Natural Born Subversive

Dede Styles on Living and Dyeing in Swannanoa, North Carolina

Laurin C. Guthrie

“It is like alchemy to collect weeds, the plants that almost no one wants, and cook them up to create beautiful colors.”

“If you could only see me in my natural habitat,” says Dede Styles. I know she’s right. Styles is a person so deeply connected to her place that something fundamental is lost as our conversation filters through ethernet cables and satellites, something that would be plainly evident if I were on the mountain with her, but I’m not. I’m speaking to her across three thousand miles via video call.1

We’re on our second recording of a three-part oral history, and Styles just spent two hours telling me about the kind of political work she does in her community. She’s sitting in her house, built by three generations of her family, starting with her grandfather, and wearing what appears to be a handknit cap made of indigo-dyed yarn. I mostly see her face, framed by white hair, sitting in a blue upholstered chair; the rafters of the house are in the background. Her “natural habitat” is this homeplace at the base of the Swannanoa Mountains in Lytle Cove.

Lytle Cove is located in the heart of Western North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and southern Appalachia, off State Highway 70 in Buncombe County, between Swannanoa and Black Mountain. The brief visits I’ve made to the region in the past scarcely prepared me to keep up with Styles’s intimate knowledge of the place, and I try my best to imagine it through her descriptions and flashes from my memories of wet, lush forests and rust-red earth, supplemented by the digital maps and satellite images I scroll through as I sit in my home near the San Francisco Bay.

Dede Styles with yarns she has dyed at the Southern Highland Craft Guild summer fair, Asheville, North Carolina, July 2008. Photograph from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

My interest in a historical moment long before Styles’s birth led me to her. I wanted to understand the proliferation of craft schools and the revitalization (or, arguably, reinvention) of Appalachian craft traditions in the early twentieth century, often referred to as the Arts and Crafts revival. A friend at Warren Wilson College suggested I reach out to Styles, knowing both my interest in the history and that I am also a natural dyer and craftsperson. I set up an initial interview of just an hour. At the time, I had no idea how much I would connect with the woman on the other end of the line.2

Styles’s life spoke to something in me as a craftsperson and as a person deeply attached to my own homeplace. I came to understand that her life is a story of, among many things, political craft in Swannanoa during the second half of the twentieth century, gentrification in the early twenty-first century, and craft as a form of resistance to dispossession. After relistening to our first interview from December 2020, I wrote to Styles and asked if she would be willing to do a few more interviews and serve as a collaborative editor on the piece I wanted to write about her. I didn’t want to analyze Styles’s life from a distance; I wanted her to be an active participant in its telling. Fortunately, she agreed.3

Dede Styles, now seventy-four, learned to spin as a child when she accompanied her grandmother to events put on by the Southern Highland Craft Guild. Her grandmother was a weaver, but Styles worked out how to spin wool by watching a woman from the guild spinning on a high wheel, which she recognized as similar to one her grandfather had acquired secondhand “just because he liked old stuff.” Styles’s grandmother, Mabel Allen, first learned to weave while working as a Gray Lady at the VA Hospital, where weaving was one of the recreations available to patients. She later became a member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild and demonstrated at its craft fairs, where a young Styles first encountered spinning and plant dyeing. Both grandmother and granddaughter learned their crafts from the guild—not from family members—and in the process they joined a craft legacy born of the craft revival of the early twentieth century. That revival developed from local and external aesthetic and production lineages to become the complex craft culture it is today: a mixture of “tradition” and modern interventions and alterations that characterizes many contemporary craft practices.4

Enamored by the full process of spinning, young Styles acquired a pet sheep and started turning its fleece into yarn. Growing up, Styles and her siblings learned to identify wild plants from their mother, Harriet Styles. Harriet spent childhood summers at a Boy Scout camp and later studied botany in college. When Styles saw a woman dyeing with Queen Anne’s lace at one of the guild’s fairs, it expanded her craft practice further. “I already knew what that was and already knew where a bunch of it was,” she recalls. “So I came home then, see, and I said, ‘Watch me, I’ll do that, too.’ And it’s like magic, you know; it’s like alchemy.”5

It is like alchemy to collect weeds, the plants that almost no one wants, and cook them up to create beautiful colors. This is what Styles wants people to learn: plants that many consider useless, or even just a nuisance, have hidden or forgotten purposes, whether it’s dyeing fiber or feeding the pollinators who help feed us. Her passion and deep ecological knowledge came through clearly across the miles.

