How to Read a Coverlet
A reader, Carol Ruth, sent me pictures of an overshot coverlet that she inherited from her mother, and asked what I could tell her about it. Her pictures revealed a lot, and she has kindly given me permission to use them in this post.
First let me be clear that I am not an expert, just a very interested amateur. If anyone has any corrections to offer, I will be happy to hear them. 🙂
Studying the Coverlet
The first thing I noticed was that the coverlet had been woven in narrow panels, and then seamed together to make a wider blanket. Before the advent of power weaving, most looms were fairly narrow, because a weaver had to constantly be reaching left and right to throw and catch the shuttle; weaving went more quickly if the weaver could do that without stretching. So the narrow panels are a sign this coverlet was handwoven.
Another feature of this coverlet is the border. The weaver would have to plan it ahead of time to get the effect she wanted, and I think this one sets off the main pattern very nicely. I have four overshot coverlets in my own collection and none of them has a border.
As the weaving was proceeding, the side border would be on only one side. The weaver had to complete both panels, cut them from the loom, and rotate one. Once those two panels were stitched together, the border would appear on both sides. If a bottom border was intended, the weaver had to weave a border on the bottom of one panel and the top of the other, so that they would match up when one panel was rotated. Designing for a border would signify to me that this was a knowledgeable weaver.
At the area where the border goes into the main pattern, we see a little discrepancy. Maybe the weaver forgot where to start the block, or maybe this was the end of the weaving and she was running out of warp! Either way, we see evidence of the hand of the weaver. 🙂
The closest draft I have been able to find for this is Weaver Rose’s “Peonys and Roses in the Wilderness”, on page 79 of A Handweaver’s Source Book, by Marguerite Porter Davison, 1953.
We can see that the fringe was woven separately and attached, another little extra:
In overshot weaving, a thick pattern weft, usually of wool, “shoots over” several warp threads. The order in which the weaver places these rows of heavy weft builds up the conspicuous pattern. The pattern is reversed on the back of the coverlet.
These motifs have names, like table, rose, and star.
However, if only those heavy wefts were used, the cloth would fall apart. Another yarn, usually the same thin cotton or linen as the warp, is woven into the cloth in alternate rows or “shots” to give stability. So the weaver throws a shuttle with the heavy pattern yarn, then one with the thin yarn to weave the plain weave, also called “tabby.” If all the pattern wefts were removed, you would still have a viable cloth.
The colors most often seen in overshot coverlets are red and blue. Though it’s hard to see in the photos, Carol’s coverlet also has some dark green.
Can We Narrow Down the Date?
So! I had a good idea that this coverlet was handwoven, but was there a way to narrow down the possible dates of its making? Could the yarns used tell me anything?
From Carol’s photos, it looks like all of the wool pattern weft is plied. In the four overshot coverlets I have, all of the yarns are singles. I don’t know if plied yarn was common in hand-spinning, or if that is a clue that this is machine-spun yarn?
The white yarn used for the warp and the tabby weft looks like a single yarn to me, not plied, and it does have tiny variations as hand-spun does.
But is it possible that early machine-spun yarn was not that consistent?
This got me thinking.
In the late 1700s and the 1800s, there were technological changes to the many steps of textile manufacturing:
- growing or sourcing the fiber
- cleaning and carding the fiber
- spinning it into thread for warp and weft
- preparing the loom for weaving
It’s easy to find out when an innovation first occurred, but not easy to know where or how quickly those changes were adopted.
|1784||machine for bending wire for hand cards|
|1790||water-powered spinning for cotton|
|1793||water-powered carding machine for wool|
|1810||Merino sheep from Portugal brought to US to improve wool quality|
|1810||700+ carding mills in US*|
|1815||power weaving for cotton; coarse “gray goods” only at first|
|1820s||about 2/3 of national woolen production still spun and woven in homes*|
|1824||Jacquard loom first used in US|
|1830s||cotton use increases, flax use decreases|
|1840s||700+ textile mills in New England*|
*from A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England, by Paul E. Rivard
And, any individual weaver could choose to use a mix of cutting-edge or more traditional methods. They might purchase cotton, but raise their own sheep; have the wool machine-carded, but then spin it up at home; bring it to a professional dyer, and then weave it at home.
My Big Question
Were early machine-made threads even distinguishable from handmade ones? Were they consistently spun? Can you tell by the number of plies? Does any museum have some samples of early machine-made yarns for study?
Here are some of the books I consulted:
While hunting around online for answers to these questions, I stumbled across a match to Carol’s coverlet!
Here is hers again:
And here is one from the Winterthur Museum!
It’s the same pattern draft, but with a different, very lovely, border!
The panels are matched very well, but in the small red diamonds in the very center, you can just detect a slight adjustment, so this one looks to be two narrow panels joined as well.
