History & Archive

Founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan, Penland School’s beginnings were infused with ideas of social reform and economic empowerment, craft revival, faith, and a deep-seated belief in the power of handwork to improve lives and create community. Known as Penland School of Handicrafts until 1962, the operations of the school went hand-in-hand with the Summer Weaving Institutes (1928 to 1949) and the Penland Weavers and Potters (1924 to 1967), an economic development project that focused on hand-crafted production lines. 

Lucy Morgan’s educational path was similar to many women of the early twentieth century who pursued higher education: teachers’ college. Morgan left her home in far western North Carolina and  received her ‘life certificate’ in secondary education from Central Michigan Normal School in 1915.  Morgan subsequently taught in suburban Chicago and worked at the Child Welfare Bureau in Chicago. She was exposed to the work of Hull House and its focus on democratic principles and civic engagement as a tool of empowerment for the poor and disenfranchised. During that time Chicago was also at the forefront of manual education: teaching craft as a way to better the mind, not only as a vocational skill. 

Fresh from her experience in Chicago, Morgan returned to North Carolina in 1920 to teach at  the Penland Appalachian Industrial School, a school for mountain children founded by her brother Rufus Morgan for the Western Diocese of the Episcopal Church. By 1923, Morgan had become intent on learning to weave with the goal of training local women in traditional skills, turning craft into a means of economic support. Morgan took a comprehensive hand-weaving course at Berea College, Kentucky, and returned to Penland to share those skills. Returning to Penland, Morgan founded a community-based craft production cooperative known as the Fireside Industries in 1924. In 1928, Morgan invited Edward F. Worst, a manual skills expert from Chicago, to mentor the local weavers. By 1929 the production craft cooperative, renamed Penland Weavers and Potters, was thriving although not yet profitable. Worst and Morgan formalized the Summer Weaving Institutes and opened the program to the general public, thus founding an independent school focused on training adults in craft skills, Penland School of  Handicrafts. 

Morgan was the school’s director from 1929 until 1962. Under her direction, Penland grew from  local, tradition-based skills that were a crucial part of the Craft Revival movement, to broader offerings  that attracted a national and international student body and contributed to what would become mid century design. Instructors came from across the country — including Worst from Chicago, Rupert  Peters the Superintendent of the Kansas City School System, and Toni Ford who had a home in  Penland, but worked at universities in Nebraska and Minnesota and then traveled overseas with the  State Department, United Nations and the Foreign Service. Instructors also came from several foreign countries—including textile instructors Irene Beaudin from Montreal, Martta Talpais from Helsinki, and Inga Werther from Sweden. As the school entered the mid-twentieth century, the educational focus expanded beyond traditions of Appalachian mountain culture and embraced international exchange— including the crafts, costume, storytelling, dance and music of other cultures. By 1950, the student body expanded to include international students from over 60 countries and from across the United States.  Programs were also adapted to accommodate the newly fledged field of occupational therapy, students  arriving on the GI Bill after World War II, and college students looking for reciprocal credit. While  folkways were still honored, many were being adapted for mid-century design tastes. 

Morgan was also a founding member of the Southern Highlands Handicraft Guild, founded 1928,  which remains an influential resource for the craft community in Western North Carolina today.  Throughout her tenure, Morgan played a major role in promoting — locally, nationally and  internationally— the handcrafts as a tool for social justice and economic improvement, a therapeutic  outlet, a way to build community, and a means of self-discovery. She was civic minded and a prominent  advocate for business women. Lucy Morgan said her goal was to celebrate “the joy of creative  occupation and a certain togetherness: working together with one another, creating the good and the  beautiful,” and her legacy is one of the longest established, highly regarded craft schools in the world. 

Lucy Morgan retired in 1962, and Bill Brown became the school’s second director. Brown was a  Cranbrook Academy graduate and well connected to university art programs across the country. He had  been Francis Merritt’s second in command at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine,  and he was a skilled craftsman himself. The Brown era shifted the school’s focus beyond craft revival to  craft innovation and the school became known for its immersive workshops. Core values remained  similar—with a focus on hands-on learning and mastery of techniques—while studio hours and program  offerings expanded. Brown introduced a number of lasting initiatives. In 1963, he started what would  become the Resident Artists program, a three-year residency program that provides studios and housing  at nominal cost for established craftspeople to explore a new direction or new body of work. In 1970, he introduced what we now call the Core Fellowship, a two-year work-study program that exchanges work  hours for room, board, and tuition. In that same year, he introduced Spring and Fall Concentrations as  eight-week classes to allow in-depth exploration of materials and methods. Brown’s goal was to keep  the school buzzing throughout the year, with studios in use year-round, and to broaden opportunities to explore craft by offering different levels of engagement. This small mountaintop school was at the forefront of the studio craft movement. 

Brown retired in 1983, but the course of the school was set in motion: 24-hour studios,  innovative course offerings, and world-class instruction have remained standards to this day. Under the  direction of Jean McLaughlin, 1998 to 2017, Penland’s 420-acre campus was carefully managed to  maintain the natural beauty of the school’s location and to ensure that historic buildings remain a living  presence. During McLaughlin’s tenure, a campus master plan and consecutive strategic plans have been put in place, and the campus was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Penland School  Historic District, originally containing thirty-five contributing and seventeen non-contributing buildings and sites associated with the Penland School of Crafts and its history. During that same time, significant  improvements and renovations have taken place; new buildings, including state-of-the-art studios, have been built, and equipment and staffing have become increasingly professional. Programs have remained  true to the school’s mission, while ever expanding the contemporary definition of craft, and creating new opportunities to explore creativity. 

The creation of this digital repository, Penland-Archives.org, was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands Wisdom. Leila Ibrahim Hamdan of Memphis, Tennessee was hired to serve Penland School of Craft for 24 months as the Project Manager for the execution of NEH grant award to create a Digital Asset Management System for Penland archives and this digital archive. However, it was the former Penland Archivist, Carey Hedlund, who masterminded the project and who is owed a great deal of credit for her research and writing and dedication to her craft. One must also credit Hedlund’s predecessor, Michelle Francis, whose research and writings are used a great deal in the Historic Buildings digital collection. 

To create this digital archive and larger data asset management system for the Penland School of Craft, it took a team of brilliant minds and kind people. Thanks and praises are owed heavily to Cliff Landis, Digital Initiatives Librarian at Atlanta University Center and Brigitte Billeadeaux, Assistant Professor, Special Collections Librarian/Archivist at the University of Memphis Libraries for their guidance and service on this project’s Advisory Committee. Lisa Gregory, Program Coordinator at the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and Anne Gilliland, Scholarly Communications Officer and Associate Law Librarian both of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill generously advised and supported project manager on copyright law and the audiovisual collection.  Sallie Fero, former Supply Store Manager who lives and worked for Penland School of Craft for 30 years, served in an offical role for the NEH audiovisual digitization project. Fero used her nearly unparallelled institutional memory to write detailed descriptions for each of the digitized magnetic tapes. Mark Boyd, former Penland IT Manager, turned the idea of an open-source, hosted-on-site, Apache and Linux based digital repository into a living reality, allowing for immediate free access to a global audience. Jennifer Drum served as additional IT support in Boyd’s absence.  Lastly, Mia Hall, Executive Director of Penland School of Craft served as the top advisor and support for the project and implementation of the terms of the National Endowment for the Humanities Grant and to whom a significant amount of credit and thanks is owed.