Folk Arts and Crafts

By: Francis Edward Abernethy

Type: General Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: September 11, 2020

The craft is the skill required in the making of a thing that will function as intended. The art is decoration of the object. Both the craft and the art are "folk" if they have been passed down orally or by demonstration. The number of folk craftsmen has diminished since the Industrial Revolution. Most remaining craftsmen are hobbyists who make quilts, furniture, belts, or pots for their own amusement-or profit, if they can find a market that appreciates and can afford fine craftsmanship. Some craftsmen, such as wheelwrights and wainwrights, remain to supply the needs of limited markets, and some crafts-basketry, for instance-defy machine production.

The earliest Texas traditional artisans were Indians, who crafted the needs of their cultures from available materials and decorated their artifacts and themselves with symbols of their cultures. Though the wandering Coahuiltecans of South Texas left few artifacts, they wove mats, tanned hides, and crafted simple tools and weapons. Their Karankawa neighbors, also hunters and gatherers, made a wide assortment of distinctive pottery that was coated inside with natural asphalt for waterproofing and decorated on the outside with asphalt designs. Their main recorded artistry was applied to their bodies in the form of tattoos, bamboo splints pierced through men's lips and breasts, symbolic scarification, and elaborate face-painting. The Comanches wove fabrics of many textures and colors, painted their lances red, and feathered and colored their war shields as well as their horses. The agrarian Caddos of East Texas built palisade log houses and were skilled tool and weapon makers, potters, basketmakers, and artists who decorated artifacts and themselves. They tattooed their bodies, practiced cranial decoration, and crafted body ornaments of shells, bones, feathers, and stones. Besides the crafting and decoration of their artifacts and themselves, Texas Indians developed an art form in their petroglyphs and pictographs. Some of these forms might have functioned in imitative magic, but many seem to represent the nonutilitarian urge to capture in pictures the beautiful animal or protective spirits. The Indians pecked wavy, circular, and zigzag lines on rocks. In the shelter caves along the Pecos River, the Jumanos painted on ceilings and walls in bright yellow, orange, red, white, and black. They drew deer and cougars, fish and snakes, hands, and shapes whose meaning we can only guess at.

The Spanish, who in the sixteenth century began crossing into what is now Texas, brought glass beads, woven cloths, and silver ornaments and added a dimension to this area's arts and crafts. When they began seriously settling Texas in the eighteenth century they brought wheels, screws, metal tools, and religious sculptures and artifacts, as well as such artificers as gunsmiths and wheelwrights. The European settlers of the nineteenth century came with all sorts of skills and as many concepts of art as ethnic groups. As they adapted to their new environment they crafted what they could, used what was available, and learned from each other. The craftsmen who came into Texas from the East fashioned tight log houses out of straight pine logs, hewn and laid horizontally and often secured with half-dovetail corner joints. Germans who arrived at Indianola and went up the Colorado to the rocky Hill Country quarried limestone and built strong rock houses. Later settlers who went further west, where there was neither rock nor timber, mixed mud with grass and made houses of adobe. When these settlers and their descendents finally prospered, they artistically coated their rock or adobe houses with plaster and painted them white, or nailed sawed boards over their log houses. Some painted the interiors of their houses with all manner of scrolls and curlicues and flowers.

Settlers who came to Texas brought, bought, or made spinning wheels, looms, cotton carders, and other tools of the textile craft. They separated themselves from the weavers of skin by their skills in making fabrics of wool, cotton, and flax. They spotted and stripped, colored and shaded the materials according to their artistic tastes. Selected Black enslaved people were trained early in the textile crafts and were widely known for the quality of their beautiful patterns, called, for instance, World's Wonder, Love's Knot, and Blooming Leaf of Mexico. Used material was later cut up and used again in quilt patterns called Texas Star, Double Wedding Ring, the Primrose, and Henry Clay's Choice. Or it was cut into strips to be crocheted into rag rugs or hooked into burlap backing. Linens were embroidered, cross-stitched, and hemmed with delicate tatting. Wool was spun into yarn to be knitted into socks and sweaters. Textile craftsmen, mostly hobbyists, still abound, and the products of quilting frames and knitting needles sell dearly at craft fairs.

Metal crafts, especially blacksmithing, came to Texas with the Spaniards, and with great difficulty because of the weight of iron. Knives, window grates, and andirons were made first for simple utility. Artistry, usually in the form of a simple twist or scroll or incised design, was spare. With the opening of the Texas frontier and the Gulf ports, iron became more plentiful and the blacksmith became the most necessary craftsman in the farming community. Blacksmiths entering Texas as slaves were extremely valuable to their owners, particularly since they made most of the tools other craftsmen required in their work. Other slaves afforded these ironworkers high status and looked upon them as leaders. Aspects of their technology still existed in the 1980s in rural East Texas. Farmers became blacksmiths who forged and forever patched their plows and farm tools and shod their horses and mules. Artists in iron, who made fancy bridle bits, gal-leg spurs, and decorative iron gates, were found among both professionals and amateurs.

