Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and partners blaze a new trail for Blue Ridge craft artists and collectors

Published 9:30 pm Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Blue Ridge National Heritage Area is blazing a new trail to boost the region’s craft industry across western North Carolina, thanks to a $90,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“Today we are pleased to launch the Blue Ridge Craft Trails of western North Carolina, a digital project that will help more visitors discover the rich heritage of crafts  and connect with artisans in our mountain communities,” said Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

Appalachian Regional Commission officials see the Blue Ridge Craft Trails as a pathway to new economic opportunities across a region hard-hit by job losses in traditional manufacturing over the past decades.

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“Helping Appalachia leverage its cultural and natural assets into economic opportunity is one of ARC’s key investment strategies for the Region.” said ARC Federal Co Chair Earl Gohl.  “The Crafts Trail is an example of how this strategy is being put to work to create jobs and generate revenue across western North Carolina.”

The ARC grant is matched with funds from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, and other private gifts. 

Handmade in America, first managed by Becky Anderson, created the original Craft Heritage Trails of Western North Carolina in the 1990s, connecting visitors to hundreds of craft studios, galleries, schools, historic places and inns across the mountains. The third edition of the Craft Heritage Trail book featuring nearly 500 different sites was published in 2003.

The BRHNA’s Blue Ridge Craft Trails of Western North Carolina will update those listings for the digital age, offering online visitors a portal for desktop and mobile applications. As phases of the project are completed, technology will allow collectors to connect with craft artisans to purchase their wares and visit their studios and to locate the many craft galleries and festivals found in Western North Carolina. 

The current project is considered the planning phase and will include at least six listening sessions across the region to gather ideas and comments from artists and communities. Project partners offering in-kind meeting space and support for these sessions are the Southern Highland Craft Guild in Asheville, Penland School of Crafts and Toe River Arts Council near Spruce Pine, Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, Blowing Rock Arts and History Museum, Tryon Arts and Crafts and John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown. 

In addition to the listening sessions, the grant also includes funds for market research, site documentation and the development of a web portal for an initial 75 sites across the 25 county regions and a brochure. Subsequent sites will be added in future phases.

Crafts have created paychecks for mountain families over the past century. In the early 20th century, landmark institutions sprang up to preserve handicrafts passed down through generations.

“The Appalachian mountains of Western North Carolina are the center of a thriving craft artisan community that goes back to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian,” stated Wayne Marin, director of the North Carolina Arts Council. “Clearly, any documentation that celebrates this rich history and creates awareness about traditional and contemporary craft-making will result in economic improvements, including jobs and tourism in Western N.C.”

Professional craft artisans across the region generate $206 million annually in sales and paychecks, according to a 2008 economic impact study on the craft industry in Western North Carolina. The unique craft artworks mastered in the mountains contribute to local economies with increased tourism, the study showed. Tourists in search of handmade crafts and authentic mountain heritage spend an average of $643 a day and typically stay longer than other visitors.

Heritage tourism in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area contributes $2.39 billion annually to the regional economy, supporting more than 30,000 jobs and generating $176.5 million annually in state and local tax revenue, according to a 2014 economic impact study. 

The Blue Ridge Craft Trails project builds on the successful model of the Blue Ridge Music Trails that the BRNHA launched in 2013. With a printed guidebook from UNC Press and an online platform (, the Blue Ridge Music Trails celebrates the region’s homegrown music, and guides fans to venues and festivals across the western part of the state.

“The N.C. Arts Council has a long-standing collaboration with the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area that improves quality of life and local economies through promoting unique cultural assets like music and craft,” Martin added. “We are delighted to continue our partnership with through the development of the Blue Ridge Craft Trails.”

“Now the Blue Ridge Craft Trails of Western North Carolina will help guide visitors to discover mountain craft artists firsthand. We’re on an exciting path that promises economic growth for our mountain communities in the years to come,” Chandler said.   

– article submitted by Cindy Blankenship