Over the past few weeks in our weekly newsletter (which you can subscribe to here), we dedicated a section to creativity. For our purposes, creativity meant finding new and imaginative ways to work with the surroundings and resources of Appalachia. Our hope is that during the coming winter months, as COVID-19 lingers on, you find inspiration and an escape through creativity.
Pottery has been part of Appalachia since the Cherokee discovered that clay could be used to make vessels for holding water and preparing food. The Cherokee made coil and pinch pots and used natural materials, like stone, wood, and bone, to embed decoration. To learn more about Cherokee pottery, check out “Cherokee Pottery: People of One Fire” created by the Cherokee National Historical Society.
As its functional use declined in the 19th century, pottery became a folk art, appreciated for its ornamental and aesthetic qualities. Today in colonized Appalachia, pottery encompasses Indigenous, European, and African traditions.
Art isn’t merely functional or decorative; there is evidence that art therapy can reduce “adverse physiological and psychological outcomes.” During the pandemic, having a creative outlet like pottery might help ease your mind. If you’re interested in trying pottery, reach out to a local studio or go dig (responsibly!) for clay like potter Mel Sword in Preston County, WV.
Canning or persevering fruits and vegetables by heat-sealing them in glass jars is an important food preservation technique in Appalachia. Every season is canning season, but late summer to early fall is best in Appalachia due to the abundance of crops. In October, carrots, beats, squash, peas, potatoes, pears, and apples are all ready for canning.
“Food preservation is as old as humankind…Evidence shows that Middle East and oriental cultures actively dried foods in the hot sun as early as 12,000 B.C.,” Linda Huyck noted for the Michigan State University Extension. Canning, the “newest” method of food preservation, arose in 19th-century France. The inventor, Nicholas Appert, received an award from Napoleon for his success, which helped feed the military.
Eventually, canning became popular in the United States among rural communities and farmers who were concerned about food spoilage. In Appalachia, canning helped add variety and nutrients to people’s diets well into the winter months.
Today, canning in Appalachia is an act of resistance against highly processed foods and injustice. This makes canning not only a fun creative activity, but one of importance which maintains tradition and fights against broken food systems.
Color is an important part of human culture. Before synthetic dyes, however, people depended on natural materials, like plants, insects, mollusks, and minerals.
Natural dyes are incredibly varied and dynamic. Some materials, like sumac and walnut, are substantive or direct dyes, meaning they do not require any added substance to produce the desired pigment. Mordant or adjective dyes, on the other hand, require assistance so that the pigment bonds well to fibers. Thus, mordants or “water-soluble chemicals, usually metallic salts, which create a bond between dye and fiber” are used to increase “the adherence of various dyes to the item being dyed.”
Historically, natural dyes have been used in artwork, textiles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food. In Appalachia, Indigenous peoples were the first to discover and use natural dyes. The Cherokee, for example, extract a variety of colors from plant material—like an orange-red pigment from the wildflower bloodroot—to dye hand-woven baskets.
At their tribal center in Oklahoma, the Shawnee, many of whom were displaced from their home in the Ohio River Valley, created a garden to grow plants for natural dyes. The purpose of the project was to explore the science of painting and connect community members to local plants.
If you find yourself bored one weekend, try reviving some old clothes with natural dyes. The internet is full of useful resources for getting started. If you don’t have time to grow or collect the plants you want to dye with, many can also be purchased online.
Quilting is a great activity to take up as temperatures dip. The date of the first quilt ever made is unknown, but “quilted objects have been dated as far back as the Middle Ages.” The initial purpose behind quilting was practical—create a cheap blanket from scraps of fabric.
When settlers arrived in America from Europe, they brought “their own craft traditions centered primarily around the use of linen and wool.” However, European cultural tradition mixed with African American, Indigeonous, and other cultural traditions transformed American quilting into an artform that blended these various influences.
Appalachian quilting, like all American quilting, is incredibly varied, reflecting many different places and cultures. Quilting also “fit in perfectly with the Appalachian character of thrift.” Yet quilts in Appalachia have always been more than just practical. As a craft considered “domestic” and thereby an activity for women, quilting has long brought women together and allowed them to express themselves.
As Alena Klimas previously wrote for expatalachians,
They [quilts] have a history of subversion and dissent against the status quo, such as patriarchy and racism. During slavery, quilts featuring a North Star were sometimes used as symbols of a friendly house on the Underground Railroad. Many of these “Craftivists” were women forgotten in history, resisting through crafty gestures and subtle signs.
Nice quilts require great skill in sewing, but beautiful quilts involve artistic consideration and planning. The patriarchal attitude toward quilting means that it is most often considered a craft rather than an art form. Regardless, quilting is an inseparable part of Appalachian heritage.
Archeological evidence dates the origins of weaving to the early stone age (Palaeolithic period) in Eurasia. Weaving is a technique of interlacing material (including plants, branches, and animal fibers) to create various items from clothing to shelter and baskets.
Cherokee individuals of the southern Appalachians have been weaving baskets out of plant material since as early as 600 A.D. Their “double-woven baskets are the oldest form of basketry in the Southeast” and are traditionally made of pine needles, rivercane, white oak, or honeysuckle. The baskets were often dyed using other plants, including butternut, walnut, bloodroot, and yellowroot. Cherokee women were the traditional makers of baskets that were used to hold foodstuffs.
White settlers stole land and forcibly removed many Cherokee people. In spite of the atrocities, Cherokee people kept their basket-making traditions alive. Today, many baskets are made with tourists in mind. These baskets retain their practical household qualities but also have more artistic flair, showcasing intricate designs and patterns.
In addition to basket weaving, the Cherokee, along with many other Indigenous peoples, used finger weaving to create belts, sashes, and garters. These clothing items were traditionally made from buffalo hair, Indian hemp (apocynum), or mulberry bark, and came in a variety of designs and colors.
Outside of Cherokee tradition, settlers brought their fiber craft and art practices. Weaving was essential for early settlers, especially in the cold mountains where manufactured textiles were not yet available. Thus, modern Appalachian weaving is a blend of Indigenous and settler practices. It is also a reflection of industrialization as “mill-produced fibers became accessible throughout the mountains by the mid-nineteenth century” along with lighter, manufactured looms.
“Weaving certainly captured the attention of many missionary women, who, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, developed cottage industries and sought ways to market woven goods to buyers living outside the region,” Cathryn Washell writes in her master’s dissertation on “The Handweavers of Modern-Day Southern Appalachia.”
The process of weaving is technical, tedious, and repetitive, but can also be methodical and gratifying for the weaver. If you are interested in weaving, you can start out with an easy textile project like this or connect with a community of weavers, like this one, to learn first-hand.
Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad.
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