Craft Chronicles

Shelf Life
Learn about everything from sheep shearing to duck decoy carving at the Robert W. Gray Library.
Photo by Millie Davis

Sure, rhododendron leaves may look verdant and waxy. But when boiled in an iron kettle, the leaves dye wool a steely shade of gray. That’s according to Emma Conley.

A Mitchell County native, Conley learned to card, spin, and dye wool in her youth. As an adult, she brought her knowledge of fiber arts to the Penland School of Handicrafts (now the Penland School of Crafts), where she taught from 1935 to 1958. After her death in 1959, 25 of her dyeing “formulas” were compiled and published in “Vegetable Dyeing,” a rudimentary booklet that is as informative as it is motivational.

On one page, Conley walks readers through creating a dye bath using marigold blossoms. On another, she urges craftspeople to experiment and embrace their creativity. “Some surprising results come out of it,” she muses.

Conley’s dyeing diatribe is just one of more than 20,000 books, exhibition catalogs, periodical titles, and other texts you can find inside the Robert W. Gray Library.

Located on the second floor of the Folk Art Center, the library is a repository for all things related to traditional and contemporary crafts, especially those with a Southern Appalachian twang.

“Our little gem of a library helps provide a well-rounded experience for our visitors,” says Janet Wiseman, education director of the Southern Highland Craft Guild. “This collection of books can be used as tools for inspiration and education.”

Photo by Ashley Espey

As Wiseman explains, the library was founded in 1980. However, the collection itself dates back to the early 1940s when Guild founders Frances Goodrich and Allen Eaton bequeathed shelves of books to the organization. In the years since, Guild members have continued donating quirky and offbeat titles such as “Be a Puppet Showman” by Remo Buffano and “Lingerie Secrets” by Jan Bones.

“I have met many of the people who have donated,” says Wiseman, “and when I see their names [in the books], it brings back memories.”

Thanks to decades of generosity, library guests can spend an afternoon learning about everything from harvesting wild herbs to carving decorative gourds. They can also leaf through memoirs, poetry and song anthologies, and first-hand historical accounts. The only catch is that, unlike a traditional library, these materials cannot be checked out. Instead, guests must spend a few hours reading in a comfy chair or make photocopies using the Xerox machine. Of course, casual perusing is encouraged as well.

“Our library provides a space for deep study, leisurely browsing, or simply a quiet place to just sit,” says Wiseman. “[It’s] a very special collection of books.”

The Robert W. Gray Library is located on the second floor of the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382, Blue Ridge Parkway). The library is open seven days a week, 10am to 5pm. Librarians are present Monday through Friday to assist users. For more information, visit

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *