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Coverlets, Dated and Otherwise

A LONG WITH patchwork quilts, the weaving of coverlets started in America in the eighteenth century. Weaving such coverlets was originally just another of the endless number of household tasks that housewives undertook as part of their workaday activities. The chief materials were home grown. From the field of flax came the undyed linen yarn used for the warp to form the white background of the coverlet pattern as it was woven on an overshot hand loom, The wool was sheared from the family's flock of sheep, then cleansed, carded, and spun on a wheel into the yarn. But before the actual work of weaving, this wool had to be dyed the desired color. This was also home-done in large kettles outdoors. Indigo was used for blue, madder and a variety of leaves and tree barks for the other colors.

The overshot loom was a cumbersome affair with timber frames about as large as four-poster bed. Sometimes it stood in the corner of a large livingroom-kitchen of the farmhouse. In a more elaborate household, there might be a special weaving room in the attic or over a shed. Weaving of coverlets persisted until just a few years ago in the cabins of many southern mountaineers. On such looms were woven the simple geometric patterns known as "Queen's Fancy," "Braddock's Defeat," and "Morning Star." Many such patterns continued in favor for well over a century.

As demand for more elaborate patterns manifested itself, the itinerant weaver appeared on the American scene. These traveling weavers were well established by the outbreak of the American Revolution. Often they had learned their trade in England or on the Continent before migrating to America. Skilled workers, they wove the more elaborate double-weave coverlets that were done in such geometric patterns as "Irish Chain" and "Wheel of Fortune."

The final step in coverlet weaving came with the Jacquard loom, about 1820. Invented by the Frenchman whose name it bears, this loom made it possible to weave coverlets with floral, leaf, bird, and other intricate patterns. As far as is known, some of the first weavers to use Jacquard looms worked in New York State. One of the best known was Archibald Davidson of Ithaca. He generally wove his name in the border so his coverlets are easy to identify.

Another weaver was Elijah Northrup of Roanoke, New York. A typical Northrup design was a conventionalized center of repeated floral and leafage motifs while the border combines such patriotic details as Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the spread eagle from the coat of arms of the United States. Northrup sometimes, as here, added Masonic emblems, such as the square and compass and twin columns. He usually wove the name of the person for whom the coverlet had been made and the date in the corners. Sometimes he wove a patriotic slogan in the corners and then repeated the name of the owner four times on either end.

This particular Northrup coverlet was done in blue and white. In addition to the characteristic border, he added the following slogan in the four corners: "Agriculture & Manufactures Are the Foundation of Our Independence, July 4, 1826, General Lafayette." This celebrates Lafayette's visit to America in that year. According to his usual custom, Northrup also wove the owner's name, E. Washburn, four times on either end.

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