The Handweaving of Allie Josephine Mast

The Handweaving of Allie Josephine Mast 1861-1936

May We All Remember Well: A Journal of History and Cultures of Western North Carolina, Vol. 1, ed. Robert S. Brunk, 1997: 138-155.

Many readers may be familiar with the engaging story of Allie Josephine Mast (1861-1936) who wove a giant rag rug for the White House when Woodrow Wilson was president but they may not know the real story behind the folklore. The following is an edited except from the full- length article that includes color photographs and endnotes.

Allie Josephine Mast was a skilled weaver, active churchwoman, gracious hostess, devoted wife and mother who lived with her husband on his family farm in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. Beyond her personal virtues, Josephine’s most noteworthy accomplishment was her handweaving. Her woven items reflect Josephine Mast’s ability to spin, weave, and understand pattern drafting. Money from the sale of her weaving supplemented the family income, and brought Josie local fame and national renown.

Josephine Mast wove over continually from the 1880s to the early 1930s, using patterns and weaving techniques typical of other nineteenth and early twentieth century Appalachian handweavers. These women used their artistic skills and mathematical ability to weave artifacts of beauty and practicality; but not all were as creative or as versatile as Allie Josephine Mast. Early families that settled Western North Carolina came to the region with strong weaving traditions from their native lands, sharing their skills and knowledge, and taking pride in the ability to beautify their lives with useful handwork. Josie took it one step further by selling her work, becoming better known than most weavers for reviving the art of handweaving.

Further Reading

Sunnybrook Farm

Sunnybrook Farm Valle Crucis is a mountain community where Dutch Creek, Clarks Creek, and Crab Orchard Creek appear to form a cross as they come together and flow through lower Valle Crucis into the Watauga River, thus the Latin name, “Valley of the Cross.” The Watauga River, just across the Blue Ridge, flows west to the Mississippi, not east to the Atlantic. This far corner of Western North Carolina has an elevation of 2,726 feet and is closely bordered by Tennessee and Virginia. Four main families settled Valle Crucis in the mid to late eighteenth century. Descendants of the Taylor (English), Shull (German), Baird (Scots) and Mast (Swiss) families owned the most fertile farmland in the upper and lower valley, intermarried, and populated the community with large families. The Valle Crucis “Masts” are descended from John Mast, who immigrated to America from Switzerland with his brother and four sisters. John settled in Randolph County, North Carolina, married and fathered twelve children. John’s second son, Joseph, born March 25, 1764, came to Watauga County, North Carolina in the late 1780s. Joseph married Eva Bowers in May 1783, and their son, David, was born July 16, 1787.

David Mast married Mary Shull and they built a log cabin in 1812 on inherited property along the Watauga River. The two-story dwelling, built of squared logs, had a gable roof covered with wooden shingles and a large single-shoulder stone chimney. David’s land yielded corn, tobacco, small grains, and hay to feed cattle and horses. A flock of sheep was kept for wool, and linen thread was spun from home grown flax. In 1820, twenty-seven year old Mary Shull Mast, nicknamed Polly, built a large hand loom. Mary’s German grandfather, Frederick, had paid for his voyage to America by weaving and Mary learned her skills at an early age from her mother and other members of the Shull family.

Allie Josephine Mast, daughter of Joseph and Clarissa Moore Mast, was born May 8, 1861 in the Cove Creek community of Watauga County. The sixth of nine children, she was nicknamed, Josie, at an early age. On December 30, 1880, Josie married David Finley Mast, son of Andrew and Caroline Mast. Finley brought his bride to live at the “homeplace,” called Sunnybrook Farm. Josie and Finley were married for fifty-six years and raised two sons, Claude and Joseph, to adulthood.

When summer tourists could get to the Valle Crucis by train and automobile, Finley and Josie began to make additions to the main house they occupied after the death of his parents. They opened it to overnight guests in early 1900 and by 1910 the farmhouse had thirteen bedrooms and one bathroom. The farm had telephone service in 1900, indoor plumbing in 1914, and electricity furnished by the nearby Episcopal Mission School. The Mast farm was a relaxing, inexpensive place to visit; the food was plentiful and delicious; and the surrounding landscape invited outdoor activities. The inn housed a dozen or so guests from Washington D. C. to New Orleans, and many returned year after year.

After her marriage in 1880, Josie converted the property’s original log cabin into a loom house; Mary Shull’s loom still in the corner was worn smooth with use and age. For the next half century, Allie Josephine Mast used the old loom to weave coverlets, rugs, portieres, and table linens. Weaving was a vital part of Josie’s life, and she needed family members to help with daily chores, giving her time to weave and sell her work to tourists who came to the mountains to escape the summer heat in lower altitudes. Josie’s sisters, Martha Victoria and Leona, regularly visited the farm to assist with the weaving operation and by 1918, both women had moved to the farm permanently.

