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