I also came across this lovely textile fragment, which has a very similar pattern. It is resist-dyed to mimic overshot weaving, BUT the printer cleverly showed both sides of the weave at the same time.
After searching numerous books and websites, the only information I could find about determining hand- from machine-spun yarn was in The Shuttlecraft Book of American Hand-weaving by Mary Meigs Atwater:
The first spinning-machines made an inferior thread that could be used for weft but was too soft for warp. Even so, the saving in labor was very great. (p.11)
In judging the age of an old coverlet more is to be learned by a study of warp and tabby threads than will appear from examination of the pattern yarn. Though a good deal of hand-spinning was done for many years after the first introduction of spinning machinery, a coverlet with a hand-spun cotton warp and tabby is probably well over a hundred years old [note: again, this was published in 1928]. Certainly one with a machine-spun warp was made later than 1800. Machine-spun thread is distinguished from hand-spun, of course, chiefly by the evenness and regularity of the twist. (p. 52)
So although I didn’t find any more information on date clues to look for, I was affirmed in my impressions of hand- and machine-spun yarn.
From Kax Wilson’s book, A History of Textiles, I learned:
American coverlets were at a peak of popularity in the 1840s. Great numbers were made by the thousands of handweavers who came to the United States in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In England, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany they had been trained for an occupation that was rapidly becoming extinct, so they bought small acreages in New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, or Indiana where they could farm and weave…Coverlets were much in vogue in country areas, and the fad went west with the population; women needed warm and attractive bed covers, and coverlets could be made relatively inexpensively from homegrown wool… (p. 262)
Handweaving of coverlets ended with the Civil War. Many weavers joined the army or were quite old at that time. Attention was given to more necessary weaving, and demand died. There was a brief revival for the American centennial in 1876, but the machine loomed coverlets with their commemorative designs were of poor quality, lightweight, and the colors were not fast. (pp.263, 264)
Leaving Carol’s coverlet for a moment, I wanted to share a few others from the Winterthur collection.
This one is very important, because the date 1773 is woven into it, making it one of the oldest still extant.
I really wanted to include this next one, because it is a great example of a traditional coverlet. I have one in the same pattern, which I know as Double Chariot Wheels, and I have even woven a very small version of it myself.
“Overshot” is just one category of coverlet. I have written about two in my collection, a Spider Web I bought in Texas, and a Pine Bloom I bought in Washington State. There are also other types — I have a damaged-but-still-beautiful Jacquard coverlet, and I once saw a very mistreated summer-and-winter coverlet that its owner, an antique dealer, would not let me rescue! There are also doublewoven coverlets but sadly, I don’t own any of those. 😦
In all of my searching, a very helpful book was A New Order of Things: How the Textile Industry Transformed New England, by Paul E. Rivard. It differentiates between the cotton, linen, and wool industries, and is heavily illustrated.
If you would like to see more coverlets, Winterthur has about 70 more available online.
This site focusing on Pennsylvania history has three collections on one page (you will have to put in the search term “coverlet”): https://goschenhoppen.org/textile-collection-online-catalog/
And of course the Smithsonian has a great coverlet collection: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/object-groups/national-woven-coverlet-collection
And thank you!
I would like to thank Carol Ruth for sharing her coverlet with me. It was so much fun to go to my inbox and see new photos!
And I would also like to thank the Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library, for allowing me to use these images.
This was a fascinating read! It is amazing how much work and technical skill went into making the coverlets.
That is true, there were so many aspects a person had to excel at! Thanks, Tierney!
Wow, Gwen. You did a great job explaining this.
Thanks, Andrea. Every now and then I succumb to doing a very lengthy post! 🙂
Great deep dive into woven coverlets. Now I understand tabby weave more.
And tabby weave is exactly like the paper placemats we used to do in grade school. 🙂
Wow, what a piece of scholarship. Serious research, serious information. Bravo!
I’m always amazed at what information is NOT out there anywhere, at least anywhere that I can find it. I just need some historic yarn samples, is that so much to ask?? 🙂
That is some impressive research on your part! And I enjoyed seeing the coverlets. Thanks!
Thanks, Mary! I always enjoy the research; it’s just hard to come up for air and write down what I have found! 🙂
Thank you for that wonderful ‘read’. coverlets are what first got me into weaving although I have never woven one. Went straight to flax/linen. Funny how that goes.
What?!! Susan, I am pretty sure you never mentioned weaving linen to me! Will you please do a guest post so I can learn more??
I found this post extremely interesting. You really are fantastic at researching and describing antique artifacts. There is a whole history of crafting here that I was entirely unaware of and you have really brought t to life 🙂
Thank you so much, Janine! I am so glad to spark interest in this craft!