I asked Styles to tell me about her dyeing process, and she immediately planted the question in the soil, saying it all depends on the plant and the season. “Let’s say daisy fleabane: I can use that fresh or I can use it dried. So, if I want to make that color, then I just wait until it is time to pick it, when it’s in bloom.” Styles talks me through the ways she manipulates color:

Daisy fleabane will make yellow; its first color is yellow. Then you make sure you don’t get it too hot, or you get other kinds of chemicals out of the plant that make your colors a little bit dingy-ish. … Now, with the daisy fleabane, if I add iron, I can turn it to olive green. … If I put the iron in but put in yarn with no mordant, I can get sort of a greenish gray, real pretty greenish gray. … If you put it on mohair, which has a little bit of a shine to it, you can get it to look almost silver.

Daisy fleabane (Erigeron annuus) is an annual plant native to eastern North America, and one of many plants that spreads happily in disturbed landscapes, a behavior that is often described as “weedy.” “You know, there’s that book by Dr. Seuss, ‘I’m the Lorax, I speak for the trees’?” Styles asks me. “The dye people are going to have to [say], ‘We’re the dye people, we speak for the weeds.'”6

The way Styles experiences what she often calls “the green world” connects her to other people across boundaries of time. “When I’m out gathering the dye plants,” she explains, “it’s like I’m walking in the footsteps of the people who came before me, who did that a long time ago. It really connects you to those people, because you’re doing what they did.” She relates an awareness of the interconnectedness of natural and human worlds, for example, observing that trees take nourishment from the soil to grow and then nourish it in turn when they die, and how collecting firewood made her think that “there’s stuff in this wood that an Indian maybe had hold of.”7

Her deep knowledge and care for place is tied directly to her experience of living within it and making a life in Lytle Cove, her place, a form of what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls inhabitation: “to create, to conserve and intensify habits and customs [as]mways of being.” For people like Styles, craft pertains to existential questions of how we find and make ways to inhabit this changing planet.8

Crucially, Styles’s craft practice acts as a vehicle for education, for creating awareness and solidarity with that history and community, and for giving care to it. Dyeing, and her craft, are a means of teaching others how to look at the place they live with greater awareness of its complex interconnectedness, and to recognize the other species we live alongside and depend upon. And by highlighting those relationships through her craft practice, Styles is able to share not only material knowledge with others, but a sense of caregiving, interdependence, and responsibility. Dyeing also serves as a connection to the history of crafts in the region, providing Styles a source of supplemental income, much as craft has for many guild members, past and present. Up until just a few years ago, Styles demonstrated natural dyeing at the Southern Highland Craft Guild fairs and sold dyed yarns and knitted items like hats and mittens. But she tells me that “after a while, it got to the place where it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I said, ‘Look, you’re gonna have to get young folks to do this job, I’m too old for that foolishness.'”9

Like many practices rooted in a particular context, craft has been deracinated—a casualty of dispossession, colonialism, and supposed capitalist progress. Jane S. Becker describes how, in the early twentieth century, guild and school instructors “called on Appalachian craftspeople to use their skills to interpret not their own values and customs, but the culture of others—specifically, the culture of urban, middle class Americans.” The craft guilds and schools set out to preserve a mountain culture in theory but, in practice, they adapted objects and folkways to better suit the external markets they hoped to reach, as Becker explores. Nonetheless, those institutions—including the Southern Highland Craft Guild—endured, changed over time, and became part of the fabric of craft life in the region, allowing people like Styles and her grandmother to learn and teach their crafts through them.10

Styles’s early experiences with craft align with and extend Becker’s work—specifically her portrayal of the Southern Highland Craft Guild as “mediator between the middle-class homes of urban consumers and the skills of mountain craftspeople.” Styles’s positive perception of the guild, however, speaks to the potential to reframe craft organizations—particularly how they pertain to people who, like Styles, fuse craftwork with their involvement in resistance movements. Organizations like the guild have complex histories, as Becker’s work demonstrates. Contemporary members like Styles are able to operate in the historical, preservation-focused framework the organization was founded on with a critical engagement. In a self-aware and reflective way, they are simultaneously able to challenge the continuous flows of power and wealth into and within the region. That same power and wealth represent the very forces that created institutions like the guild in the first place. Styles tells me about the changes she’s seen at the guild fairs over her lifetime. “When my grandmother was doing it, it was more utilitarian stuff. … Now, it’s more art, like tapestries and art pieces, you know,” she tells me. “Before, if they were making a pot, it was to put something in. Now you see pots where they got it all carved out—it wouldn’t hold your soup, you know [laughs].” Styles is aware of the continuing contradictions of Appalachian craft and its complicated relationship to development and external, urban market forces. The changes Styles has noticed in her local guild fairs seem consistent with those in contemporary craft shows and fairs around the country, where the handmade and art objects made in “traditional” craft modes have come into vogue once again.11

