Old Woven Coverlets
( Originally Published 1919 )
Today I have been very happy, and what do you think I have been doing? Mending an old coverlet; a coverlet woven, it is said, before this country of ours was a nation, and bearing out tradition by its linen warp overshot with blue and red wools blended together in an intricate tracery of design. Darning, always a pleasantly monotonous domestic task, becomes apotheosized, glorified, when the fabric you are working on is in itself beautiful. That was part of my moy.
The rest was the way the years rolled back, and placed me in such close kinship with the long-ago ancestress by marriage who wove this wonderful web in the eighteenth-century Lowlands. For the coverlet is Scotch; brought to America in the wedding-chest of a bride who married into a Dutch family "up state" in New York, when its name was changed to "spree," and it became part of the everydayness of existence like the more ordinary blue and white coverlets woven here. What happy chance preserved it to me? I do not know. Certainly it was used, not locked away in a chest as so many coverlets we find today have been. And of course I know the reason that it is directly mine, for, years ago, when he was a little lad, decided that the engaging reds and blues would look well on his nursery bed, and claimed for his own the "Scotch blanket," now returned to its rightful name. Can a man be said to have a dowry? Well, I know that among many other excellent things I married the stencil clock, the graceful Empire table in my dining-room, and this quaint, desirable old coverlet. You see how very strong, how well-woven, it must have been, to defy time and moths and a small boy's wear and tear. And at first I only half appreciated it; I knew it was a woven coverlet; I knew it was old; I referred to it casually as "the brick pattern" because a dealer had once so described it. Dealers have so many fallacies Martha Washington tables, and so on. I used it as a couch-cover; I hung it up for a portiere, never once valuing the jeweled beauty that makes it as lovely as a glowing Bokhara rug.
And then Eliza Calvert Hall's "Book of Hand-Woven Coverlets" swam into my ken, and my eyes no longer were holden. I sat, exultant, upon a peak in Darien. I am not at all ashamed of my ignorance, it is so rapidly changing into intelligent information; and, besides, nobody can properly understand or really "see" coverlets until they have read this book, this wonderful, radiant, marching book. Why, you'd know that the woman who wrote it believed in other women, rejoiced in the earnest beauty of their work, even if you had never read "Aunt Jane of Kentucky."
It is almost as if she had woven a lyric out of these mountain-women's lives.
Well, the first thing that I did after I had looked at the illustrations, and dipped here;-and there into its pages of enchantment. was to run upstairs for my coverlet, then in the temporary seclusion of mothballs. I . brought it down and draped it across my Empire sofa, and it lighted up the room! Had I been blind' Here was a wonderful, gorgeous fabric, a design that lingered between "King's Flower" and "Governor's Garden," and yet, was more subtle, more intricate than either. Patterns shaped themselves before my eyes: chariot-wheels, squares, octagons, oblongs, and quaint heraldic devices that looked like halberds, blended and wove themselves-into each other. I can't give you any better comparison than this: it is the way you look at the night-sky before you know the constellations. At first it 's just a jangle of stars; and then, when you learn them, all heaven itself falls into patterns. - You must forgive my rhapsodies; it is the oldest coverlet that I have ever seen, and one of the loveliest. It has been joy to work on it; restoring the time-marred places by the skill of weaving my needle in and out. And, while. I darned, the song from "Paracelsus" hummed itself through my mind: > From closet long to quiet vowed With mothed and dropping arras hung, Mouldering her lute and books among As when a queen, long dead, was young.
Though, thank goodness, it isn't quite so fragile as that; I mean it gives you in some way the same magic distance of time. And other people feel it, too, I think. When the coverlets were at the studio posing for their pictures I heard the photographers saying, my "Tennessee Trouble" coverlet was then on the screen, "Look pleasant, please," and, "After all, the expression is everything," and I believed that my coverlet's loveliness was wasted on these frivolous men. Then the "Scotch blanket" was hung up to have its likeness taken, and one of them said, quite without suggestion, "That's an effective pat-tern." I stopped long enough to play my favorite game. "What design do you first see, the one you are conscious of when you look at it?" I asked. "It's like a checker-board," he answered, laughing a little; and then, growing suddenly serious, "No, it really makes me think of some of those old Egyptian tapestries." My faith was vindicated for, you see, the verse from "Paracelsus" begins
And strew faint sweetness from-some old Egyptian's fine, worm-eaten shroud.
