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.”