Nearly Out of Buttons But Still Full of Ideas

Textile artist Barbara Bryan of Old Fort couldn’t wait to get to the mountains and spend quality time doing what she loves.
Portrait by Colby Rabon

“My hands are always doing something,” says Barbara Bryan — sewer, knitter, weaver, spinner, and quilter, just to name a few of the craft practices that have captured her attention since childhood. “Usually, it involved thread and some sort of needle,” she says. “But I’ve also made furniture, bound books, stained glass, and blown glass. I’m all about the making.”

Even more, she is about the process: piles of wool are spun into thread, the thread woven on a loom into fabric, and the fabric made into something wearable. Her teachers have included her mother and grandmother, who sewed their own clothes; farmers shearing sheep at the annual Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair in Asheville; and a woman in Charleston who worked in indigo dye.

Photo by Colby Rabon

In her home in Columbia, SC, Bryan had multiple rooms dedicated to her multiple interests, along with multiple collections of materials from buttons to batik, from yarn remnants to fabric scraps collected off the floors of sari factories in India and sold to crafters.

Her hands were also the tools of her professional life, first as a teacher of the deaf, and then as a massage therapist and childbirth attendant. When the midwife that she assisted retired, Bryan decided it was time to fulfill her dream.

An element of the abstract (not to mention innovative framework) distinguishes Bryan’s vivid work in stitching, weaving, and quilting.
Photo by Colby Rabon

“I’ve lived almost my entire life in Columbia, South Carolina, but since I was a little girl I knew I wanted to grow old in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a handmade house with handmade stuff. I threw a prayer out to the universe to find a place in Western North Carolina.”

When she moved into a timber-frame home she had built in Old Fort five years ago, one of the first things she did was go to the Visitors Center and tell them she was interested in crafting; she was pointed to Arrowhead Gallery and Studios directly across the street.

Photo by Colby Rabon

“In this area, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a maker,” she says. “In Columbia, I was a big fish in small water, and here it’s the opposite, which is wonderful. There are guilds and classes and so many makers. Basket makers, broom makers, and a couple in Black Mountain [who have] a forge working in iron. It’s so exciting.”

Photo by Colby Rabon

Downsizing from 1,600 square feet in Columbia to 600 in Old Fort, Bryan says she charged herself with using what she already had for her projects. “I’m nearly out of buttons, but there’s the ribbon pile and the batik pile. There’s always another pile,” she says with a laugh. 

Photo by Colby Rabon

Since she took a studio at Arrowhead a year ago, she also has more space, which is especially useful for her spinning wheel and the loom she vowed not to get. “Until recently, the only thing I hadn’t done until [now] was weaving, I just couldn’t let myself go down that rabbit hole. 

“But I was seduced — and and now I have a table loom.”

Barbara Bryan, Arrowhead Artists and Artisans League, Old Fort. Visitors to Arrowhead Gallery & Studios (78-C South Catawba Ave., Old Fort, 828-668-1100, can observe Bryan spin and weave, and purchase her knitted scarves, woven scarves, woven pillows, embroidery work, and felted pieces. Bryan’s work is also sold at Chifferobe Home & Garden in Black Mountain (132 Cherry St., Black Mountain,

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