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Biltmore Industries
Homespun Museum

Located in the heart of Grovewood Village, this humble one-room museum tells the fascinating story of Biltmore Industries, a unique Arts and Crafts enterprise that grew from a small start as a craft education program to become one of the largest producers of handwoven wool in the world. The museum showcases an antique 4-harness loom and memorabilia such as letters, artifacts, and photographs depicting highlights from the active years of the industry.

Visitors can learn more about Biltmore Industries on a guided history tour, offered Wednesday - Saturday at 1pm during April – November. 

Admission to the museum is free.

Museum Hours*
Monday - Saturday: 10am – 5:30pm
Sunday: 11am - 5pm

*The Homespun Museum is closed January – March.

The museum is also closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.

VIDEO: Biltmore Industries featured on the Craft in America series

 

A Brief History of
Biltmore Industries

It all began in 1901, when two graduates of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Eleanor Park Vance and Charlotte Louise Yale, came to Asheville to spend the summer. Vance, who had formally studied woodcarving at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, began teaching young boys who lived in Biltmore Village outside the Vanderbilt’s estate how to carve wooden bowls and picture frames. Word of these free classes spread, and the rector of All Souls, the Village church, offered her space so she could take on more students. By the end of 1901, Vance and Yale established the Boys’ Club of All Souls Church, which soon brought the attention of Edith Vanderbilt.

Like Vance and Yale, the Vanderbilts were socially progressive individuals, interested in bettering the lives of the economically deprived youth of the Appalachian region. They lent their support and eventually subsidized the development of a craft education program that would become Biltmore Estate Industries. The Vanderbilts provided more workshop space in Biltmore Village, and young men, and eventually women, were taught to embrace craft as a livelihood.

The woodcarvers’ repertoire grew to include furniture, and Edith Vanderbilt took a special interest in the possibilities presented by the weaving of homespun fabric for men’s and women’s suits. She sent Vance and Yale to Britain to study the weaving process, and a loom was purchased from a mill in Killin, Scotland and shipped back to Asheville for the woodworkers to study and replicate.

The caliber of their work grew and demand followed, and Biltmore Estate Industries soon established a reputation for quality craftsmanship across the country. Word of mouth and mail order were the primary forms of marketing, and Edith used the influence of her social connections to push sales of the Industries’ merchandise. By 1909, their best-selling product was handwoven wool cloth, and although woodworking was still important, homespun was the future, and the little cottage industry was in need of yet more space.

Following the unexpected death of her husband in 1914, Edith Vanderbilt - devastated and financially strained  - agreed to sell the business to Fred Loring Seely, who was the architect and manager of The Grove Park Inn. Seely gave assurances that “he intended to keep the name Biltmore associated with the Industries, and only wished to make them bigger and better.” He kept his word, dropped “Estate” from the name, and in 1917 moved the rechristened “Biltmore Industries” to a new home in six English-style cottages he designed adjacent to The Grove Park Inn.

Seely proved to be a marketing mastermind, and under his direction the business flourished. He used his charismatic nature and reputation as a businessman to cloth prominent figures in Biltmore Homespun, walking advertisements for his business. The Grove Park Inn guests were natural customers, and Edith Vanderbilt continued wearing and recommending homespun to her society friends. Customers included the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Helen Keller, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and President Calvin Coolidge’s wife Grace (for whom “Coolidge Red” was designed). Orders came in from across the country and globe. At its peak in the late 1920s, Biltmore Industries produced 950 yards of fabric per day and employed 75 to 100 workers.

Fred Seely died in 1942, and the demand for tailored clothing gradually lessened as synthetic fabrics cut into the market and industry automation made hand-loomed cloth more expensive. In 1953, Seely’s family sold the struggling business to Harry Blomberg, a local entrepreneur who provided the leadership and resources necessary to keep the fabric production going on a smaller scale until 1981. After Blomberg’s death in 1991, his family began an energetic campaign to revitalize and reshape the direction of the Industries, which resulted in the opening of Grovewood Gallery and working artist studios in 1992. Today, the property is known as Grovewood Village, and the spirit of handicraft remains alive and well.

Biltmore Industries' archives are open to research at the D.H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville.