Vest, Ky. — ARKIE Paton still remembers the day, a Wednesday, that she closed up the dry cleaners and paid her first visit to the Quicksand Craft Center. ''I saw all the looms, the threads, and my eyes got so big. I just knew it was something I wanted to do,'' drawls the soft-spoken Kentucky grandmother, patting her ''Cadillac'' of looms in the basement of the center.
Today, five years later, Mrs. Paton has left the dry-cleaning business and become not only a professional weaver and the sole wage earner in her family, but also the director of this $85,000-a-year community center that is one of the largest producers of handweaving in the country.
''Oh, I enjoyed working at the dry cleaners,'' says Mrs. Paton, ''but here I could just stay and never go home.''
Quicksand Craft Center is one of the four largest craft cooperatives operating in Kentucky. Since its humble beginnings 20 years ago in an abandoned three-room schoolhouse, it has provided training, employment, and income for untold numbers of local women and their families.
It has also become one of the enduring success stories to emerge from the federal government's War on Poverty program. That effort grew out of the social consciousness of the 1960s and spewed billions of dollars in the form of four-lane highways, municipal water systems, and vocational education programs into the hills and hollows of Appalachia.
Some of the efforts improved living standards in the region. Others fell short of the vision of Washington's social and economic architects. But among the programs still alive - even thriving - are the craft cooperatives.
They are taking on added significance today, because tough economic times have again returned to the hardscrabble hills of eastern Kentucky. Federal funding for social programs has been slashed. The area's predominant means of economic survival, coal mining, is in a slump.
The secret of the craft programs' longevity lies partly in local culture and partly in changing national habits. The idea of encouraging weaving, quilting, furnituremaking, and other handicrafts fits well into local mountain tradition. Appalachia - primarily because of its inaccessible geography - is still the largest area of native craftmakers in the country. Many of the skills have been practiced, largely for barter purposes, for centuries. The movement here has also been fueled by a national craft revival. For instance, New York-based Bloomingdale's department store recently trumpeted handmade Appalachian products under an ''Oh Kentucky'' sales campaign.
''It's the difference between homemade and handmade,'' says Jerry Workman, director of Kentucky's largest craft cooperative, Appalachian Fireside Crafts (AFC). ''The former implies you can't afford anything else, while the latter means you've arrived.''
As a result, prosperity has smiled on Quicksand Craft Center and other craft cooperatives nestled among the eastern Kentucky mountain towns such as David, Pine Knot, and Vest. Last year, for example, Quicksand Craft's sales totaled $30 ,000. The weavers collectively received more than half that in wages. The figures for this year are expected to be even higher.
But their success stories, while still modest in dollar figures, are best told in the lives of their members, women like Mavis Noble and Rosalee Gayheart - two of the staunchest weavers of Quicksand Crafts.
Reaching Quicksand Craft Center is similar to stumbling across an art gallery on a set for ''Old Yeller.'' The dirt road leading to the split-oak shingled building leads by ubiquitous hound dogs and roosters, outhouses and rusting cars. Low-slung cabins squat by the roadside, smoke from the chimneys crawling into the damp spring air.
But inside, the center is aglow with track lighting bouncing off polished oak floors, spotlighting piles of tweed rag rugs, creamy linen tablecloths, and giant rya wall hangings. A wrought-iron spiral staircase leads from the gallery down to a second level. Linda Ronstadt croons on tape, and the rhythmic thump of beater bars from the next room means the weavers are at work. In the kitchen, Mrs. Noble and Mrs. Gayheart take a break. They sit with steaming mugs beneath the ''Dieter's Prayer'' scrawled on the chalkboard.
''I came here five years ago,'' explains Mrs. Gayheart, a large-boned, shy woman with a thin wedding band and a thick Kentucky accent. ''I had worked in a store but never seen a loom. My husband was a disabled logger, and we have two children. It's hard when you don't have nothing,'' she says softly.
After spending 10 weeks at the center under a federally funded training program, she became a full-time weaver. As Quicksand's only maker of rag rugs - the center's stock in trade - she now works a 40-hour week. All the weavers are paid by the piece, and Mrs. Gayheart is fast enough to make a small rug in a day , earning up to $400 a month. As the sole wage earner in her family, she admits, ''Without this I don't know what I'd be doing.''
''Well, you really work because you need the money, not because it's glamorous,'' chimes in Mrs. Noble over the thumping looms. A retired mail carrier and a grandmother, she has been weaving at the center off and on for 10 years. When asked about the alternatives to working here, she bristles. ''Sho, you don't know this place. Really, a lot of people would just as soon sit back and have it handed to 'em,'' she says. ''But my husband is a disabled vet and he is too proud for me to go over and get food stamps. I love arts and crafts. And the extra income makes you be independent. You don't have to ask for things.''
''Most of the time we consider handicrafts as supplemental income,'' says the AFC's Jerry Workman, ''but for some people it's all of it. They say, 'This year I got some extra money, so I'm going to put in a bathroom or put (plumbing) in the house.' ''
According to Mr. Workman and other observers, the concept of a cooperative is not native to Kentucky's independent hill people. But when the co-ops sprang up during the '60s, it was the first opportunity for many craftmakers to reach a consistent cash market. It also brought new demands for quality control.
''There is a lot of craftmaking going on in the mountains,'' adds Arkie Paton , ''but many are not really set up to sell. You just can't walk into (a customer) and say, 'Will you buy this?' We've had to build our reputation on excellence.''
''Buyers today are more sophisticated,'' adds Mr. Workman. ''They know what they're getting.
Because of its demanding skill levels and the large capital investment required, handweaving has been a particularly difficult craft to revive. ''Because it is so complicated - and reading those (weaving) drafts is as difficult as reading music - if you skip a generation, it's lost,'' says Loyal Jones, director of Berea College's Appalachian Center.
At Quicksand, a professional art teacher was initially employed to help the women relearn the ancient skills. During Mrs. Paton's directorship alone, nearly 40 women have been trained as weavers, and three have set up shop in their own homes. And visitors from as far away as Indonesia come to the center to observe the techniques.
Still, this pride of heritage gives way to an omnipresent pragmatism in the women of Quicksand. Dallie Sloan, one of the center's most senior weavers, who works at home without a phone, ''didn't have an education but was determined to see her (12) kids graduate high school,'' says Mrs. Paton proudly. ''Her husband is disabled, but Dallie has paid for bathrooms and sheetrock, and every one of her kids got a class ring.''
Shirlee Ray, when asked what learning to weave has done for her family, shoots back without hesitation: ''Paid some bills. I don't like to fool with stuff like food stamps.''