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It's All About the Pattern
by Bob Brooke


 

Today, museum gift shops often display and sell woven coverlets. But back in the early 19th century, they were a necessity to help keep people warm as they slept by the cool heat of a steeped fire. Sometimes called coverlids, they differed from a bedspread which extended to the floor by only covering the top and sides of the bed.

The variety of coverlets that have been produced since then is astonishing. And the patterns produced were like no other types of weaving. Individuals wove one-of-a-kind coverlets as gifts for family members or in preparation for housekeeping or to celebrate an important event.

Coverlets originated in Europe. Early ones, woven on a four-harness type loom, didn’t have complex patterns like those made in the mid 19th century in the United States. The invention of the “Jacquard” loom attachment made their unique designs possible.

Household weavers, usually women, produced these decorative and warm bed covers. They created simple but visually exciting geometric overshot coverlets. The term overshot comes from the technique in which horizontal or weft yarns skipped or overshot three or more vertical or warp yards at a time. This resulted in a loosely woven appearance. Most weavers used a narrow four-harness loom to weave their coverlets, then sewed two halves together to form one large enough to cover a bed.

They made many of their coverlets in vibrant colors, such as red and blue, a popular color combination. They dyed the wool red with madder root and blue by dyeing with indigo. Green was an uncommon color. Synthetic dyes, however, weren’t available until after the Civil War.

Complex, figural designs were more difficult to produce alone on the same loom. That changed in 1806 when Joseph Marie Jacquard of France invented a mechanical attachment that could be attached to most looms by professional male weavers. A series of punched cards guided the raising and lowering of the warp threads to form complex designs over a greater number of harnesses. Repeated motifs could be endlessly varied and re-combined. Floral designs, birds, simple buildings and stars were common, with a central section usually framed by a border along the top, sides, and bottom. Many Jacquard coverlet weavers "signed" and dated their textiles on the decorative corner blocks at the bottom corners.

Traveling weavers made 90 percent of the Jacquard coverlets produced in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana.

The Jacquard attachment first appeared in America in the early 1820s, probably when one of the many German, English and French hand weavers brought it with them when they immigrated from their native countries in Europe. These immigrant weavers tended to settle in areas with populations of their own ethnic group and near sources of good quality wool. Many brought some type of Jacquard attachment or at least the experience to use one. Some even developed their own devices based on Jacquard's idea and patented them in the U.S.

The earliest American Jacquard coverlets appeared in New York and Pennsylvania around the same time. As weavers saturated the market in the Eastern states, and weaving became more mechanized and moved into a factory setting, many weavers moved westward into Ohio and Indiana, and eventually to Illinois, looking for new markets as well as farmland. Raw wool and commercially spun yarns as well as natural and synthetic dyestuffs needed for weaving could easily be obtained throughout the state. The weavers settled in or near agrarian communities among people of shared backgrounds and familiar with folk motifs and designs used in coverlets, primarily those from Germany, France and England. The weavers made lasting contributions to the communities in which they settled, opening businesses and promoting weaving; perhaps most importantly, they brought a touch of color and technical design to an expanding 19th-century population on the western frontier.

The designs of most Illinois coverlets can be traced back to Ohio and Pennsylvania coverlets. The center field patterns were either a large, repeated symmetrical motif on two-piece ones or a centered medallion on single-width coverlets. Floral motifs appeared most frequently, in the Four Lilies and Sun-burst, Four Roses, Octagonal Four Roses, Four Leaves and Four Acorns, and Four Bellflowers patterns. Star and Sunburst designs were also common.

Illinois represents the most western production area of these fancy and figured coverlets in America. Only a very small number were woven in Missouri, Iowa and Kansas. John Seewald in St. Clair County near the Mississippi River and St. Louis, Missouri, wove the earliest dated surviving coverlet from Illinois in 1841. The majority of Illinois examples date from the 1850s with a number woven by three weavers in the late 1860s and 1870s. The second greatest concentration of coverlet weavers occurred in central Illinois, centered around Peoria County, where six of the weavers were active between 1846 and about 1870, producing 42 of 130 known surviving coverlets.

Illinois Jacquard coverlets, like their Pennsylvania counterparts, had borders along each side and the bottom. Popular traditional Germanic motifs include the distelfink, or thistle finch, and Grapevine. A corner block or name line identifies the weaver, his location, and usually the year of production.

Typically, weavers produced cotton coverlets for weddings and births. Most young women made wedding or bride coverlets or blankets for their hope chest. Starting around 1825, major towns had a resident weaver whose job it was to make blankets and accept work on commission. The weaver may have had an apprentice and the weaver’s loom was the site of his/her business dealings. Coverlets were double woven and produced with wool and imported indigo blue and madder red or brown dyes. A traditional early 19th-century woven coverlet would cost between $5 and $15.

These woven items were often made of cotton and wool, and in many instances people would bring their request for a coverlet to a local weaver to be constructed. Coverlets were much more commonplace than quilts from about 1823 to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

In America, the practice of making coverlets using Jacquard looms began to fade during the fourth quarter of the 19th century. The import of cheaper materials into the U.S. became a difficult hurdle for weavers to overcome.

Though few Jacquard looms still exist today, one family in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, still uses refurbished Jacquard looms to turn out a variety of coverlets and other woven articles and rugs from their business, Family Heirloom Weavers.

Some of the best ways to identify the origin of a Jacquard coverlet is to just read the name, location, and date that the coverlet was made directly on the piece itself. The evidence of blood, typically from a horse or a wounded soldier, helps to authenticate the age of many of these woven blankets. Jacquard coverlets were used by families when taking long journeys on a horse drawn carriage or stage coaches and on the battlefield or in private homes. The market value for high quality Jacquard coverlets made in America range from the several hundreds of dollars to the several thousands of dollars depending on pattern, intricate details, provenance or family origin, and condition.

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