For well over half a century, Elsie Trivette practiced and perfected handicrafts that she learned from her mother and grandmother while growing up in the mountains of Avery County. She was skilled at making knotted bedspreads and hand-tied fringe, venerable crafts that were widely practiced in the mountain region in earlier generations. Her expertise ranged from growing, processing, and spinning flax, and carding and spinning wool, to making quilts and hooked rugs. By selling her handmade rugs and quilts, she single-handedly supported a family of seven after her husband became ill.
Trivette’s use of natural dyes was particularly impressive. Her immense base of practical knowledge came partly from her mother and partly from her own creative experimentation. As she tested various roots, barks, berries and leaves for their coloring potential, she discovered a host of new hues. She produced a light green from tomato vines, a blend of blue and pink from blackberries, an ashen gray from banana peels, and a beige from sweet potato vines. She even produced colors from rusty nails and boiled wooden matches. Her keen eye and sharp memory guided her in mixing colors—adding berries to bark, and blooms to roots, to deepen hues and create new tones. The results, not surprisingly, found their way into her rugs.
One of her most notable forms was the hooked rug she made on a burlap back using burlap or wool yarns that she dyed herself. Her daughters vividly recalled spending long hours unraveling the rough fibers from discarded feed sacks, then helping their mother dye the threads in various shades of yellow and brown. Trivette laboriously hooked these threads through each hole in a sheet of burlap backing, creating both geometric and pictorial designs. “We always made our own designs,” she recalled. “You’d just study them up and then lay them out.”
Elsie Trivette earned widespread public recognition for her artistry and skills. She participated in the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, the North Carolina Folklife Festival, and dozens of folk and heritage festivals as far away as Ohio and Kentucky. The BBC sent a crew to film her making hooked rugs, and Berea College spent days video-documenting her use of natural dyes. She was a long-time member of the North Carolina State Fair Village of Yesteryear. In 1994 Elsie Trivette received the North Carolina Heritage Award for the range and quality of her work, her creative use of natural dyes, and the legacy of artistry she received and passed on to her children (including her daughters Leniavell Trivette and Evanell Trivette Thomas), grandchildren, and anyone who showed an interest.