The income from sale of Josie’s woven coverlets and table linens increased her family finances, but it was her commissioned rug for the Woodrow Wilson White House that brought her lasting fame.

Woven for The White House

Woven for The White House For years a wonderful story has been told and retold about Josie Mast weaving wedding gifts for Jessie Wilson, daughter of Woodrow and Ellen Wilson. Jessie Wilson was married on November 24, 1913, while her father was in his first term as President. Jessie married Frank Sayre amid much fanfare and daily society column news updates. In those years, the Washington Star followed day to day activities of the First Ladies and their families. The following is an abbreviated version of the romantic tale entwining Josie’s weaving with Jessie’s nuptials.

The Story: Josephine Mast was sitting at her loom weaving shortly after news of the engagement between Jessie Wilson and Frank Sayre found its way to the small community of Valle Crucis. As she sat at her loom, Josie got the idea to weave a coverlet, rugs and dresser scarves for the young bride-to-be. Josie went to see other weavers in the valley and they agreed to help make Josie’s idea a reality. Josie wrote a long letter to Mrs. Wilson asking for Jessie’s favorite color, as well as, bedroom furniture and window measurements. Mrs. Wilson promptly replied to the request and soon all handweavers in the valley were weaving in blue, Jessie Wilson’s favorite color. When the package arrived at the White House on the afternoon before the wedding, it was hastily opened by Mrs. Wilson and her staff so the weavings could be immediately displayed in Jessie’s bedroom. But, alas, the color blue did not match the shade of blue on the walls; so the White House staff re-wallpapered the room overnight to harmonize with the soft blue of vegetable dyed wool and cotton. From that day to this, the coverlet pattern sent to the White House in 1913 is called the “Jessie Wilson Spread” and always woven in the same “sleepy” blue. (John Parris, “Master Weaver of the Blue Ridge,” Asheville Citizen Times, February 3, 1963.)

According to Jessie’s daughter Eleanor Sayre, her mother’s favorite color was lavender, not blue. The story was never told or referred to in any context within the family circle, and neither of Jessie’s children have knowledge of such fabrics belonging to their parents. It is unlikely that Ellen Wilson had the time or inclination to deal with redecorating Jessie’s bedroom on the night of the rehearsal dinner. There were many descriptions of Jessie’s wedding gifts on the Washington Star society page from November through January, but none relating to such a romantic and noteworthy incident. The story has great appeal to readers who love romantic Appalachian folklore; however, the items Josie actually wove for the White House have historic importance and should not be confused with a popular but unfounded belief.

The most likely basis for the wedding gifts story is rooted in Josie’s weaving, ordered in 1913, to decorate Woodrow Wilson’s private bedroom. Now known as the Blue Mountain Room, the bedroom Ellen Wilson decorated for her husband was located on the south side of the second floor in the family quarters, not open to the public. A wide variety of excerpts from magazine articles, books, and newspaper clippings about the items Josephine Mast wove for the “Blue Mountain Room” help to explain the confusing and contradicting story that evolved over the years.

“One of the “matched set” in blue found its way to Washington City, and become the property of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, soon after Mr. Wilson’s first inauguration, who was so charmed with the work that she gave Mrs. Mast an order for a rug seventeen feet square. Two of these large rugs of delft blue, known as the Sun, Moon and Star design, cover the floor of what is known as the “Blue Mountain Room of the White House.”

“Her home knitted rugs were displayed at Washington . . . Mrs. Woodrow Wilson . . . ordered a duplicate rug, and when it came to the White House, Mrs. Wilson discovered that the late President’s study did not match the new rug. And so the President’s study was re-decorated, in order that it would harmonize with the rug, knitted by the cheerful woman from Valle Crucis, N. C.”<br/><br/>

“. . . Aunt Josie and Aunt Leona had woven bedspreads and curtains for Mrs. Coolidge’s “Appalachian mountain room” in the White House.”

In the adjoining sitting room, between the bedroom and the oval library, was the Lincoln bed, and perhaps with a “rail splitter” theme in mind, Mrs. Wilson ordered rugs and upholstery in the “double chariot wheel.”

The picture of Wilson’s bedroom is familiar to historians and weavers alike; but how did Ellen Wilson, wife of the President of the United States, come to know about a weaver living in Valle Crucis, North Carolina? A meeting between Martha Gielow and Josie Mast establishes the connection, and takes us a step further toward understanding the significance of the Blue Mountain Room.

