Our Artisans

Diane Browning

Diane Browning

Diane Browning was in her post-college “what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life” phase when she and her husband, Bob, set out on a year-long adventure in Southeast Asia, traveling to Nepal, India, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia. But it was in Bali that the magic happened. She became acutely aware that beauty, creativity and hand craft was an integral part of everyday life there.  She realized, if you looked for it, it was also evident in the mountain communities of the Appalachians and that there was a real need “to elevate the beautiful things around me and make sure they were valued,” she says.

Diane theorizes that her “gravitational pull” to fiber arts comes from her grandmother and her great Aunt Nora, both of whom left Ireland to work in textile mills in New England, leaving behind a family who had a knitting operation in Galway.

When Diane and Bob returned to Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where Bob’s family has been farming for generations, she began her career in fine arts and crafts, first managing the Art Colony at The Greenbrier and later a craft co-op called Wellspring in downtown Lewisburg.

Diane’s commitment to women’s employment issues coalesced with her knowledge of fiber craft in the early 1990s when she incorporated a non-profit social enterprise, Appalachian By Design, which trained a network of home-based machine knitters to produce high quality garments that were assembled, packaged and marketed from a central facility in Lewisburg.

Through her connections in the craft world, she secured a contract with the Esprit apparel company to knit sweaters for their Ecollection. Other contracts followed with companies committed to sustainability, and eventually Appalachian By Design began to market its own proprietary lines, including The Greenbrier Collection of high-end women’s clothing and Appalachian Baby Design. 

A major emphasis in Appalachian Baby Design’s development was imbuing the best of Appalachia into all brand development: beautiful countryside, a slower lifestyle and a reverence on family and tradition, many of the qualities that are important to people when a new baby arrives. “It is a time of optimism, and an event where people really want to give a special gift,” Diane notes.

An important goal of Appalachian By Design was to provide meaningful employment for women living in rural areas where good jobs were hard to find, and demands of child and elder care made it hard to work outside the home. In additional to providing a fair wage, ABD offered training, not only in machine knitting, but also in marketing and business skills.

Through her involvement with the Women’s Institute for Secure Retirement (WISER), Diane also encouraged the knitters to put aside money for retirement. Diane’s commitment is very much in evidence at Appalachian Baby Design. “Elevating the status of women’s work has been the theme that has ruled all of my endeavors,” she says.  She continues to conduct demonstration projects for WISER in the region.

A combination of factors, including changes in tariff laws that made global outsourcing easier, brought about abrupt changes in the market that ultimately led to the heartbreaking decision to shutter Appalachian By Design in 2005. However, because there was interest in the yarn that was used by the knitters, particularly the organic cotton used in the baby line, a new venture was started to meet the demand of the maker community, with a focus on handmade baby and family gifts.

Appalachian Baby Design has faced challenges too, particularly through the economic crisis of 2008 that disrupted the U.S. textile industry, which had struggled with global outsourcing for years. Lamenting the shrinking number of mills who will sell to small operations like hers, she says her biggest accomplishment today is figuring out how to produce organic cotton in the United States. Through all the highs and lows in her career, Diane has retained her unshakeable commitment to valuing and promoting hand crafting in an era of increased mechanization.

“I thrive on working with skilled and creative people, coordinating among mill technicians, fiber designers, photographers, graphic artists, marketers, technical editors, retailers--and through all this collaboration, create fiber and designs that gives folks a way to handcraft a gift that expresses their love.”


 

 

Susan Ernst

Susan Ernst

Susan came to weaving after becoming a mother, drawn by the idea of a creative outlet to balance the demands of childcare.  That journey was not a straight line but one with many declarations of “Recalculating”.  

It started with Appalachian By Design (ABD), a handloom knitting business under the leadership of Diane Browning.  Susan and her husband Harry were looking for ways to earn an income while remaining the primary care providers of their children.  ABD was the ticket for Susan.  After extensive training provided by the company, she was able to produce piece work for their high-end fashionwear.   “It was my introduction to glorious fibers, good design and impeccable finishing techniques”, Susan says.  “The focus of the company was to empower homebased women to earn a living wage, be a member of a creative and supportive community and acquire the skills to run a small business.” 

