members, said Anders. It's not just a co-op. It's a community. From the very beginning the work of operating the store has been divided between the crafters. Members who man the store for a few days each month get to keep more of the proceeds of their sales, while those that don't pay a higher percentage to the cooperative. The result is that members are personally invested in the cooperative and are able to get better acquainted with each other while working together. Members often join together to raise funds for the co-op or to share recipes to go in the regularly updated creative cookbook, "Cooking with Dogwood Crafters," available for purchase at the store. It's this type of support and camaraderie that reflects the spirit of a true cooperative. And it's perhaps the reason why so many of the artisans have remained members for two or more decades.
Raising funds and awareness of the arts
A big part of the success of Dogwood Crafters has come from not only recognizing the community within the co-op, but in actively engaging and giving back to the surrounding community as well. Dogwood Crafters has had a scholarship program for nearly 20 years, and has provided more than 130 scholarships. The scholarships are awarded annually to area schools, including Southwestern Community College, Rabun-Gap Nacoochee School, Tallulah Falls School, and Haywood Community College.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, the official mission of Dogwood Crafters Cooperative is to educate area residents and visitors in promoting traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. The group hosts a variety of craft workshops throughout the year— such as classes in weaving chair seats, making clay pots, ceramic ornaments or pine needle baskets during the 2013 season— at a minimal cost to participants, and all proceeds going to support the co-op.
Dogwood Crafters also holds an annual raffle for a one-of-a-kind quilt, with this year's quilt made by one of their most experienced artisans, Larry Walther. The drawing is to be held Monday, Dec. 16. The quilt, the Smoky Mountain Bouquet, is on display at the Dogwood Crafters shop. Tickets are $1 each or six for $5, and the proceeds will go toward the building fund.
Whether you drop in during the Lights and Luminaries Festival or when it's a bit less busy, the artisans of Dogwood Crafters invite you to stop by for a visit. The shop is open daily from mid-March to the end of December, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. To learn more about the cooperative, visit online at http://www.dogwoodcrafters.com/ or call (828)586-2248.