On December 27, 1905, Mrs. Martha Sawyer Gielow founded the Southern Industrial Education Association to educate boys to be carpenters, builders, mechanics, and agriculturalists, competent to build their own homes and farm their own fields. Girls were to be taught cooking, sewing, weaving – home making and housekeeping skills, and especially in hygiene and sanitation. The plan was not to bring the mountain to the school, but to bring the school to the mountain.

Martha Gielow, a native of Alabama, traveled across the country to raise money for mountain settlement schools, such as Pine Mountain and Hindman schools in Kentucky. The association obtained money to establish scholarships, pay teacher’s salaries, contribute to school building funds, and hire a field secretary and assistant to coordinate the work. Gielow personally traveled by horseback through the mountains to determine the needs of school age children. She also circulated in affluent society, managing to entice a great many persons in positions of influence and prestige to contribute to her cause and encourage others to do the same.

In 1910, Gielow was a featured speaker at the woman’s congress, a function of Knoxville’s Appalachian Exposition. The congress brought together “representatives of the most important women’s organizations throughout the Appalachian region for the purpose of discussing woman’s work in its domestic, industrial and social phases, and for the consideration of improvements in all these departments.” She stayed in Knoxville for a week to promote her organization and contact mountain weavers and basket makers.

Josie Mast was demonstrating flax weaving at the Farragut cabin on the grounds of the Exposition. This is undoubtedly where the two women met. Further, one of the S.I.E.A. trustees, North Carolina Bishop Jacob Cheshire, was already acquainted with Josie as a result of his involvement with the Episcopal Mission School in Valle Crucis. Miss Mary Van Kleek, secretary of the committee on Women’s Work of the Sage Foundation was also a speaker at the Exposition. The Russell Sage Foundation published Allen Eaton’s book, The Handicrafts of the Southern Highlands in 1937, which has numerous references to the weaving skills of Josephine Mast of Valle Crucis, North Carolina.

In the spring of 1913, the S.I.E.A displayed mountain products in the Exhibition Hall of the Southern Commercial Congress Exhibit in the Southern Building in Washington, D. C. First Lady, Ellen Wilson, was honorary president of the association. Coverlets, rugs, and curtains, handwoven by Allie Josephine Mast, were part of the exhibit that included basketry, furniture, brooms, hand carved tea trays and nut bowls for sale.

When Josie’s weaving was displayed in Washington, The First Lady and Mrs. Marshall, wife of the Vice-President, visited the exhibit often. Mrs. Wilson was planning an extensive redecoration of the private quarters in the White House and decided to use fabrics from the display to draw attention to the needs of Appalachian children and the work of the Southern Industrial Educational Association. She ordered two rugs in blue for the President’s personal bedroom from Josie Mast. The large rug was woven in six strips, 35” wide by 17’ long in Josie’s familiar Sun, Moon, and Stars design. Josie wove two lengths with the side border pattern, then re-drafted the border threads into another pattern block and wove more four lengths. Each length of the rug was started and finished with a border repeat. When all the strips were stitched together, the overall rug measured approximately seventeen feet square and was bordered on all sides. A smaller throw rug was 35 inches wide with the same border at each end and finished with knotted warp fringe.

There is no known photograph of the woven curtains in the President’s bedroom; however, there is one indication of what might have hung at the window. In 1914, The Museum of American History purchased for $10.00, through the S.I.E.A., a pair of curtains woven by Josie Mast. The two panels, woven in Rising Sun pattern, measure 33.75 inches wide x 85 inches long. The warp was unbleached commercially spun 2-ply cotton and the weft is commercially spun, 2-ply dark navy blue wool. The thread count, and fibers of these curtains match the coverlet Josie sold through the S.I.E.A. and the Natural History Museum purchased textiles to correspond with those ordered by the First Lady to decorate the President’s bedroom. The pattern matches one of Josie’s coverlets (known by an incorrect name) still in the Mast family. We can surmise that Josie wove curtains, as well as, rugs for the White House; but it is only a possibility not a certainty.

On Thursday, November 6, 1913, The Watauga Democrat, a newspaper published in Boone, North Carolina, made the following tribute to a favorite citizen that sums up Josie’s weaving ability.

“Mrs. Finley Mast has completed and shipped to Washington the beautiful set of rugs ordered by Mrs. Woodrow Wilson for her room in the White House, our popular lady weaver to be congratulated upon receiving the order from the First Lady of the Land, who in turn is to be congratulated upon discovering the Best Weaver at the Loom, the best but one, Mrs. Spider acknowledged the very best.”

Josie’s commitment to her craft never wavered during a lifetime of weaving. Sixty years after her death, Allie Josephine Mast’s name is synonymous with a huge rug woven for the Blue Mountain Room in the Woodrow Wilson White House, the loom house is preserved as a monument to her weaving skill, and Sunnybrook Farm is the renowned Mast Farm Inn Bed and Breakfast.