She also sees contradictions in her own relationship to the region. The people who have already moved or will move into the new developments that have muddied her water and squeezed out her neighbors are often the same ones buying the work she makes and attending her demonstrations at the guild fairs. She tells me, “It’s gone a lot more toward the high-end market. [It’s] for the people who are building the rich-man houses, [who] come and buy the stuff and put it in their vacation house.” She sees the overlap between the new neighbors contributing to development (and, directly or not, the environmental degradation that accompanies it) and the people who shop at the fair. Those who have means to build new vacation or retirement homes are also able to fill those homes with art and craft objects made by and seemingly representative of local folk.12

Styles doesn’t bear any apparent ill will toward individual people, though. “I talk to everybody,” she insists. She uses her knowledge and craft to build awareness of what’s happening not by directly confronting the people complicit in or benefitting from the development, but by demonstrating how they, are connected to that place, and how the consequences of that development will impact them. Dyeing is one way for Styles to talk to them about the impacts of development on water and on the availability of weeds and wild space for pollinating insects, as well as the impacts of erosion on her materials and the dwindling open and wild spaces where she can gather materials.

Styles collects mullein by the roadside with students at the Cloth Fiber Workshop, Asheville, North Carolina, 2013. Photograph by Laurie O'Neill.
Styles demonstrating dyeing wool with natural indigo dye at the Southern Highland Craft Guild fair, Asheville, North Carolina, July 2008. Photograph from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

The Swannanoa Mountains, where Styles lives, continue to undergo development and gentrification. Styles forages for her dye plants in disused spaces where weeds are left to grow unchecked. In her self-published dye book Wild Mountain Time: Native Dye Plants, she suggests looking for dye plants “around abandoned warehouses, stores, filling stations and parking lots, unused garden spots, railroad sidings, and vacant lots.” At the same time, she reminds readers, “Some of the places with good dye weeds may also be the living places of [the unhoused]. Remember that while their home does not look like your home, it is their home. Accord it the same respect that you would anyone else’s home.” Styles gently reinforces the same kind of inclusive care for all that she was raised to practice in her family and community, especially for those who have been marginalized or harmed by the development of the region.13

Buncombe County has seen skyrocketing property values and several waves of development projects over the last fifteen years, particularly around the part of the mountains where Styles lives. A regular attendee of her county’s planning board meetings, Styles uses her deep knowledge of her home and natural science to advocate for her community, human and beyond. Vacation and retirement houses dot the surrounding cove, and many of her current neighbors have moved to the area from elsewhere to enjoy the beauty of the region—though the idea of beauty that they sought doesn’t always include the homes and spaces of the people they happen to move up the road from. Styles advocates for mixed zoning allowing for trailer homes, which, she tells me, is what many of the people who have lived in the area for a long time can afford and, in some cases, is how they are already living. She is trying to keep her neighbors from getting zoned out of their housing and the places they’ve called home for a long time. She also fights for the inclusion and preservation of green spaces and play areas for children in housing developments and for land use plans that consider the landscape and environmental context of the proposed project, including leaving land weedy and overgrown. “We got to be smart about where we put buildings,” she tells me. “I mean, right here in the Swannanoa Valley is the dumbest thing you ever saw. The Ingles grocery store … They have two huge warehouses … sitting on the best arable land in the whole Swannanoa Valley. They put a building right on top of where they could grow the food to put in the building. It’s dumb. It’s just stupid.”14