In the meantime, she thought about taking the ABD model and applying it to hand weaving.  She took a week long introduction to weaving class at the Augusta Heritage Festival, and was smitten.  “I became a Hand Weaver!  I was captivated by the fact that hand weaving is both simple and complex.  I loved the technical aspects of weave structure, the math and engineering of the structure, the soothing rhythm of a working loom, the visual feast of color and the complexity of the texture.  I hardly noticed that my idea of a hand weaving cooperative business was a failure!”    The venture was not wasted however as Susan and ABD designed a line of high-end rag rugs.   It was her first design experience.  “ABD and Diane were so supportive and encouraging.  Their focus was on creating a beautiful product all the while teaching me the fundamentals of creating a marketable product.”

Eventually Susan and her family moved to Alaska.  She took with her a knitting loom and the wealth of knowledge that she received from ABD to start her own successful business, Material Pleasures, Handloom Knitting and Weaving.   “My success is rooted in the education that I received from ABD, from design to production to bookkeeping to sales.  I adopted the encouraging, sustainable, ethical business practices that were modeled by ABD that are a perfect fit for me.” 

After just under 20 years, kids grown and on their way, Harry and Susan made the move back to WV.  Appalachian By Design had closed, yet another victim of outsourcing labor, but Diane continued with a spin-off business of her own, Appalachian Baby Design. “Diane and I had a chance meet up and spent some coffee time catching up. After ‘testing the waters’ an opportunity for me to work again with her came up and I JUMPED ON IT!”  The initial focus was on developing cozy woven baby blankets using her US Organic Cotton.  “What can I say, smitten again.” Now they are bouncing ideas off each other, testing colors, naming products and working the trade shows together.

“Even though I am not that novice weaver and running my own business, I am still learning and loving the work I do for Diane.


 

Linda Gavaldon

Linda Galvadon Knitting

Linda Gavaldon grew up on a farm in the Midwest in a very crafty family. All the men were good with wood working, and her four sisters all enjoyed doing some form of needlework. Linda learned to knit in home economics class. She clearly had a knack for it, as the 4-H project shawl she made for her grandmother won a second place ribbon at the Indiana State Fair.

She didn’t immediately follow up on that triumph, however, and only started knitting baby sweaters in her late 20s when her friends started having babies. In her 40’s, when great nieces & nephews started, she began knitting baby blankets. After following someone else’s reverse stockinette pattern, she decided she could create her own themes to match the babies she was knitting for.  After all that effort, she decided publishing the patterns was a natural next step. Thus began Linda’s career as a designer of wonderfully inventive baby blankets.

Linda, who now lives in Long Beach, California, first met Appalachian Baby Design founder Diane Browning at a yarn trade show and began designing and testing patterns for ABD in 2016. Her designs are some of ABD’s best sellers, and she is also an invaluable test knitter. Her first ABD design was a blanket with a monogram section, and her favorite is the Stair Step Baby Blanket design.

There is a creative give and take between Diane and Linda. Sometimes she will let Diane know if there is pattern she thinks would be a good fit for ABD, and other times Diane will present her with an idea to develop. “The stuff she has given me has always been challenging. For example, she wanted a hooded poncho. It stretched my ability to figure out how to design it,” Linda says. “Up until then, everything I had designed had just been flat.” Her newest creation for ABD is an owl pattern, which, unlike most of her designs, is not a stitch repeat pattern.

Linda says she gets excited about creating a new design. “I’ll see a stitch and think, “OK, I wonder if that will work?” Her approach is to use familiar stitches that make the design attractive. She also tries not to make them too complicated, as most of her designs are intended for beginning or intermediate knitters. Then it’s just a matter of settling on a gauge and deciding how wide and how long the finished item will be to determine how many lines to repeat across. She started out creating patterns in Excel, but thankfully there are now pattern charting software that make the process a lot more exact and generates written instructions as you design.

In addition to designing for ABD, Linda sells her patterns online through her website, Little Piggy Patterns and on Ravelry.  Her Little Piggy repertoire includes not only baby blankets, but bibs and baby wash clothes, adult scarves, spa cloths and wine cozys.

