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Gallery Exhibit: American Woven "Coverlids"

Coverlets from the Historic Textile and Costume Collection

This Exhibit was on display from November 5, 2004 to February 25, 2005

Late eighteenth-century weavers wove long panels with undyed linen and dyed wool yarns in a twill weave on four-harness looms. Most typically they dyed wool with indigo to produce a deep blue color but also used walnut hulls to produce browns and madder for reds. Two or three of these woven panels sewn together produced a warm and decorative bed or door cover. The geometric patterns of these panels reflect the capabilities and limitations of their looms and provide the distinctive blue and white patterns that characterize hand-woven coverlets. Many European countries and Canada also have a woven coverlet tradition.

close up of blue and white coverlet stitching

In the early nineteenth century when industrialization provided machine-spun yarns and machine-woven fabrics, coverlets became one of the last viable products for hand-weavers. Women weaving at home and itinerate weavers used machine-spun cotton yarns instead of hand-spun linen yarns with wool yarns to weave the distinctively patterned fabrics, but the introduction of Jacquard attachments to looms changed the design possibilities for coverlets in the mid-eighteen twenties. This attachment controlled each pattern warp yarn independently with punched cards laced together in a continuous strip so designs were not limited to geometric configurations.

Designs in Jacquard coverlets include large circular designs combined with trees, birds, animals, blossoms, buildings, stars, and lettering. Although consumers often preferred the new Jacquard coverlets whose patterns might appear also in floor or window coverings, the unique geometrically patterned coverlets continue today as a symbol of a strong hand-weaving tradition.

Since the early nineteenth century, the three weave structures have dominated coverlet weaving. Overshot weave coverlets typically have an undyed cotton warp and weft in a tabby (plain) weave forming a ground cloth and a dyed wool pattern weft creating the design. The designs have solid white and solid colored sections possible because the colored supplementary yarns float over or under large sections of the tabby weave. This weave structure also is unique in the half-tone sections made when the white warps and colored supplementary wefts interweave.

The geometric designs in coverlets are quite varied. Janet Doyle, TMD weaving instructor, commented that the early coverlet weavers "had so little to work with, and they came up with such complicated designs." Besides varying the patterns by the way they threaded the warp yarns on a loom, the weavers also could use different treadling patterns. These two blue and white overshot woven fabrics were woven by Norma Smayda on the same warp using Billy Rose’s "King’s Puzzel" pattern. She treadled them differently producing one design with a dominant X across the square in the "star" fashion and the other design with rounded corners in the "rose" fashion.

Above: Framed square and table runner. Adaptations of Weaver Billy Rose’s "King's Puzzel" draft Overshot weave. Weaver: Norma Smayda; Donor: Weavers' Guild of Rhode Island; URI 1998.13.24 "King’s Puzzel" draft on loan from Norma Smayda

A second weave structure produces a more durable fabric than an overshot weave because the supplementary weft yarn floats are shorter, making the cloth suitable for coverlets and upholstery fabric. Summer and winter weave coverlets typically are an undyed cotton warp and weft in a tabby (plain) weave and a dyed wool pattern weft that floats over or under three warps and is held in place by a fourth warp thread. The threading creates a reversible coverlet that is light (summer) on one side and dark (winter) on the other. White areas have colored dots, and colored areas have white dots created by white warp yarns catching the colored floats.

close up of orange pillow top woven by Billy Rose

Orange pillow top
Weaver: Billy Rose
Summer and Winter weave,

"Wheels of Lebanon" pattern
Donor: Rear Admiral and Mrs. Alexander Wotherspoon
URI 1954.26.28

 

close up of blue and white double cloth construction weave

 

The third common weave structure for coverlets is double cloth construction. Double cloth coverlets are made of two sets of warps and wefts, creating two separate layers of fabric that create a design when the both sets of warp and weft yarns periodically reverse position from top to bottom, interlocking the layers at that point. Between the lines of interlocking yarns, the two layers are completely separate as seen by the turned-back top layer in the lower right corner of the sample. Double cloth fabrics often are quite durable; they have no floating yarns and can be tightly woven structures. This is a modern manufacturer’s upholstery sample in a double cloth weave with a traditional Jacquard coverlet pattern. Although the sample is reversible with a light and a dark side, it should not be referred to as summer and winter since that term refers to a particular weave structure.

corner and center of the border of a 1833 double cloth coverlet woven on a Jacquard loom

corner and center of the border of a 1833 double cloth coverlet woven on a Jacquard loom

 

Blue wool Jacquard coverlet; URI 1953.99.23

 

 

Above is a corner and center of the border of a 1833 double cloth coverlet woven on a Jacquard loom. Instead of the traditional cotton and wool mixture, this early Jacquard coverlet uses wool yarns dyed two different shades to create the same effect.

