Co-op is window on the world for crafters from Carolina hills

``IT has meant more to Macon County than anything that's ever come in here, in my saying.'' Nellie Clouse, a quilter from the hills around this hamlet, was ``one of the first 'uns'' to join a remarkable handiwork cooperative here; and she doesn't mince her words, when she talks about it: ``I mean it's helped me more, and I think it has a lot of the others, because there were a lot of us older people that couldn't get a job.''

In 1969, as part of the local War on Poverty, a call went out from Franklin for anyone skilled in the traditional crafts of the mountain. Forty people responded, bringing their handiwork to a small Main Street shop. Maco Crafts was born.

And so was a new way for the craftspeople in this area to make money.

Women accustomed to getting $25 to $50 for quilts found their work bringing $200 a piece, because of better marketing and help from the co-op staff. For most of them, it was the first time they had a place to sell their work That first year the co-op grossed nearly $8,500.

It was a humble beginning for a going concern that now fills a three-story building of its own (volunteer-built, of course), has 250 members, and reports annual sales of $280,000-plus. Today Maco enjoys a national reputation and is especially renowned for fine quilts, which fetch prices ranging upward from $500.

But Maco's goal has always remained constant: to help low-income members earn money. To keep overhead down, the shop is run largely by members who volunteer one day a month. Craftspeople get 75 percent of an item's sales price; the other 25 percent goes toward operating the shop. Most members depend on sales to supplement their incomes. Some even make a living from their crafts.

Doris Hunter, a Franklin native who sculpts birds and flowers from found materials, has turned her unusual specialty into a profession with the help of Maco Crafts.

``I was terrified about going into Maco. I was terribly timid,'' she recalls. But she gathered her courage and brought some items she had made -- children's shoe bags and yarn pictures -- to the shop. Later, through Maco, she took a workshop on making pine cone birds. ``My first one looked more like a pig than a bird,'' she laughs, but she had discovered what she wanted to do. She threw herself into studying birds and mastering her difficult new medium.

Today, Ms. Hunter's storeroom bulges with driftwood scrounged from the banks of the Chatuge River and other ``treasures'' -- pine cones, corn silks, corn cobs, watermelon seeds, wood shavings. From these ``things no one else wants,'' she crafts tiny birds, flowers, and meticulously detailed characters.

Though started by and for low-income residents, Maco put out the welcome mat for newcomers of all income levels, including many retirees. They in turn became an indispensable part of the organization. Former businessmen brought financial savvy to the board of directors. Others pitched in with everything from landscaping assistance to the loan of a computer.

One retiree, Werner Steinle, a former NASA engineer, joined the co-op in 1977 and has served on the board ever since. ``I felt uncomfortable about joining at first. We were outsiders, and we didn't really need the money,'' he says. He, his wife, and his mother joined after they realized their skills were needed and their crafts (including some 900 mountain dolls they have produced as a team) would round out the product line. ``Maco helped us assimilate into the community,'' Steinle says.

For newcomers like the Steinles, Maco has become a doorway into the community. For local people like Doris Hunter and Mrs. Clouse, faced with limited economic opportunities, Maco has proven a window on the world.

``People who live here have to come up with ingenious ways to survive,'' Hunter says. ``My crafts helped buy this house and get our daughter through college,'' she adds. ``I really feel that I have been successful. It would have been so different without that little store down there.''

Barbara McRae lives in Franklin and was once a member of Maco Crafts.

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