Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Revival of Weaving in the 20th Century

In the same year that the Alice T. Miner Museum opened its doors, a new organization was founded in Chicago by a group of women interested in the study and collection of woven coverlets. While Alice herself doesn’t seem to have been a guild member, she knew at least one of its organizers: Georgiana Long Gunsaulus, the widow of Frank W. Gunsaulus, who shared with her late husband and with Alice an interest in collecting and preserving examples of early textile art.

The founding of the Coverlet Guild in 1924 was perhaps the logical outcome of an interest in the art and history of weaving that had been developing since the early 1900s, and which intersected with a number of other contemporary movements. Alice’s coverlet collection might be seen as an outgrowth of her interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement (evident in the scrapbook articles she saved from the 1890s) as well as her connections to the Colonial Revival. It also brought her into contact with individuals who were attempting to revive or preserve weaving in Appalachia in an effort to “uplift” mountain women—a project that was itself influenced by the Progressive movement and the settlement houses of Chicago.

Tools of textile production on display
at the Hull-House Labor Museum
Proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, the Appalachian craft revival, and Progressivism all believed in the ability of handicraft to improve people’s lives. Handwork provided a creative outlet and a vehicle for self-expression; it could be a way to counteract the homogenizing forces of industrialization and mass production; and on a more practical level, it might provide income for people (women, especially) whose economic opportunities were limited. Many different crafts were promoted (metalwork, pottery, bookbinding), but weaving was especially beloved by all three groups. It was fairly easy to learn and produced useful goods; it had connections to early American history but also was an important part of many of the cultures from which immigrants came; and it was a craft traditionally performed by women in their own homes.

In his 1904 report for the Bureau of Labor, “The Revival of Handicrafts in America,” Max West recorded the activities of dozens of organizations dedicated to reviving hand weaving (mostly in the southern mountains) and rug making (in New England). All were founded by educated, middle- to upper-class women (many of whom had spent time at Hull House or another settlement house) who came to rural communities and worked with local women to revive their craft traditions. 

Women preparing to warp a loom using traditional
methods, North Carolina, ca. 1910
The Appalachian region was the obvious target for this kind of reform work. Communities tended to be economically depressed and isolated, and life was considered especially hard for women, who lived largely without modern conveniences. But because these areas had been “left behind” in the race toward modernization (as reformers saw it) textile production and other handicrafts had never died out completely. There were still plenty of women in the Appalachian south who knew how to spin and weave, using knowledge and patterns that had been passed down from the early nineteenth century.

Blue Mountain Room, White House
Already in 1904, West reported, “There is a constant and apparently increasing demand for hand-woven fabrics, notwithstanding their expensiveness as compared with factory-made goods. Aside from the popularity of old-fashioned blue-and-white coverlets for decorative purposes, handmade linsey-woolsey and cottonades are coming into vogue for outing and golf skirts, and even to some extent for men’s clothing; and there is also a growing demand for hand-woven linen and other cloth to serve as the backgrounds for art embroidery, etc.” The Appalachian weaving revival got an important boost in 1913, when first lady Ellen Wilson redecorated the White House’s Blue Mountain Room using traditional textiles made by Emelda McHargue Walker, a Tennessee weaver who worked with Allanstand Industries, one of the major weaving centers in North Carolina.

Allanstand Industries product display, 1910s
Women living in rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains were receptive to the idea of producing coverlets and other textiles as a source of income. It was something that many of them already knew how to do, the materials were readily available, and the products could be shipped inexpensively. Perhaps most importantly, it was work they could do at home and was compatible with childrearing and other household duties. Whether women felt the kind of creative satisfaction that proponents of handicraft assumed they would is another story. Most of the time, weavers did not get to decide what they made. They were given patterns and materials by the managers of weaving centers, who designed products that would appeal to middle-class consumers. Weavers felt pride in their technical skills and doing a job well, but it was not necessarily an uplifting, aesthetic experience. Still, in a region where currency was in short supply, weaving provided a reliable source of cash income. 

