Historic American Coverlets

On my recent trip to the United States I discovered a part of the history of American textiles previously not known to me – historic American coverlets. My dear friend Nancy Hudson, senior pastor at Oasis of Love Church in Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, took me to Bedford. Bedford was founded in 1758 and its beauty and history attract visitors from around the country. Also in Bedford The National Museum of the American Coverlet is located.

The Museum is housed in the former Common School building that was built in 1859. The building retains many of its original features and is of the same period as the coverlets- perfect match!

The Museum of the American Coverlet focuses on antique American woven coverlets dated in the range from 1771 to 1889.

Coverlets are woven bedcovers, used as the topmost covering on a bed. They were hand woven and at the Museum we learned their amazing story told by Mr. Laszlo Zongor. We were impressed by his knowledge, his passion for coverlets and his ability to make their story so interesting.

Me and Mr. Laszlo Zongor

From Mr. Laszlo we learned that woven coverlets were popular in many states during the early-to-mid nineteenth century (1800s) when quilting was not very popular yet.

The two main types are called geometric and figured and fancy.

Geometric coverlets were woven by both women and men. The pattern motifs in geometrics were based on circles and squares because the loom allowed threads to go only in two directions- vertical and horizontal. These coverlets were not very expensive.

Geometric designs I am familiar with, they were ones that women in Lithuania used. I was much more impressed with figured and fancy designs and the bright colors that didn’t fade through the years.

The patterns in figured and fancy coverlets are curvilinear and realistic and can include floral, animal, architectural and other motifs. These are the coverlets that most often contain inscriptions of the weaver’s name, his location, the year it was made etc. They were mostly woven by men using a new type of loom.

Weaving figured and fancy coverlets became possible after jacquard machine was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1804. The loom was controlled by a number of punched cards with one complete card corresponding to one row of the design. These machines were very expensive and coverlets woven on these machines were very expensive as well. From Mr. Laszlo we also learned the the principle of punch cards invented by Jacquard is considered an important step in the history of computing hardware.

Punch cards
Jacquard head, punch card reader

These are some amazing designs from the museum coverlet collection:

Made in Ohio in 1848
Shippensburg, 1849
Still bright red

Coverlets in use:

The museum also has an interesting exposition of different looms and tools used to process flax and wool:

Narrow loom for producing geometric designs
Loom for rug making

Coverlet making came to a fairly abrupt halt with the onset of the Civil War in1861. After the war, styles changed and the U.S. industrial revolution led to economical factory woven blankets that replaced more expensive hand woven coverlets. Also cheap cotton fabrics entered the market and quilts made from scraps, used clothes, flour sacks replaced coverlets.

I would like to thank Mr. Laszlo and his wife Melinda for their passion for this part of American textile history and for the most amazing story told. It sure added a new chapter to my interest in textiles.

Comments

  1. Diane McKee says

    Very interesting history, and from my home state of Pennsylvania! Thank-you for sharing. The next time I am in Bedford, I must visit this museum.

  2. Linda Sanders says

    Fascinating! I have always appreciated the work that goes into coverlets. So interesting to see the different looms held there! Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Nancy Hudson says

    Maryte,
    It was great to visit this amazing place again with you! I am fascinated by weaving! Nancy

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