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

An overshot 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.

In weaving, the warp threads are placed on the loom first, and then the weft shots are placed one at a time, left to right, then back from right to left. The panels have come apart here where they were originally stitched together along a selvedge.

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.

Adding a border took knowledge and planning.

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.  🙂

These two blocks don’t quite match up.

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:

Fringe of plied wool was woven separately and sewn on.

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.

The front, with a blue table and pink roses.

The reverse, with a white table and white roses.

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.

Here the pattern threads have worn away, but the plain weave fabric remains intact. (From one of my coverlets.)

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?

A close-up of the threads — plied wool and singles cotton?

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.

From my own collection — handspun singles in warp and weft, with lots of variation in diameter and twist.

Also from my collection — very consistent, 2 ply yarns in warp and weft, that I take to be machine-spun.

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
  • dyeing
  • preparing the loom for weaving
  • 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 cotton gin
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*
Dates of textile innovations in America
*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:


A stack of books for research.

Museum publications about textiles.

While hunting around online for answers to these questions, I stumbled across a match to Carol’s coverlet!

Here is hers again:

An overshot coverlet.

And here is one from the Winterthur Museum

Bedcover (Coverlet) by unknown maker. Pennsylvania, United States, 1820 – 1850. Wool and Cotton. “Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library”. Used by permission. Source

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.

Textile fragment (Coverlet fragment) by unknown maker. Early nineteenth century. “Gift of Linda Eaton, Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library”. Used by permission. Source

Here I edited images from both sides of the coverlet to show how the printer combined motifs that would normally be on opposite surfaces.

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)

Other Coverlets

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.

Bedcover (Coverlet) by unknown maker. New York, United States, 1773. Wool and Linen. “Museum purchase, Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library”. Used by permission. Source

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.

Bedcover (Coverlet) by unknown maker. New York, United States, early nineteenth century. “Gift of Kathleen Ramer Bourne for Miss Margaret Sturr, Courtesy of Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library”. Used by permission. Source.

“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. 😦

More Resources

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”):

And of course the Smithsonian has a great 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.