Linda has been retired for 15 years and says that now designing and knitting is mostly a hobby.

"I go in spurts," she says. "I designed and tested two blanket in July, and I may not do another one for several months. I do it when the inspiration hits, and my inspiration is driven by who I am making this blanket for"


 

 

Ruth McClung

Ruth McClung

Ruth McClung never learned to knit or crochet, but she is nonetheless an integral member of the Appalachian Baby Design team, working behind the scenes to wash, block and tag models of ABD designs destined for knit shops and photo shoots.

A native of Ronceverte, West Virginia, Ruth met her husband at church and they married in 1962. He was a Navy aviation electrician, so they lived in locations across the United States, moving about every three years. During a stint in in Hawaii, their daughter was born on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. They also have a son.

The family returned to Greenbrier County in 1982 and built a house on land owned by her husband’s parents. She spent many years providing child care for working families, including the son and daughter of ABD founder Diane Browning. When Diane’s children outgrew her, Ruth offered to help out at the studio. Diane took her up on it, and she has been with ABD since 2007.

Ruth is a jack of all trades, helping out with everything from fulfilling orders to refilling the yarn bins. She takes great care when preparing the models, taking them home to hand wash them in cool water with no bleach and then block them. 

Although she once told Diane Browning that she thought she should quit at age 80, Ruth, who will soon turn 81, is having too much fun to give it up. “I only work 15-16 hours every two weeks,” she says. “I just like to help keep things going.”


 

Donna Myles

Donna Myles

Crochet designer Donna Myles is a native of Greenbrier County West Virginia, where Appalachian Baby Design is headquartered. She laughingly recalls that both of her grandmothers attempted to teach her to crochet, but it was not until she was in her 20s that she really got the hang of it.

Today she enjoys all kinds of needlework. In addition to developing and testing patterns for ABD, she also is a gifted weaver. She owns 10 looms and sells her fun rag rugs, book marks, coasters and placemats at Tamarack, the juried showcase for West Virginia artisans in Beckley. She also knits, although she professes that she is not very good at it. She says she loves needlework because it’s relaxing and you have something to show for what you’ve done.

Ironically, it was not their shared interest in fiber art that brought Donna and ABD founder Diane Browning together, but rather their membership in Master Gardeners.  At that time, Diane was running Appalachian By Design, a social enterprise that linked skilled hand-loomed knitters in rural areas and their quality clothing products to major markets. Donna trained as a knitter and became part of Diane’s network of home-based knitters.

Fiber art was not her day job, however. For many years Donna managed the Windy Knoll Nursery in Lewisburg and she continues to work there part-time. For someone who is supposedly “semi-retired,” she is one busy lady. In addition to developing and testing crochet patterns for ABD, she also comes into the studio a couple of days a week to assist in fulfilling orders. 

In her “spare time,” Donna and her husband operate a mini-farm with high tunnels and a greenhouse where they grow fruits and vegetables to sell at the Farmer’s Market in Lewisburg on Saturdays. Fridays are spent picking for Saturday. The small scale of their operation suits her at this stage of her life. “I love to farm, but I’m too old for critters,” she says.

Donna brings a great eye to her role at ABD, where gets to indulge in her love of fiber and “play in the yarn.”  She says of all her designs, the Wrapped in Grace Mother’s Wrap is her favorite, although she notes that little sweaters and hats are always fun. She also enjoys the collaborative process of testing and refining other designer’s patterns. “We always have ideas. Let’s try these colors together, maybe use a different stitch. How can we finish this?”

In addition to aesthetic appeal, there are other factors that she keeps in mind when evaluating patterns. “The patterns need to be easy enough not to be intimidating, but challenging enough to charge the batteries—there’s a fine line between the two,” she says. They also need to be functional and able to work up without too many problems.

As demanding as her multi-faceted life seems, Donna wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The worst thing you can do is make me sit!”

 


 

Rachel Nash Law

Rachel Nash Law was destined to become knitter. She learned from her father’s mother, who knitted bedspreads in a Victorian style using tiny needles. Her own mother, now 90, is an incredible knitter who is well known for crafting hats for charity. Last year she produced 120 of them.