Never again shall the "Scotch blanket" serve as portiere or couch-cover, but, because I hate unused things, things locked away in chests, I will hang it, a glowing, happy banner on our study walls.
Perhaps I ought to be even more ashamed about not recognizing my "Tennessee Trouble," for that came, you know, from my own family. I knew it was an old woven coverlet, and that it must be rare because it was white, coverlets in this respect being something like blackbirds; but not until I studied Mrs. Hall's book, and watched the patterns reveal themselves, did I realize that this century-old cover-let, woven in East Tennessee by my great-grandmother's slaves, was a variant of the design known as "Tennessee Trouble." I am sorry' that I cannot show it to you, white fringe and all, but the pattern, charming as it is, is too flat to photograph well in the one color. It is in perfect preservation, and an-other excellence is its warmth; woven in the South, it shuts out the chill of a New England winter as I have never known any quilt or comforter to do.
I am, also, the happy owner of a third coverlet, soft and warm and woven in three colors, an unusual and very charming effect. This has no family associations; I bought it last fall way up in Vermont, at a little white farmhouse on the top of the world. Below were mists, and the hillsides flamed with maples. I had just found a little stenciled footstool for fifty cents, rare! why, I never even heard of one before, and then the nice old farmer brought out this lovely .thing, this coverlet as full of color as the autumn outside, and said, "Anybody give me three dollars for this spread?" l answered, "I will," so quick that I don't know how I did it; and, as he passed it over to me he said, "A lady was by here last week, and she offered me two dollars for it, but I sort of thought I' ought to get three." A dollar apiece, you see, for each color, for the red and white and blue that go to make up my coverlet. Don't be too sorry for the farmer; don't fancy the old homestead mortgaged and me an avaricious collector. Be really had more money than I; it was merely that we expressed our expenditures differently.
The design I cannot quite identify, though it seems to me similar to the various "snowball" pat-terns. Except for two or three tiny time-worn places it is in excellent condition; and the colors, how shall I make you see them? White, a creamy tone, the blue dark, and the red not red at all but a coral pink, the color that Mrs. Hall describes as "just hesitating between scarlet and rose." That 's my despair in writing this: I can show you designs; I cannot reveal the colors to you, these marvelous home-made dyes that have lasted and will last as long as a shred of the fabric does. That is why I urge you to save every scrap of each coverlet you find, for in no other way can you get such perfect results in mending as by using the old threads. I like to think that this coverlet of mine was woven when our country was still young enough to care very greatly for the symbolism of these three blended colors, and that it was kept. gently so that it might in time come to me to be a couch-cover by day ; at night, to tuck snugly round-the Littlest Daughter.
If I could show you color; if I could turn my pen for the moment into a paint-brush, I could let you see what I reckon the most beautiful of all the cover-lets I have ever beheld. It, too, is coral pink, that wonderful, lighting rose that I have just tried to de-scribe to you. It is double-woven, a beautiful piece of workmanship, dated 1836, and signed with the name H. N. Green, three points that contribute to its rarity. The signature might mean either the name of the person for whom it was woven or the name of the weaver himself, the latter more likely, for this double-weaving was usually done by professionals, men who traveled the countryside, and brought with them when they came new patterns and tales of the world without. In must the same way the majestic lions in the corners and the American eagles and stars may indicate that the work was done by an English-man who took this way of binding his old and new homes together. Notice the formalized border. Did you ever see anything more delightful than those conventional trees with the little posing monkeys underneath? Such weaving is masterwork; and here it is interesting to quote what Alice Morse Earle has to say about coverlets like this, "The `setting-up' of such a design is entirely beyond my skill as a weaver to ex-plain or even comprehend. But it is evident that the border must have been woven by taking up a single warp-thread at a time, with a wire needle, not by passing a shuttle, as it is far too complicated and varied for any treadle-harness to be able to make it shed for a shuttle." I think that the coverlet de-sign is older in feeling than the actual date; it is really full of the Empire feeling. That's why it is going to look so lovely on an old acanthus carved four-poster that came from a James River plantation.
