What You Always Wanted to Know about Coverlets but Were Afraid to Ask

By Trish Herr
Click on any image to enlarge it.

Figure 1. Mid 19th c. Pennsylvania German Bed and Bedstead, the Heritage Center Museum of Lancaster County, bed arranged by consultant Alan Keyser.

The term coverlet can mean many things to many people. A simple overview of basic coverlet forms is helpful when one views this category of American handwoven textiles in museums, private collections, antiques shows, shops and on the web. These bedcoverings were made in the 18th through late 19th centuries, primarily on the east coast extending from New England south through the middle Atlantic states and in the mid-west throughout Ohio and Indiana. That is not to say there were no coverlets made in other parts of the country, but the majority of surviving pieces made in the United States originated in these areas. An example of a handwoven coverlet as it might have appeared on a fully dressed bed and bedstead in a mid-19th c. Pennsylvania German home is seen in Figure 1.

In New England and some areas of the southern states women worked on looms within their own homes making pieces for family use. But the majority of handwoven coverlets were made by highly trained professional men weavers.  These men would have trained or apprenticed, as young men, to a skilled weaver before setting up business in their own shops.

Figure 2. Plain Weave Wool Blanket, early 19th c., southeastern, Pa.

Figure 3. Detail of Blanket

An example of a plain weave blanket is illustrated in figures 2 and 3. Because it is a simple weave structure of over one thread and under another with no border pattern, most people would consider this a blanket and not a coverlet.

Figure 4. Float Work or Overshot Coverlet, wool and cotton, NY or New England, early 19th c., photo courtesy of Sharon Pittinger.

Figure 5. Detail of Float Work or Overshot Coverlet.

A slightly more complex weave is the floatwork or overshot coverlet seen in figures 4 and 5. This example does not have a discernible border pattern either.  But, because of the more intricate weave, it would be considered, by most collectors, to be a coverlet. Both of these bedcoverings are made from a length of cloth that was woven in one long narrow piece, cut across the width to make two equal lengths, and sewn together with a center seam to make a wide enough textile to cover a bed.

Figure 6. Pennsylvania German Loom, 19th c., photo courtesy of the Heritage Center of Lancaster County County.

Later in the 19th century wider looms became more popular and weavers were making one-piece bedcoverings with no seam. Either one of these examples could have been woven by a woman working in her own home or a professional weaver in his own shop. Because of the width of the material needed to make coverlets they would have been woven on large room-sized looms similar to the example seen in figure 6.

Figure 7. Geometric Complex Weave Coverlet, wool and cotton, c. 1835, southeastern, Pa.

Figure 8. Detail of Geometric Complex Weave Coverlet.

The coverlet pictured in figures 7 and 8 is a more complex weave and would have required a printed or hand drawn pattern to guide the highly trained professional weaver to create this on his loom. Because of the size and weight of the equipment it would not have been practical for a professional weaver to travel from house to house to make these products. Thus the cherished old concept of the itinerant weaver going from home to home in colonial America is truly a myth!

 

Figure 9. Figured and Fancy Weave or Jacquard Patterned Doublewoven Coverlet, wool and cotton, southern Lancaster or Chester County, Pa.

Figure 10. Detail of Figured and Fancy Weave or Jacquard Patterned Doublewoven Coverlet.

The other major type of coverlet we see in this country is the Figured and Fancy Weave, otherwise known as the Jacquard patterned coverlet. An example of this type of coverlet is shown in figures 9 and 10. Historians named this complex weave after Frenchman Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834). In the early 19th century he perfected a loom attachment that made complex patterning possible. There is still ongoing research surrounding other inventions and loom attachments developed during this period of time that could also create similar complex weaving patterns. Prior to the invention of such patterning devices the intricate weave structures used in the exquisite court costumes of Europe were made by professional weavers directing many workers, usually young boys, to manipulate threads on their large drawlooms.  In fact, the introduction of these advanced patterning devices in Europe and the United States in the early 19th century heralded the coming of a new industrialized society.

 

Figure 11. Loom with Jacquard Head, 19th c., collection of Ken Colwell, Mineral Point, WI, photo courtesy of Janet Crosson.

Figure 12. Detail of Jacquard Head, collection of Ken Colwell, Mineral Point, WI, photo courtesy of Janet Crosson.

 

A loom with an attached Jacquard head is pictured in figure 11. A closer view of another, more complex Jacquard head is seen in figure 12. A single weaver could set up and operate this loom in his own small shop.  In the rural areas of 19th century America these weavers were located in small communities throughout the countryside, most highly concentrated in the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and west through Ohio and Indiana.

 

Figure 13. Figured and Fancy Weave or Jacquard Patterned Coverlet, woven by Martin Hoke, York, Pa. in 1843 for E. Laucks, wool and cotton.

Figure 14. Figured and Fancy Weave or Jacquard Patterned Coverlet, woven in Lansing, NY by George Deterich (Detterich).

These coverlets have become particularly collectible as many have interesting border and central motifs and fully developed corner blocks  in which the weaver could include his name, location, client, and date of manufacture. Figures 13 and 14 show more examples of these Jacquard patterned bedcovers. The purchaser would have paid an extra fee to have this specific information recorded on his or her coverlet.  If the woman of the household brought along wool that she had prepared at home, the weaver would charge her less than if he provided the materials. Often the weaver was also a dyer and had the equipment, expertise, dye recipes, and pattern books to create the innovative colors and patterns in the bedcoverings demanded by his clients.

 

Some sources for further information on handwoven coverlets are:

Anderson, Clarita S., American Coverlets and Their Weavers, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, 2002.
Burnham, Harold B, and Burnham, Dorothy K., ‘Keep Me Warm One Night,’ University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 1972.
Heisey, John W., A Checklist of American Coverlet Weavers, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, 1978.
Shein, Joseph D., and Zongor, Melinda, Coverlets in the Spirit of America. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. Atglen, Pa., 2002.