A visit to Mike Harman’s workshop in Ashe County is a lesson in the history of Southern Appalachian weaving traditions. A massive 19th-century loom sits threaded with a coverlet whose pattern dates to the early 1700s. In a box nearby, dozens of brass-tipped wooden antique shuttles wait for their turn in the pattern. At the loom stands Mike himself, a sixth-generation weaver of heirloom-quality textiles.
Mike is a direct descendent of John Owen Goodwin, a silk weaver from Macclesfield, England, whose son James immigrated to the United States in 1837 and established a weaving business in Maryland. Subsequent generations of Goodwins entered the trade and eventually operated mills in Virginia, West Virginia, and the Cumberland Gap area of Tennessee. They produced woven goods of wool, such as blankets and shawls, and also specialized in the manufacture of linsey-woolsey, a combination of cotton and wool. In 1952, the family moved to North Carolina and established Goodwin Guild Weavers in Blowing Rock. Mike’s Aunt Mary, keeper of the family stories, lives there still.
Mike credits his instruction to “Grandpa John” Goodwin, who also shared his passion for the intricate patterns, called drafts, of old coverlet designs. John Goodwin traveled throughout Southern Appalachia, weaving out of a wagon and trading goods for wool, food, and stories. While on these trips, Goodwin collected some 500 weaving drafts, meticulously copying the designs that had been handed down in mountain families. Mike reproduces many of these pioneer patterns on the industrial looms that the family salvaged from their old mills.
Mike and his wife Dana carry on the family weaving legacy under the name Buffalo Creek Weavers. They produce coverlets with traditional designs such as the “Whig Rose,” “Lover’s Knot,” and “Morning Star.” Mike is the master weaver, operating some of the same machines used by his great-great-grandfather. His work requires an artist’s eye for color and design, a weaver’s knowledge of how to set the warp and loom, and a mechanic’s ability to repair and maintain antique machinery. Mike and Dana’s children, Ashlyn and Jake, are growing up like he did, surrounded by the cotton, the oily machines, and the din of the weaver’s world. They say they just might take up the art when their turn comes.
Mike attributes the beauty of his work not only to the legacy of design, but also to the unique action of his machine looms. “Each of the old looms has their own character. They are cantankerous sometimes. But for me,” he adds, “the beauty is in making it the old way, with the little imperfections that come from using the old looms. It makes it as authentic as the day it was first run on these water-powered looms.”
Mike Harman’s workshop is currently closed for repairs, but he hopes to open it again to the public very soon.