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Weaver Dorothy Thompson

by John Lilly

Dorothy Thompson of Canaan Valley, Tucker County, has been a weaver for most of her 83 years. She traces the roots of her own weaving to the traditions of her Czech and Slovak immigrant ancestors. Then, as a young woman in the 1940's, Dorothy married into a Tucker County family with generations of their own rich weaving history. This family coincidence doesn't strike her as unusual, however. "Most people did some sort of weaving back then," she says off-handedly.

What does strike her as surprising, it seems, is the persistent attention she has received in recent years for her own weaving expertise, her ability to teach others, and her tireless dedication to the art of traditional overshot weaving. In 2000, she received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship in Washington, D.C., presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. This is the highest award given to folk and traditional artists in the nation, and recipients are carefully selected for their lifelong contributions to traditional culture. Dorothy is one of only four West Virginians ever to have received the award. Other Mountain State recipients are late Braxton County fiddler Melvin Wine (1991), Morgantown steel drum maker Elliott Manette (1999), and songwriter Hazel Dickens, originally from Mercer County (2001).

"It took me a little to decide to go along with it," Dorothy says cautiously, referring to the unexpected phone call she received from Washington, D.C., informing her of the award. "I don't care much for publicity." Likewise, when asked to submit to an interview about her life and her experiences as a weaver, Dorothy has mixed feelings. "I'd rather you write about this old way of weaving and the people who have taken up weaving since then," she says.

Dorothy Thompson is a link - a very important link - in a long chain of weavers that stretches back many years and includes Czech, Slovak, Swedish, New England, and Appalachian strains. The story of how Dorothy came into this time-honored art form, and how she has passed it along to others, says much about weavers and the nature of traditional weaving.

Dorothy Thompson at her loom
Weaver Dorothy Thompson of Canaan Valley, Tucker County, works on a loom made for her by her father in the 1940's. This is the first loom Dorothy owned. Photograph by Michael Keller.

You can read the rest of this article in the Fall 2003 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.