Styles tells me about a friend of hers who lives in the cove and owns a stump dump, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a space for dug-out stumps and tree trimmings to be stored, ground down, and often resold as mulch or other repurposed materials. Styles often goes to the dump to collect dye plants. “Nobody else likes this guy but me,” she says, “and everybody complains ’cause they think it looks like a mess.” She points out that because it’s overgrown it provides ideal habitat for weeds, which are good for both natural dyers and pollinating insects. “So, he’s our friend. He’s a friend of the bees, and he’s—[laughing]—he’s real friendly with me because I’m the only [person] he knows that doesn’t complain about his stump dump.” Like daisy fleabane, many of the plants Styles uses for dyes thrive in disturbed environments, so for Styles it’s just a matter of knowing when to look for it: “Some things like Queen Anne’s lace, you have to use it fresh, so you wait until it’s that time of the year. … I usually use goldenrod fresh. … Sumac leaves you can dry, but if I’m going to use walnut leaves, I use them fresh. Then in the fall come the walnuts, and you wait for them to fall off the tree and then you get them while they’re still green and bust the hulls off, and you can either use them fresh or dried.”15

She points out that many of the newer residents who aren’t fans of the weeds and “mess” are the same people who shop at the local farmer’s market and look for locally grown food. They don’t seem to see the contradiction between keeping a manicured lawn in check with a mower and pesticides and wanting to eat produce grown nearby. Styles imagines explaining the situation to them:

Honey, those weeds are keeping you alive. You best take notice. … If you want vegetables, local vegetables, you got to have local bees … and if you want your local pollinators to be able to survive, you have to have something for them to eat, when the vegetables are not [in season] … especially at the end of the season, after the apple blossoms and the strawberry blossoms and the tomatoes and all that stuff aren’t blooming anymore. They got to have something to store up for winter. And that’s the weeds. And if you keep chopping them down, you’re gonna as soon get hungry.16

There have been several large development projects in particular that have raised Styles’s ire and prompted her passionate opposition. One, a failed luxury housing development (featuring a golf course Tiger Woods designed), is situated at the top of the ridge where Styles lives. Widely covered by local press, The Cliffs was a multisite project with a complicated history and multiple failures. Development began in 2007 but was halted by the 2008 recession. In 2019, the project’s owners, South Carolinian South Street Partners, sold eight hundred of the 2,700 acres to another development company, but both companies declined to say what their plans for the site were. Styles spent years attending planning board meetings and opposing the project at every possible opportunity. When she tells me about the construction—or, more accurately, destruction—of the ridge above her home, she begins to cry.

They come with the bulldozers and dynamite. And they’re scratching and tearing. And it’s like, if you were a little kid, and you came to your grandmother’s house, and somebody was there, beating on her and cutting at her, and you were too little to stop them. … I’ve sort of closed my heart up. I had to.17

The effects of construction on Styles’s life are not only social and emotional but material. It has left her spring water unusable due to the locations of other houses’ septic tanks; her creek and pond water are full of silt from erosion resulting from construction and development up the mountain. Styles began dyeing with clean spring water from the creek, which didn’t have the chemical additives and modifiers found in city water, and which didn’t have the metals typically present in well water, all of which impact the colors of the dyes. Now, she collects creek water full of silt in buckets and lets it sit for a few days so that the sediment collects on the bottom, and she siphons off the clean water. Formerly vacant lots are being developed, reducing gathering space for her dye plants, and she had to stop keeping sheep after too many were killed by neighbors’ dogs roaming freely on the mountain. While her craft has been disrupted, she fights back through caregiving and education.

Preparing rhododendron leaves for dyeing with students at the Cloth Fiber Workshop, Asheville, North Carolina, 2013. Photograph by Laurie O'Neill.

To Styles, the spectacle of Politics-with-a-capital-P obscures the more important issues: the politics of living. When asked about her political work, Styles says she makes doing right by people and the planet her mission. “One of the most political things that I do is teach other people to care about the forest, to care about the climate, to care about the green world, to care about other people,” she tells me. “I’m a natural born subversive. I’m a friendly local troublemaker.”18

Styles is quick to point out that she doesn’t make a living from dyeing, and she doesn’t even think that it would be possible to do so. After earning a master’s degree in early childhood education, Styles started a nonprofit daycare center in Swannanoa, which is still operating today. The center’s nonprofit status allowed it to offer childcare that was affordable for low-income and working families in the area, as well as additional services including low-cost take-home dinners cooked by Styles, her mother, friends, and staff. The most important thing to Styles is teaching: she spent years educating and caring for young children, both at the daycare and then as a babysitter for a group of families whose children she looked after collectively. Teaching, caregiving, and, importantly, teaching people to care are at the heart of how Styles fights dispossession in her home and how she fights for the green world. Her natural dyeing practice has become part of that.