Rhode Island Coverlet Weavers

A South County brother and sister wove many of the coverlets in the Historic Textile and Costume Collection during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. William Henry Harrison Rose (1841-1913) [1] and Elsie Maria Babcock Rose (1837-1926) were the fourth generation of Rhode Island weavers. The previous generations actively participated in the American Revolution; the Roses’ father fought in the War of 1812. They lived a somewhat reclusive life on a farm located in the south-east corner of Exeter near the intersection of Stony Fort Road and Slocum Road, where North Kingstown, South Kingstown, and Exeter meet just north of the University.

William, known as Quaker Billy or Weaver Rose, was "an interesting character" according to a 1905 Providence Journal interviewer. He reportedly bathed in cold water every morning and wore shoes only in the winter.[2] He wore overalls, long hair, and long beard. Elsie kept house, gardened, helped with the livestock, and also wove, reportedly more finely than her brother, although Elsie became upset one day when another weaver in the area claimed that she could weave more finely than Billy.

The Roses combined farming and weaving, but Billy wrote in an 1898 letter that "more money can be made by weaving than farming." The second floor of their family home held yarns, spinning wheels, other equipment, and at least three counter-balanced looms with overhead beaters. One of these is located in the Watson House located on the URI campus in Kingston. Smayda has another one of them. The cotton and wool yarns in their surviving textiles are coarser than those typically used by earlier coverlet weavers. The difference is evident in this exhibition.

The products of the Roses' looms are unique in that they successfully competed with machine-made textiles often patterned by Jacquard attachments to looms and continued weaving even after handwoven coverlets were no longer highly fashionable. For more than half a century, Billy and Elsie offered made-to-order fabrics that included coverlets, draperies, portieres (door covers), pillow tops, rugs, couch covers, and yard goods for apparel such as waistcoats. Elsie continued to weave and teach others after Billy’s death.

weaving draft of the Kings Puzzel written on a door by Billy Rose

In 1912, Billy Rose organized local weavers, forming The Colonial Weavers Association, which did not survive his death. He aimed to encourage handweaving as an art as well as a craft. Today handweavers are represented by a national organization as well as local associations. Two groups in Rhode Island are the Weavers' Guild of Rhode Island and the Moonlight Weavers.

Billy and Elsie Rose recorded their weaving drafts on many different materials. Kingston residents have recalled Billy walking barefoot to the grocery store that is now the Kingston Hill Store on Route138 to get week-old editions of the Boston Sunday Globe. He recorded many drafts on the back of the activities card in the Globe’s Sunday Supplement. You can see these through the door at the end of the case. He also wrote on the backs of advertisements, paper bags, and wood planks. Many of the extant drafts are in Billy’s handwriting, but some of them are a neater, more feminine-looking script, perhaps Elsie’s.

More than once after Billy died, Elsie refused to give their weaving drafts to another weaver, saying in a letter that "I am going to get them together an [sic] lock them up." They had some drafts from their grandparents, which they burned "to get them out of the way."[3] Norma Smayda, owner of the Saunderstown Weaving School, owns almost 250 of their weaving drafts, and 245 copies of their drafts were published by Isadora Safner. [4] Most of the published drafts are for four harness looms; seven are for five harnesses or shafts; ten require six harnesses; one draft is for eight and one for two harnesses.

tan-colored woven panel, adaptation of 'The Kings Puzzel' pattern

Norma Smayda, weaving teacher and owner of Saunderstown Weaving School, is the foremost authority on Weaver Billy Rose. She and other weavers’ working with her have reproduced many of Rose’s drafts. Besides faithfully interpreting and reproducing his drafts, she also has adapted patterns for non-coverlet textiles. Two of her reproductions of Weaver Rose’s "The Kings Puzzel" are the examples of overshot weaves shown earlier. To the right is a section of one of her adaptations of this draft. This tan-colored panel incorporates narrow sections of the "Kings Puzzel" pattern.

[1] William Henry Harrison became President of the United States in January 1841 and died that spring, a few months before William Henry Harrison Rose was born.

[2] The practice of treadling a loom with bare feet was not uncommon. Interview with Norma Smayder, Saunderstown, RI, November 2, 2004

[3] Letter from "W h h Rose" in Kingston, RI to Mrs. Laura M. Allen, Rochester, NY. May 17, 1912. In George E. Pariseau, Weaver Rose of Rhode Island: 1839-1913, Handweaver & Craftsman (Winter 1954-55): 4-7, 55.

[4] Isadora M Safner, The Weaving Roses of Rhode Island (Loveland, CO: Interweave Press, 1985).