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Crafts and Kinship: Broom Making, Weaving, and More at Berea College in Kentucky


Crafts and Kinship: Broom Making, Weaving, and More at Berea College in Kentucky

July 2, 2020

Founded in 1855 by an abolitionist minister as the South’s first interracial and co-ed institution, Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, remains a model on so many fronts. For one thing, it’s an esteemed liberal arts school that is tuition free. To make that possible all students hold jobs on campus, and for more than two centuries those work-study options have included learning practical crafts to help sustain the area’s artisan traditions—Berea is in Appalachia, and 8 out of 10 student come from the region—and to earn money for the school.

At Berea, there are workshops in weaving, woodworking, ceramics, and broomcraft. We’re been longtime fans of Berea’s brooms—see Julie’s Domestic Science dispatch from 2010—and recently checked in to hear how the school is faring.

Director of business development, Susan Buckmaster, responded: “We were the first college in Kentucky to send our students home because of the pandemic. Only our international students remained, so we went from 1,600 students to around 150. We lost all but two of our crafts students: we currently have one in broom making and one in weaving. Production for our 2020 catalog is being done by the department supervisors who teach these skills. It’s a tough time for us.” Even so, Berea’s online store remains open, offering handcrafted household classics at very fair prices. Come see—shown here are students at work and some of our favorite things they make, plus a look at intriguing things to come.

Photography by Justin Skeens, courtesy of Berea College.

Work in Progress

savannah smith, jamie schlabach, and sophia gueye use traditional shave horses  17
Above: Savannah Smith, Jamie Schlabach, and Sophia Gueye use traditional shave horses to carve spindles for the Berea Basket and legs for the Forest Stool.

The stool is made of ash from the school’s 9,000 acres of forest, which are under attack by emerald ash borer beetles: “For the stool,” Buckmaster tells us, “we cut down healthy ash trees before they’re destroyed. The trees are removed from our forest by draft horses so as not to disturb the sensitive ecosystem with heavy machinery.” Scroll below to see the finished stool.

heather rapien practices making turned bowls in the wood shop. 18
Heather Rapien practices making turned bowls in the wood shop.

Students devote 10 to 15 hours a week to their campus jobs. Freshmen are assigned positions wherever they’re needed; sophomores can interview for any job on campus they’re interested in. Ordinarily 100 students work in the craft studios.

jared pritt trims a streamliner broom, \$4\2 in a colorway called harvest. 19
Above: Jared Pritt trims a Streamliner Broom, $42 in a colorway called Harvest.

“Broomcraft was introduced at the school in 1920 to give students who worked on the college farm something to do during the winter,” Buckmaster tells us. The school’s organic farm is the oldest college-run farm in the country. “We are one of only eight federally recognized labor colleges in the country,” adds Buckmaster. “Work is an integral part of the students’ learning here. In our craft department, we believe that the lessons learned through the work of the hands complete their liberal arts education.”

jocelyn oats weaves a shaker braid broom, \$55. there are \1\2 varieties of bro 20
Above: Jocelyn Oats weaves a Shaker Braid Broom, $55. There are 12 varieties of brooms in the Berea Student Craft Shoppe, and many of them are available in multiple colors.

Berea is the largest dyer of broom corn in the country: in additional to floral dyes, they’ve started using natural walnut and osage orange.

 leta heigley and brooke willis work on bowls for the pinnacle collec 21
Above: Leta Heigley and Brooke Willis work on bowls for the Pinnacle Collection; the ceramics studio focuses on making tableware.
geena ahn operates a pedal potter&#8\2\17;s wheel on the school farm. 22
Above: Geena Ahn operates a pedal potter’s wheel on the school farm.

Finished Products

the \15 inch long handy broom, \$30, is made for use by kids and for reaching h 23
Above: The 15-inch-long Handy Broom, $30, is made for use by kids and for reaching hidden corners.
for keeping the fireplace clean, the cindersweep, \$5\2, has a kentucky mountai 24
Above: For keeping the fireplace clean, the Cindersweep, $52, has a Kentucky mountain laurel handle and a fantail-patterned head.
berea describes its cake tester, \$\25, as &#8\2\20;composed of the stiffer 25
Above: Berea describes its Cake Tester, $25, as “composed of the stiffer topmost bristles chopped from the broomcorn used in the creation of the Handy Broom (shown above).” To test the doneness of a baked good, break off a bristle and use it as you would a toothpick.
hand turned rolling pins, \$65, are made in maple, cherry, and walnut. note the 26
Above: Hand-turned Rolling Pins, $65, are made in maple, cherry, and walnut. Note the rings detailing on the handles.
berea&#8\2\17;s cherry wood cooling racks, \$\25, for bakers are one of the 27
Above: Berea’s cherry wood Cooling Racks, $25, for bakers are one of the first projects wood shop students learn to make.
the glade table runner, \$65, and matching placemats, \$\2\2 each, are woven by 28
Above: The Glade Table Runner, $65, and matching Placemats, $22 each, are woven by hand.
  the asymmetrical stripe pillow is made of 40 percent linen and 60 percen 29
Above:  The Asymmetrical Stripe Pillow is made of 40 percent linen and 60 percent cotton, https://www.remodelista.com/products/natural-asymmetrical-stripe-pillow/and comes with a 100 percent down fill insert; regularly priced at $125, it’s currently on sale for $62.50.
the \20 \1/4 inch tall forest stool, \$450, is made of sustainably harvested as 30
Above: The 20 1/4-inch-tall Forest Stool, $450, is made of sustainably harvested ash and has a woven leather seat.

On the Horizon

for the last year, design star stephen burks—who runs stephen burks man  31
Above: For the last year, design star Stephen Burks—who runs Stephen Burks Man Made and is a critic at the Harvard Graduate School of Design as well as expert-in-residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab—has been collaborating with the Berea crafts department. He’s shown here with student Isaiah Jackson fine-tuning a wooden basket base.

Explains Buckmaster: “Stephen is working with us on a new collection launching this fall that ties the physical objects we make to the college’s longstanding Great Commitments, which include the kinship and equality of all people, supportive and sustainable living, and the dignity of labor. Each product will tell a story and communicate a message that we feel strongly about here at Berea College.”

Featured image: R’mon Harvell at the loom.

For more American handmade household essentials, see:

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