The "Lover's Chain" a variant of "Lover's Knot" is double-woven, too, and as attractive in its fresh blue and white finery as on the day when it was first made. As the old people hereabouts say, "there's not a brack in it." Aside from the beauty of its design, the charm of its quaint, formalized tree-border, it is very wonderful to me because it was done by a woman, and this double-weaving was usually a man's task, considered too hard and intricate for the weaker sex to accomplish. But this woman could and did, this little valiant-souled, indomitable Lucy Bingham, who lived it century ago somewhere in upper New York State. It is related of her that once, when washing storm-windows, she slipped and broke a rib, and, after the doctor had bound up her injuries, she insisted on beginning the washing all over again be-cause she was n't quite certain must where she left off. Do you wonder that such a fiery spirit could do double-weaving as easily and well as a man?
My third and last woven coverlet (on page 59) is the most interesting historically of the three: it was made in America in those vibrant, jingoistic forties, when our country was burning to express herself.
The weaving is a marvel; the color that beautiful, subtle blue which has the depths of the ocean in it. The central design is like English tapestry, while the border resembles the coverlet known as "The Declaration of Independence." There is more printing than one usually sees on such pieces: Washington in each corner with the patriotic motto, and the repeated, invincible slogan, "Under this we prosper." Then, too, the signature, "J. Cunningham, Weaver, N. Hartford, Oneida County, N. York," is one that I have never before seen recorded. Altogether it is a most unusual and valuable piece.
Blues and whites are the commoner color expression in these coverlets, but there is such variety of tones and designs in them that you may have many such, and never once repeat your pattern or shade. For instance (on page 60), the "Single Chariot Wheel " design, the variant of a most primitive motif, is a soft old blue, a watchet blue, the color of the eyes of Elia's Alice, and, lovelier, to my way of thinking, than the deeper hues. And yet there is such stamina, such vigor in the indigo and white "Cross" coverlet, that it, too, seems wholly desirable.
Don't you like the pattern of my cushion-cover? (Shown on page 56.) That's the real "Lover's Knot," woven long ago in the Blue Ridge country. Of all designs the "Lover's Knot" seems to me best and loveliest: clear-cut, decided, beautiful. Part of the pattern, time has worn away, but the colors are still fresh and unfaded: the background a deep, dark blue, the motifs a pinkish ecru and a queer, tawny orange.
These are all the designs that I have to show you, but, of course, I could go on unendingly. So many of these coverlets have been woven by simple, loving, long-ago hands! Do you realize that Mrs. Hall records the names of nearly three hundred and fifty different designs? That alone shows how the country-women of America tried to express beauty tried and succeeded, and left these woven patterns of their lives for us to wonder at. From New England they came and New. York, from the South and the early Middle West, these coverlets that meant a year of a woman's life from first flax-sowing to final weaving; these marvelous blues, these magic roses, these gentle browns and greens. And you find them everywhere, in the most astonishing places, if only you will take the trouble to look. One, for example, a rare piece of double-weaving of the Greek vase de-sign, has must moved away from our town into Vermont. I never knew it was there until it had gone; and it had taken prizes and prizes at county fairs, I am told! Do you know, I never before realized that the proud owners put them on exhibition; but of course they must have, just as they do patchwork quilts to-day. And there is another coverlet carefully locked away in the local bank, but that I shall investigate before it escapes me. I have seen them used as careless covers on swinging hammocks, on ironing-boards, for chair-seats, even as the patching for an old carpet. See how many of them you can rescue; you could n't find a worthier work. I have yet to discover the woman to whom these old woven bits of beauty do not appeal. "When Adam delved and Eve span," you know. Well, apparently all of Eve's daughters have inherited their mother's tastes.