Keeping Warm: A Pennsylvania Coverlet
Posted by Kimberly Randall, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
The American woven coverlet presents an appealing visual record of the patterns and designs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The seemingly simple geometric elements come together in a boldly graphic way that resonates with many collectors today. This particular coverlet, acquired by Cooper-Hewitt in 2010, was most likely made before the arrival of the Jacquard attachment – a special mechanical loom component from France that was made of a series of punched cards. Invented in 1806, it was widely available in the United States by the early 1820s. Adding the Jacquard attachment to a loom gave weavers more control over warp threads, allowing them to create complex figural designs incorporating birds, flowers and even local architecture. Many weavers took to signing and dating their coverlets in the lower corner.
Prior to Jacquard’s invention, coverlets like this one were woven at home or in shops on small looms in narrow widths that were then whip stitched together to make a bed-size coverlet. Many weavers working in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states had roots in the British Isles and Germany and brought their traditional European coverlet designs to the United States. This particular Pennsylvania coverlet was made in the early nineteenth century and is a reversible double cloth of cotton and wool in dark blue, light brown and off-white. The woven design consists of a central field with a single "snowball" pattern enclosed by intersecting circles and a "pine tree" motif for the border. It was made by stitching two woven lengths up the center, the top edge is hemmed, and there is fringe on three sides. The Textiles Department is fortunate to have many representative examples of early woven coverlet structures and patterns, but many are in the form of fragments. Cooper-Hewitt has very few wholly intact coverlet examples from the period before the adoption of Jacquard's invention in the United States. For me, this was an important acquisition as the coverlet demonstrates the inventiveness and skill that hand loom workers employed using only two to three colors and simple geometric patterns to make a warm and attractive bed covering with such lasting visual appeal and impact.