Three different types of traditional utilitarian pottery were made in early Texas: Indian, Spanish-Mexican, and Anglo-American. Among the many Indian groups in Texas that made pottery, the Caddos may have been the most aesthetically developed in the potter's art. They stacked coiled clay and formed and decorated their pots without benefit of a wheel. They fired pots but did not glaze them. They often colored the clay in the working stage and made decorative incisions and applications. The Spanish and Mexicans used the wheel rarely, if it all, but did lead-glaze some of their pots and pitchers. The Anglos brought with them the potter's wheel and the use of alkaline and salt glazes and established commercial kilns wherever they went, particularly in those areas where Wilcox Formation clay was accessible. They made jugs of all forms, preserving and storage jars, bowls, pitchers, churns, and chamberpots. Some African Americans worked clay as slaves and established their own potteries as freedmen. The art and craft of pottery making still thrives, and contemporary potters are continually experimenting with new forms, colors, glazes, and techniques.

The Europeans who came to Texas brought a long tradition of woodcrafting-of ship and house building, of shaping weapons and tools, plows and wagons, axe and hammer handles, of treenware and furniture crafting. Because they brought little furniture with them they began their new lives on the frontier with the roughest tables and chairs and bedsteads. Factories in the northern states began manufacturing furniture in the 1830s, but handcraftsmen flourished long after that in Texas because of transportation problems. Black carpenters in antebellum Texas also crafted log cribs, barns, log cabins, wagons, benches and stools, beds, spinning wheels, and looms. Cabinetmakers prospered first in East Texas because that was the first area of settlement and because of the easy availability of wood. The artistic form of early Texas furniture was Southern Classical Revival, with pillars and scrolls. Spring-pole lathes were common, as were mortising machines, but simple hand tools, such as planes, chisels, and augers, were most often used. German cabinetmakers who had been apprenticed in Europe became the leading artisans in the Hill Country and southeastern bottomlands. They introduced Texans to furniture in the Gothic and Renaissance styles. And, of course, each craftsman had his own individual style. The craft declined with the improvement of transportation and the availability of cheaper, manufactured furniture in the 1870s; makers became assemblers of prefabricated furniture, and finally merchants. Modern cabinetmakers are usually weekenders who love wood grain and the pleasure of crafting.

Round Top in Fayette County illustrates in miniature the evolution of folk arts and crafts. In 1860 the settlement was the center of a cotton community not yet ten years old, but its small population included a gunsmith, a shoemaker, three blacksmiths, three wagonmakers, a saddler, a chairmaker, a tinner, a cigarmaker, a bookbinder, a shinglemaker, a mechanic, and an engineer. Few of these crafts survived industrialization as necessities. The twentieth-century Round Top consists almost exclusively of a self-conscious artist community. There, restored early buildings and musical and theatrical productions are the most prominent features of the community. For the most part the availability of all kinds of manufactured items eliminated the role of the craftsman. In the twentieth century there is almost nothing the artist can make that cannot be purchased more inexpensively, although the item will not be unique. It is the motivation for individual expression that attracts modern craftsmen. Craft fairs accompany almost all forms of outdoor entertainment. Towns of any size at all feature at least one or two annual events that encourage the sale of arts and crafts. And larger cities support a variety of craft shops interspersed with other commercial endeavors. See also ARCHITECTURE, MEXICAN-AMERICAN ARTS AND CRAFTS, POTTERY.

Francis E. Abernethy, Folk Art in Texas, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 45 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985). Richard Burns, Afro-American Blacksmithing in East Texas (Master's report, University of Texas at Austin, 1984). Sherry B. Humphreys and Johnell L. Schmidt, Texas Pottery: Caddo Indian to Contemporary (Washington, Texas: Star of the Republic Museum, 1976). Joyce Ann Ice, Quilting and the Pattern of Relationships in Community Life (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1984). Terry G. Jordan, Texas Log Buildings: A Folk Architecture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978). Cecilia Steinfeldt, Texas Folk Art: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Southwestern Tradition (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1981). Lonn W. Taylor, Texas Furniture: The Cabinet Makers and Their Work (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975). Texana II: Cultural Heritage of the Plantation South (Austin: Texas Historical Commission, 1984). John Michael Vlach, "Afro-American Folk Crafts in Nineteenth Century Texas," Western Folklore 40 (April 1981).

  • Peoples
  • Germans
  • Visual Arts
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Mexican Americans
  • Folk Arts
  • Genres and Media

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Francis Edward Abernethy, “Folk Arts and Crafts,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

October 1, 1995
September 11, 2020

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