The founders and managers of weaving centers also hoped that their work would preserve the traditions of weaving. However, the pattens, tools, and materials they used were modern ones, suited for the production of large quantities of textiles for sale in urban markets. Over time, weaving centers tended to shift production from coverlets and other large items to smaller pieces like towels and placemats that required less time and skill. But women did keep weaving (indeed, the Allanstand Craft Shop is still in operation), and the craft centers do seem to have encouraged a greater appreciation for antique textiles, which helped to preserve them and led to the creation of groups like the Colonial Coverlet Guild.

So where do Alice Miner and her coverlet collection fit into this story? We’ll get to that in the next post, when a visitor from the Kentucky mountains pays a visit to the North Country.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gems from the Age of Homespun: Woven Coverlets and Their Makers

“Wheel of Fortune” coverlet from the
collection of the Metropolitan Museum
The term “homespun” encompasses many different kinds of fabric. When Martha Ballard wrote about of the cloth produced in her household, she sometimes recorded the kind of fiber used (cotton, linen, tow, wool, or a combination) and sometimes the pattern produced, like “check” or “diaper” (a fabric with a small, all-over pattern). Sometimes she noted what the fabric would be used for—handkerchiefs, shirts, towels—and sometimes who it was for (“Cyrus’s web”). It was rare for Martha to include all this information in a single entry. One occasion on which she did was November 21, 1792, when she noted, “Hannah wove a Bed Blankitt for her Self, Tow & wool.”

Hannah had been married on October 28 to Moses Pollard (brother of Dorcas, who had helped her learn to weave) but she was still living with her parents and continuing to produce the goods she would need in her new home. Between the end of October and December 12, when she and Moses officially “went into housekeeping,” Hannah made a quilt, the aforementioned blanket, and at least two “coverleds.” These bed coverings served a practical purpose, of course, but they also would provide an extra degree of comfort and beauty in the Pollard home, while demonstrating Hannah’s skill at the loom.

Detail of a woven coverlet
It was these woven bed coverings—variously called coverlets, coverlids, and “kivers”—that captured the imagination of collectors in the early 20th century. Unlike humble towels, sheets, and handkerchiefs, coverlets were likely to be treasured, preserved, and passed down through the generations. They used simple color combinations (usually white and indigo blue) and geometric patterns to produce striking effects that appealed to Americans who were tired of the ornate furnishings of the Victorian era. To many collectors, the coverlets were true works of art that demonstrated the innate aesthetic sense of early American women. They also served as tangible symbols of the industry and thrift associated with the “age of homespun.”

Overshot weave structure
Coverlets were made on the same four-harness loom that was used to produce other kinds of cloth. As I noted in the last blog post, in its most basic form weaving involves only two sets of elements—the warp and the weft. In plain weaving, the weft yarn goes over one warp yarn, then under the next, and so on. In float weaves, there are also two sets of elements, but the weft goes over or under more than one warp. (Twill and satin are examples of float weaves.) Coverlets use a type of weave called overshot, which also uses floats but adds a third set of yarns to create a compound weave. There is a warp and weft of white cotton or linen and then a supplementary weft of colored wool, which “floats” over and under the warp to create the pattern. Since the width of a loom was limited to the span of the weaver’s arms, coverlets were woven in two halves and then sewn together down the middle.

Example of a weaving draft
Weavers shared overshot coverlet patterns with friends and family as drafts, a form of notation that recorded the way that threads were to be put through the heddles of the harnesses and the sequence of the treadles that controlled the harnesses. Drafts bear a certain resemblance to musical notation, with four horizontal lines representing the harnesses and numbers or other marks representing the threads. Each weaver had her own way of recording drafts which can seem quite mysterious to non-weavers. Like quilters, weavers also gave their coverlets fanciful names—Broken Snowballs, Lafayette’s Fancy, Wandering Vine—which varied by region. In a world of mass-produced goods, the individuality of coverlets and their makers was part of their charm to collectors.

The earliest American woven coverlet that can be definitively dated is from 1771, and women continued to make them into the 19th century, though by the 1820s professional weavers were also making more elaborate jacquard coverlets. As families moved west from New England into New York, Ohio, Indiana, and beyond, they brought the tradition of weaving coverlets with them. In certain parts of the south, particularly the mountain regions of Kentucky and Tennessee, domestic textile production remained an important part of the local economy well into the 1900s. In our next posts, we’ll look at early collectors of coverlets and their relationship with the movement to preserve hand weaving in Appalachia.