Thursday, November 19, 2015

Made in New York: Figured and Fancy Coverlets

Our final stop on our tour of items made in New York takes us to the central region of the state, where four so-called “figured and fancy” woven coverlets were made. These bed coverings, with their elaborate patterns of flowers, birds, and patriotic motifs, were the work of professional weavers active in the 1830s and 1840s. 

Weaving on a Jacquard loom
Throughout the 18th century, women had woven coverlets of cotton and wool in geometric patterns on basic four-harness looms like the one in the Alice’s collection. Fancy coverlets, however, required more sophisticated weaving technology and were almost always made by men (only two female professional weavers have been identified). Looms were equipped with Jacquard attachments or other devices that allowed the weaver to produce complex patterns using punched cards. Most of these coverlets were double-woven—that is, they were made of two layers of cloth woven simultaneously and only connected at the points where the surfaces interchange to form the pattern. This creates a textile that is both extra-warm and reversible.

Most figured and fancy coverlets were made in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states from the 1820s through the 1850s. By that time, mechanized textile production was in full swing in New England, so hand weavers moved westward where they could still find a market for carpets, coverlets, and other figured textiles. Many of these men were first- or second-generation immigrants from Germany, England, Ireland, Scotland, or France, and they moved frequently within the U.S. in search of new customers. Weavers advertised in their local papers, and the coverlets themselves—marked with the name of the weaver, location, and date—were their own form of advertising.

Coverlet by Jacob Impson, Cortland Village NY, 1835
The earliest dated coverlet in the collection is one made by Jacob Impson in 1835. This red and white coverlet features floral medallions and a border of grapevines. Impson marked the corners of the coverlet with his name, the date, the location—Cortland Village—and the name of the pattern, which he called “Lady’s Fancy.” Impson is also the maker of a second piece in the collection, this one a blue-and-white coverlet from 1841. It also features floral motifs and has added a patriotic border of eagles. Jacob Impson was born ca. 1802 and seems to have started his career as a weaver around 1824 in Ludlowville, which is north of Ithaca on Cayuga Lake. In that year, he advertised in the Ithaca Journal that he had opened a shop at the home of John Goodrich, “where all kinds of work in his line will be done on the shortest notice and cheap, very cheap, for cash.” He later worked in Cortland Village and West Cortlandville.

Coverlet by Archibald Davidson, Ithaca NY, 1848
Also working in Ithaca was Archibald Davidson, who was born in Scotland in 1771. Davidson advertised in the early 1830s in the Ithaca Journal and Daily Advertiser that he could weave coverlets equal to any of those produced in “Europe or America,” and furthermore informed his clients that he had “gone to great expense to procure a patent loom.” Davidson marked his coverlets as the products of the “Ithaca Carpet Factory,” but he and perhaps his sons and an apprentice were the only employees of the “factory.” Sometime in the 1850s, he left Ithaca for Warsaw, New York. Davidson’s coverlet, made in 1848, incorporates two different border patterns: a leaping stag and tree, and eagles with a building that looks like the Capitol dome but can’t be, as it predates that structure by many years.

Coverlet by Samuel Butterfield, New Hartford NY, 1837
The final coverlet is the work of Samuel Butterfield of New Hartford, near Utica. Born in England in 1792, Butterfield for a time partnered with James Cunningham. By the late 1830s he was in business for himself, and in 1837—the year that our coverlet was made—he advertised in the Utica Observer that he could make “Damask & Drapes, Table Cloths, Ingrain, Venetian and Rag Carpets, Coverlets, etc.” Butterfield seems to have been particularly fond of the figure of George Washington on horseback, because he always used it on the corners of his coverlets, along with the slogan “United We Stand Divided We Fall.” Like Impson and Davidson, he also incorporated patriotic eagles into his borders, but he added the phrase “Under This We Prosper.”

The Civil War effectively brought the hand-woven coverlet industry to an end. Many weavers joined the army or went into other occupations for the duration of the war. By the time the war was over, almost all weaving was being done in factories. In the early 20th century, these coverlets became popular again with collectors, as examples of pre-industrial craftsmanship. There was also a movement to revive the lost arts of hand-weaving—which we’ll look at in more detail in future posts.

Information on coverlets and weavers is drawn from Clarita S. Anderson, American Coverlets and Their Weavers: Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl. And if you happen to be in western Pennsylvania, you can visit the McCarls’ collection at Saint Vincent College.

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