Coverlet weavers in rural America
In Europe and the British Isles, the production of textiles was a commercial
activity. Weavers were professionally trained men. The textile guilds they
belonged to controlled the production of cloth. Any new technological
developments were strictly guarded. In America however, the guild system
was less important. Weavers emigrating from Europe found a ready market
for their work in rural areas where customers were already engaged in the
production of everyday domestic textiles (sheets, blankets, table linens,
etc.). Professionally trained weavers (sometimes known as “trade” or
“fancy” weavers) coming out of the old guild system brought the latest
technologies and styles with them (often embedded in memory) and also
acquired new patterns from newly arrived apprentice weavers and
Coverlet weaving as a customer service industry
In rural areas where spinning was a common practice in homes and in
small mills, trained weavers were able to offer far more complex and
intricately patterned “fancy” coverlets (both geometric and figured) to
households who could provide the necessary yarn and complete any
necessary sewing for seaming, hemming, and adding fringe to bed
coverings. This made the acquisition of fancy goods more affordable.
Because a household’s status was displayed in part by its textiles, many
rural families sent yarn to local weavers whose skill and equipment
afforded the family access to fancier coverlets.
The Hudson Valley and textile innovation
Many of the new inventions and patents for coverlet weaving in the 19th
century are registered in New York State and specifically the lower Hudson
After 1790, Scottish, Irish, and English weavers, escaping financial
depression in the British Isles, relocated to New York State (many locally to
Orange, Dutchess, and Ulster County) where they settled into communities
of rural families who wanted and could afford fancier textiles. This new
influx of artisans spurred the hotbed of invention, both driving and
supplying the demand for fancy geometric and figured coverlets.
Mechanical attachments that allowed weavers to create pictorial designs of
flowers, animals, and architecture were available from foundries in New
Jersey, and New York. Some weavers attempted to build their own
mechanical attachments for weaving fancy work. The designs woven into
fancy coverlets were sometimes drawn by the weavers themselves,
sometimes bought from the company manufacturing the mechanical
attachments and sometimes copied from other coverlets and carpets.
Several weavers used the same center designs and changed only the
corner blocks or borders to personalize their coverlets while some weavers
made no changes at all to the stock patterns.
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