Before I finish Mary's story I would like to share with y'all how I came to know about Mary Hambidge. When I first became interested in natural dyes, one of the classes I took was with Marie Mellinger at the Hambidge Center. This was a long time ago and Marie has since passed away. Marie Mellinger was an incredible woman who lived in the Rabun County area and knew all the names and uses for every plant, she wrote a little book called “Roadside Rambles”. Marie introduced me to homemade mulberry ice cream and Queen Anne's Lace jelly and foraging. Anyway, during this one day workshop, we walked down a road with paper bags and gather leaves and flowers to use for dyeing as Marie was describing the medicinal, culinary and dye uses of each plant. We went back to the dye shed at the Hambidge Center and began using the things we had gathered. To be quite honest, we got mostly yellows and some greens as we dyed some of the fibers in an iron pot, nothing spectacular, but it opened my eyes to a whole new world, and I guess you could say it was a life changing experience for me.
To continue with Mary's story.......
Mary began recruiting additional women as spinners and weavers and men to work the farm. Mary lived in a dog trot style log cabin that sat on a hill behind the Rock House which housed the weaving studio and served as housing for some of the weavers. Soon, a Weaving Shed was build from wormy chestnut logs that were cut on the property, with this they were able to centralize the looms. A retired school teacher moved into the Rock House to chaperon the weavers.
In the mid 1930's, Mary began giving presentations to women's groups and gatherings of friends and offered the woven products for sale. In her talks, Mary often stated that weaving teaches patience, satisfies a creative urge and teaches one to to like solitude and meditation. She believed that “it does something for the soul of the weaver”. On one of her trips up north it became apparent that there was a market for handwoven fabric among the affluent New York customers. In 1937, a shop funded by Eleanor Steele called Rabun Studios opened on Madison Avenue in New York City. At first the shop only sold the handwoven fabric from the Weavers of Rabun but soon began selling other items such as pottery made by Jugtown Potters of Seagrove, North Carolina. A swatch book was woven by Faye Thompson, one of Mary's first weavers. This swatch book had very large samples so the buyer could feel the hand of the fabric. Buyers could commission yardage for draperies, upholstery, bedspreads or for garments that could then be made by the customers own tailor or seamstress. In addition to yardage, scarves, shawls, blankets and silk and wool neckties were sold. Many of these items were woven in the natural color of the fiber and piece dyed by Mary. Production ceased during the winter month, but the weavers continued to spin in their own homes and would bring the yarn to the Weaving Shed in the spring. One weaver, Dean Beasley who lived along Betty's Creek, specialized in scarves woven with angora on a silk warp and in woolen shawls. Dean was the last of the studio weavers and at the time of Mary's death had put in 31 years at a loom.
Although Weavers of Rabun fabrics in the natural wool colors of white, brown and gray remained popular, after the first few years most yarns were dyed. Mary mixed her own dyes and dyed yarn in a open dye shed on the property. She possessed an acute eye for color and was influenced by the colors of the mountains - the flowers, leaves and the red clay of Georgia. In these colors she saw the balance and proportion of dynamic symmetry and used a system Jay had developed for mixing colors. Since her connection to the colors in nature was so strong, most people assumed that Mary used natural dyes, she did not. Her skill lay in observing the natural world and then mixing commercial dyes to approximate what she saw.
A pamphlet that accompanied all woven products produced by the Weavers of Rabun stated: “We are not repeating the old fashioned weave of the Mountaineers. Our work is modern and based upon nature. We are attempting to bring out the simple beauty and quality inherent in nature's raw materials. Our work is created by human hands, not produced by machines. Our workers are never hurried. Our objectives are – to bring out the natural beauty of the raw materials by simple, honest, hand process – to produce quality, not quantity - to give a living wage and a creative outlet to the worker and work of individuality to the individual.”
Around the mid 1940's, the demand from New York for handspun fabrics began to out strip the production capacity of the spinners, so half of the fabric was woven from commercial yarn. As well as wool, they were also producing silk and cotton fabrics. In 1947, Yale University Press commissioned 65 yards of linen as covers for the reprint of Jay Hambidge's book. But, the largest commission came in 1945, when the U.S. Navy commissioned fabric for two staterooms on President Truman's yacht, “Williamsburg”. The weavers wove 250 yards of silk and cotton fabric in 15 separate pieces. The colors were yellow, blue, green and blue-green and the fabric was used as draperies, upholstery, cushions and bedspreads.
In 1956, because of rent increase, the shop moved from Madison Avenue to 67th Street. In 1958, Rabun Studio closed. But also, in the 1950's Mary began receiving much deserved recognition for her work. Several major museums exhibited weaving from Betty's Creek. Yardage was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1956. In 1958, the “Weavers of Rabun” exhibition appeared in the Rotunda of the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. In 1963, Mary received commissions from fashion designers in New York, London and Paris.
When Mary purchased the Betty's Creek property, her intention was to create a self sustaining community, so, at the same time weaving production began, farming began. In the 1940's, 130 acres of bottom land was planted in wheat and corn and a water powered grist mill was built on the creek. The mill is still in operation today grinding wheat and corn for area farmers. The farm also had 10 cows that supplied milk, cream and butter and an abundant vegetable garden. All noon day meals served at the Rock House came from the farm. There was also a herd of sheep, both white and colored that supplied fleeces for the weaving. I also think I remember there being some white mulberry trees across the road and it was mentioned that they attempted to grow silk worms.
In 1944, the Jay Hambidge Art Foundation was established but little changed, the weaving remained the central activity and the farming continued. In the 1960's, Mary began inviting people to come live and work on the land, she wanted to encourage and nurture creative people such as writers, artists and musicians. Eliot Wiggington, the man who created the Foxfire series of books was one. Shortly after Mary died, Eliot wrote about Mary, “Foxfire was born on her kitchen table, issue after issue came out of the little studio of mine, and when The Foxfire Book was published, I called her in the acknowledgements the 'most remarkable woman I have ever met.' I meant it”.
Mary Hambidge was a force of nature and no one ever even considered that one day she would die. On August 29, 1973, Mary Hambidge died. Mary's ashes were spread in the natural amphitheater where Mary had hoped that one day Greek plays would be performed.
The Hambidge Center was opened in 1974 under the direction of Mary Nikas, who formalized and put into practice many of the programs Mary Hambidge had talked about. The Hambidge Center gathered many of Mary's writings and papers and put them together in a booked called “Apprentice in Creation”. Mary wrote long stream-of-consciousness letters and jotted down thoughts on stray scraps of paper. She never imagined them being put together into a book.
Every year artists of all disciplines visit The Hambidge Center to pursue their own projects. "They find peace for creative work in the beautiful surroundings that Mary knew stimulated and nurtured thought."
I want to thank Philis Alvic for writing the book “Weavers of the Southern Highlands”, I have to admit that I've leaned quite heavily on her chapter about Mary. I want to also thank the Hambidge Center for providing photos.
Here's the link to the Hambidge Center: http://www.hambidge.org/
The resources for these two posts are:
Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Philis Alvic
Georgia Women, Their Lives and Times, vol 2
The Hambidge Center http://www.hambidge.org/