American Bed Covers
( Originally Published 1930 )
Notwithstanding the claims of long descent of the typical New England Vere de Vere, most of the early colonists were simple people with the resources of the class that makes the backbone of the nation. In spite of England's prohibiting the manufacture of even a nail the art of weaving began at an early date.
But it was a cottage art. No housemother is willing to see her family shiver in the severities of winter. So looms were built that occupied the corner of the kitchen, and spinning-wheels became as common then as the radio now, as an adjunct to family life in its hours of relaxation.
As yarn of a natural color becomes monotonous in a textile, the able woman of the colonies wandered in woods and fields for dyes, plants that would yield color for the dye-pot. Thus indigo was found, that valuable vegetable growth for which commercial England was ever seeking in her colonies.
Instead of tracing the advance of weaving in America, from the cottage industry to its place in the present overpowering industrialism, it is more interesting to confine a brief word to that fine example of home work, the figured bed-spread or coverlet. Usually it is of dark blue and white, wool and cotton, and those who possess examples of this evidence of home art are ever glowing with an inward content.
These relics make a mind picture because of the circumstances under which they were woven, and be-cause of the zeit-geist they represent. They were the fancy-work of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries, occupying all the hours that might have been a woman's hours of leisure. But, the loom in order, and the warp threads spun and strung in place, the work impelled. Once the woof of soft wool began to record itself in an inch or two of finished fabric, it teased the weaver to continue, to set for herself a daily ambition of inches. And so the cloth grew amid the daily round of duties and complexities of family life.
The wool was home raised as a matter of course. The yarn was home spun. The dyeing was an affair of indoors and out, of finding first the needed plants, of long conferences with neighbors as to best methods of treating these; then of dipping and of that important element of permanence in color, the mordant.
The pattern itself began with a simple variance of the geometric, squares in blue, in mixed blue and white, of varying sizes all forming a larger square. Other colors besides blue were sought, and so soft reds and wood tones replaced the blue. Later came scarlet and the brilliant green, but with them a loss of the restraint that constitutes charm.
Numberless are the weaves on the lines of squares or plaids, all softened by the tricks of the ambitious weaver, yet scarcely varying from the geometric. Gradually the art grew more sophisticated, and rounded motives were introduced as well as leaf shapes, still retaining the general effect of lines of squares on the whole field of the quilt.
As the art advanced a border was invented as a finish. The bed of those days was a high four-poster with a feather bed in place of hair mattress, a white petticoat valance below. This seemed to demand a finish more important than the selvedge, and so it came, timidly at first and then divertingly. Center and border were in harmony, both carrying some of the same motives. If leaves appeared in the center, trees were on the border. One delicious touch is that each pattern had a name. There is a book on this subject by E. C. Hall wherein one may read pages and pages of these names, which are delightfully imaginative and fantastic. Some of them are romantic, like Lonely Heart, Star of Venus, Lily of the West, and Rosy Walk. Others are historic, like Indian War, Washington's Victory, Mexican Banner and Bonaparte's Retreat.
After the War of the Revolution and after Washing-ton had tied the States together in harmony, the home-woven quilts began to express the political enthusiasm of the men who talked and smoked around the fire while the housewife wove her daily stint.
Then came designs of eagles, their far-spread wings shown in the conventional square, and stars near them told of the emblem of our new-made flag. After the War of 1812 the Capitol with its mounting dome took place of trees for border motive. And both these typical designs introduced lettering in the corners, either patriotic, like, "United we stand, divided we fall," or prophetic, like, "Agriculture and manufacture are the foundation of our independence." It is safe to put these well within the Nineteenth Century.
As the hand loom was never a large affair, the bed covers were woven in two parts and seamed together in the middle, the pattern being executed with regard to this exigency.
Knowing their history it is not strange that we value these old weavings and like them for use as draperies if not for coverlets.