Each year, Our State’s Made in NC Awards celebrate the talent and creativity of North Carolinians. Meet the state’s winners, honorable mentions, and judges. Check out all of this year’s
“I’d always been a kid in the woods,” Danny Robinson says, heading off on a tangent, hopefully leaving breadcrumbs. “Always had all these books.” What he’s doing is tying together an east Georgia childhood spent largely outside, a long-held fascination with antique knives, and a past life spent working for a North Carolina therapeutic wilderness camping operation where, he says, “these kids made everything with a knife or a hatchet and a mallet.”
Friend, if you’re not ready to match Danny’s enthusiasm for just being on the planet right here, right now, don’t worry. He’s got enough to spare, and he’s also got spectacular bespoke knives and carving sets to sell you, though that might only be true if you’re lucky enough to be at the right festival, or the North Asheville Tailgate Market, before he’s sold out. How do I get one of these knives, I ask him, if I wanted, say, to give one to my dad? He laughs. Right now, I might not be able to. But soon. Maybe.
Knives have been made from files for centuries, Danny explains. It’s a tradition on the farm. You throw a worn-down file in an old wooden box, and when you need a chisel, or to repair a metal tooth on a piece of equipment, well, there’s your high-carbon steel. “What I do now is born out of a vast knowledge of what’s been done, and how,” he says. “There’s no real new designs. A knife is a knife is a knife.”
But there does seem to be something new here. Ex-Files Knives — it took me a beat to get it, too — is Danny’s venture with his wife, Ann Marie. Because everything with Danny Robinson is a story, there’s a story there, too, but hold tight. First we have to talk about these knives. Each is a sort of ghost, the crosshatching of an old flea-market file giving way to a high polish, a sharpened edge, a signal of what the piece was, and a promise of what use it holds now.
“Not everybody hunts or fishes or has a job where they need a knife every day,” Danny says. “But everybody eats. When a chef buys my work, or when somebody takes it home, we’re a part of that. We’re gonna be a part of that meal.”
He and Ann Marie make farm-to-table cutlery, he says. Ann Marie makes the materials that become the handles: It’s a revised process for making fiberglass, one where the fibers are instead repurposed coffee sacks, old denim, old nightshirts, even socks. Everything, when looked at correctly, has a second use. “I don’t make heart valves or replacement knees,” Danny says. “But when people own these knives, they own something that represents a connection.”
Some of those connections are especially close to the Robinsons. “I had this buddy, a friend’s dad,” Danny says, his cadence slowing, his voice catching. “I’m sorry. Sometimes this work can get super emotional. I remember we were at the beach once, and he was this super-skinny dude, and he was wearing these orange corduroy shorts. He could make you laugh, man. Anyway, these shorts. He passed, like everybody does, or will.” He doesn’t tell me why, and I don’t ask. I get the sense we’ve walked through this door only half-intentionally. “After he passed, his son was going through the house and found those shorts. He sent them to us, and we made handles out of those shorts. We made his family three chef’s knives to honor his dad. I remember I was out at the grinder, and I thought, ‘I didn’t sign up for this emotional level.’ But it’s repeated itself over and over and over.”
• • •
There’s an earnestness to Danny and Ann Marie that’s infectious. It’s the kind of thing that will make you look at your own knives, at everything in your kitchen, in a new light: What’s been handed down? Who gave me this? What do these things mean?
“A chef ’s knife takes me about 11 years and seven or eight hours to make,” Danny says, meaning: There is no time, not really, or there is no one knife. Every piece is part of a process; every step he and Ann Marie take now is a step they started taking however long ago.
They met in the summer of 1994. He was looking for live bluegrass in Black Mountain; she was sitting at the bar, and he asked if he could borrow the entertainment section of the paper. He’d slept in a ditch with some buddies the night before, and she said they could camp that night on her parents’ land in Old Fort. “By the end of the summer,” Ann Marie says, “he eventually made it to the screened-in porch.”
They drifted through other versions of their lives until 2010, and came back together just as Ann Marie’s divorce was finalized. (“I spent years waiting to tell her how important that summer was,” Danny says.) Danny started making knives, and Ann Marie started making material for the handles — not just for Danny, but for multiple makers — and things took off from there.
Danny recalls a recent conversation with his mom: “Neither of you went to school for this,” she pointed out. “You didn’t apprentice. You just started doing it, and kept doing it, and both of you should be really proud of what you’ve done.”
They live just outside of Asheville, and they can’t make knives fast enough. They’d like to get a little farther out of town, to have “less house, more shop.” They don’t have cable; they watch movies and documentaries, read a lot in the winter. “We don’t really do ‘dinner at 7,’” Ann Marie says. Danny chimes in, “When we’re not working, when we’re doing our thing, we spend a lot of time on the river.” They’re wholehearted: about each other, about the work, about pretty much everything.
After they got the call about winning a Made in NC award — in the car, on the way home from another show — Ann Marie was quiet. “What are you doing?” Danny asked her. “Just sitting at this red light,” she joked, “feeling famous.” Danny’s feeling grateful, he adds, and busy, already making plans for scaling up the business somehow, some way. He’s got to get back out to the shop, he says, even on a Sunday afternoon. You know how it is.
I ask him how he knew how to do it those first few times, how he knows, even now, how to shape something new from something old.
“That part’s easy,” he says. “I’m gonna grind away anything that doesn’t look like a knife.” — Drew Perry
Salem Wood Co. — Winston-Salem
Modern Walnut & Maple Coffee Table
In his light-filled studio, Donny Hinds is plugging away, splitting, smoothing, and sanding locally harvested wood into a mid-century modern-style tabletop. The slight bends in the wood joinery, a blend of maple and walnut, are so intricate that it takes a keen eye to tell where one piece of wood ends and another begins. “I wanted something a little softer on the edges,” Hinds says, “kind of like a surfboard versus a traditional rectangle or square tabletop.” His passion for creating furniture began in junior high school, when he wanted to build a simple wood shelf to hang over his bed. A friend of his — a retired police officer who served as his boyhood mentor before passing away — helped teach him the basics. Later, after making pieces for friends and family, Hinds took a leap of faith and started Salem Wood Co. out of his home shop in 2021. “My goal in everything I make is for it to be durable, functional, and beautiful wherever it’s displayed,” he says. And the friend who influenced his love of the craft is never far from mind: “I think the things that I do and how far my work has come would make him proud.” — Tamiya Anderson
Native Spun — Burlington
All it took to persuade Gina B. Wicker to switch from a corporate career in textiles to handweaving luxurious fibers was a little inspiration and a lifetime love that began as a child growing up in Cooleemee. “My mom’s entire family were tenant farmers in our little mill town,” she says. “Growing up with that lifelong connection to textiles is what started my passion and landed me where I am today.” In 2019, she bought weaving equipment from a defunct textile company and moved it to a small studio space in Burlington. There, she meticulously weaves textiles using a mix of organic, reclaimed, and sustainably produced fibers and yarns. Items in her Loop Throw collection — made to order in neutral color combinations named Putty, Nature, Golddust, and Speckle — are accented by a loopy cotton bouclé yarn for beauty and for texture as cozy as a sweater. “I love how a very simple change in color can take this pattern in a totally different direction,” Wicker says. “With Speckle, black cotton yarn is incorporated in the bouclé, so it adds these little flecks of black that create a salt-and-pepper look. The subtle chevron accents stand out when we use a different color like Golddust.” Since opening Native Spun, Wicker has continued to be inspired by the rich artistic culture for which the North Carolina textile industry is known and loved. — Tamiya Anderson