One of the children she cared for after she left the daycare center, Cade Wooten, is now twenty-one and studying community and social justice with a minor in philosophy, aiming to graduate soon from Guilford College. Styles cared for him a few days a week, while his parents worked, from the time he was two months old until he was about eleven years old. He speaks with incredible love for Styles, describing her as the biggest influence on him next to his parents. He shows me a small tattoo of a blue ball of yarn on his arm that he got in her honor. Wooten tells me about Styles taking him and the other children in her care to the planning board meetings where The Cliffs was being discussed, and how the kids sat there and listened to Styles and everyone else get up to speak, even when they didn’t fully understand what was being discussed. “She was just such an instrumental part of how I saw the world and my relationship with others and the earth,” Wooten tells me. “She really instilled in me such a politics of care at such a young age.” He tells me that Styles talked to them about The Cliffs often and remembers her concern that runoff from the site would contaminate the stream next to her house where the kids played. “Whenever she sees me, she always says, ‘I raised you to save the world,'” Wooten laughs at the recollection of Styles’s admonition. “‘So, you have to, you have to save the world.'”19

Styles demonstrating spinning on a modern spinning wheel with an antique high wheel in the foreground and her table with naturally dyed yarns and hats she knit from her dyed yarns in the background, Asheville, North Carolina, July 2008. Photograph from the Southern Highland Craft Guild.

Styles’s practice of craft is rooted in a history, yes, but it is not solely a historical practice. It is a present-day practice, as well. While she is mindful of those who came before her, and while in many ways they continue to live with and through her, she is not re-enacting history. She connects to her own present moment using the same kinds of practices that members of previous generations used in their own time.

Styles’s dyeing work requires that she be acutely aware of the living world around her as it is now, and as it continues to change. Gathering dye plants from abandoned lots and collecting water from a nearby creek mean paying attention to current development projects and what both her neighbors and her local planning board are up to. Participating in the Guild’s craft fairs means noticing who her customers are and what they’re buying, what’s making money and what’s not. And while many of these forces may require Styles to bend and adapt, she is unwilling to break.

Instead, Styles continues to practice a craft that ties her to a place that she loves and calls home, and she uses it to teach others how to see what is really in front of them. Through this practice, which informs her own way of life and relationship to the land, she is able to encourage others to practice more care toward the world and one another.

Saving the world feels like both a pressing imperative and an increasingly elusive prospect these days. I’d hoped to visit Styles in person this summer, but travel and health concerns have made that unrealistic for now. Instead, we keep in touch mostly via email. This morning in California, as I stepped outside to collect fallen eucalyptus bark from my neighborhood, I thought of her. The sunlight filtered through the small amount of smoke in the air that has become common this time of year. I don’t know how we will continue to inhabit this place, but I feel comforted that Styles is on the other side of this continent, trying to show us a way.

This essay was first published in the Crafted issue (vol. 28, no. 2: Spring 2022).

Laurin C. Guthrie is an artist, craftworker, and interdisciplinary scholar based in Oakland, California. She is a graduate student in the MA program in critical craft studies and history at Warren Wilson College.
  1. Dede Styles, in discussion with the author, March 2021.
  2. The scholarship of historians such as Jane S. Becker and Kathryn Newfont provided me with a framework for understanding this history.
  3. Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (New York: Hill and Wang, 2017), xviii.
  4. Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  5. Dede’s grandfather was the North Carolina Boy Scouts executive and her mother’s family lived at the camp during the summer season. Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  6. Styles, discussion, November 2020 and March 2021.
  7. Styles, discussion, March 2021.
  8. Giorgio Agamben, “Inhabiting and Building,” Ill Will, June 10, 2020, Emphasis in Agamben’s quote has been removed; the entire quote is italicized in the original.
  9. Styles, discussion, March 2021.
  10. Jane S. Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 73.
  11. Becker, Selling Tradition, 73; Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  12. Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  13. Dede Styles and Frederick Park, Wild Mountain Time: Native Dye Plants (self-pub., Swannanoa, NC, 2017), 12.
  14. Styles, discussion, March 2021.
  15. Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  16. Styles, discussion, November 2020.
  17. Dillon Davis, “Ex-Tiger Woods Golf Course, Cliffs Luxury Housing Site in Swannanoa Sold for $15.3M,” Citizen-Times, July 11, 2019,; Styles, discussion, March 2021.
  18. Styles, discussion, March 2021.
  19. Cade Wooten, phone conversation with the author, April 30, 2021.