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.

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