Rachel grew up in Alderson, West Virginia, in a family of do-it-yourself types. In high school she traveled to Norway as an exchange student and learned how to knit traditional Norwegian patterns.

She left Alderson at 18 and she and her husband lived in Tennessee, Kentucky and Elkins and Fayetteville, West Virginia before settling in Abingdon, Virginia. During those years maintained an interest in traditional handcraft and raised two daughters.  

Through her Greenbrier County connections she got to know Appalachian Baby Design founder Diane Browning and joined a network of home-based machine knitters who crafted high quality garments that were marketed and sold through a social enterprise founded by Diane in the 1990s. Diane remembered a Christmas stocking Rachel designed at that time and in 2018 she invited her to create Christmas stocking designs for ABD.  Diane credits Rachel’s solid design sensibilities and skill as a knitter for the success of her patterns.

Rachel admits that as a novice in the world of knitting design, she has had a big learning curve since her previous knitting had just been for her kids and grandkids.  She jokes that she would rather just “take up the yarn and knit.”  However, these days she finds herself using a computer program—which she says is basically just electronic graph paper—to design patterns. She prefers it to actual graph paper because she don’t have to deal with eraser dust, and she can get an accurate representation of colors so she can see how a design will look.

She doesn’t have a favorite among her designs. “Whichever I’m working on at the time is my favorite. It has to be right or I don’t send it on to Diane.” She also takes her time developing new patterns. “I’m slow.  I do everything three times, and my husband says I tear out as much as I knit.”  As she designs she keeps in mind ABD’s customers, making the designs simple enough to be accessible to a large population of knitters.

Although Rachel always has knitting projects perking, she is not necessarily working on them continually. “I always have something on the needle,” she says. She enjoys trying out other designers’ patterns, comparing it to a chef who likes to sample the creations of others. Her most recent ABD stocking project is a Possum and Pine design inspired by her daughters’ fascination with o’possums.


 

Sarah Peasley

Sarah Peasley

Sarah Peasley honestly can’t remember how she learned to knit. Her mother was a knitter, so Sarah assumes she learned from her, but neither could remember for sure. In any case, she learned enough to knit clothes for her Barbie dolls and to send her sister off to college with handmade argyle socks.

She put the knitting needles away until she was pregnant with the first of her two sons. On her way home from work, she stopped by the local yarn shop, bought some yarn and a pattern for a baby blanket, and learned of a local knitter’s guild. That fateful stop launched her into a career as a designer, teacher, and technical knitting editor.

Sarah lives in Haslett, Michigan, and works at Woven Art, a yarn shop across from the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. She is a widely respected teacher whose passion is to make knitting accessible to everyone. She is known for the patience and humor with which she teaches and her ability to instill confidence and provide her students with a wide range of lasting skills. She has taught at yarn shops and guilds, for regional and national conferences, and on Craftsy, and is now very excited to be available to a wider student audience via Zoom.

Appalachian Baby Design founder Diane Browning had heard about Sarah through a mutual acquaintance and, after meeting her at a trade show in 2013, hired her as ABD’s technical knitting editor. Although her role is exacting and not necessarily glamorous, Sarah‘s skills are critical to assuring that ABD’s patterns are accurate and organized in a consistent way.

“The patterns need to be correct and they need to make what they are supposed to make,” Sarah says.  “We want to be sure we have clear and accurate instructions so the consumer will be happy. And if a baby sweater comes in four sizes, I make sure all the numbers for all the sizes are there and are correct.”

Sarah's math and computer background and her attention to detail are apparent in her work as a technical editor of both knitting and crochet patterns. She says the time it takes to edit a pattern depends on its complexity. Editing a simple blanket pattern might only take two hours, but a complex colorwork Christmas stocking might take eight or nine hours, with lots of back and forth collaboration between ABD and the pattern designer, graphic artist, and editor.

Although not primarily known as a designer at ABD, Sarah did create the pattern for the Baby Bear Cardigan with little ears. But mainly, she sticks to what she knows best. “There are patterns that existed long before I came along, so I’m cleaning up older patterns to match the new style of the company,” she says.

“I’m trying to help ABD have a clear, consistent voice that reflects the elegance and simplicity of their yarn and patterns.”