Sleeping was a textile-heavy experience in the 1800s. Textiles were a primary component of being able to sleep in a comfortable and warm environment. Beds were designed to be fully draped enclosures, with curtains, valances and a coverlet. The coverlet was the topmost covering on the bed.
Up until the 1820s, most coverlets were hand-loomed at home. The professionally woven coverlet was most popular between 1820 and the Civil War, so most coverlets span the years from 1800 to the 1880s. Made mostly by male weavers who had set up shops along the East Coast, many who had trained as carpet weavers in England and Germany, coverlets were affordable enough for rural and middle-class Americans. Imported indigo and madder dyes and other natural plant dyes provided the pigment for most 19th-century coverlets. For example, bloodroot and dogwood produced red, bittersweet yielded orange and butternut bark produced brown. They were made of a combination of wool and linen, called linsey-woolsey, which was an important fabric in Colonial America, due to the relative scarcity of wool. Some were also made of bleached cotton.
The earliest coverlets were woven on a rather primitive “four harness” loom, with limited ability to produce complex patterns. The float work or overshot woven coverlet was woven in one long, narrow piece, then cut width-wise and sewn together to make a textile wide enough for a bed.
Then, in the first quarter of the 1800s, the Jacquard loom made its way from France, where it was invented. The new technology, actually a loom attachment, allowed for elaborate and complex patterns and pictures to be incorporated into coverlets. So, the coverlet progressed from a purely functional item used primarily to provide privacy and warmth in early American homes, to one of aesthetic beauty.
These colorful coverlets represented elaborate patterns and pictures of birds and plants, and, in many cases, the name of the owner and the weaver. A characteristic of many early woven coverlets is the inscription that they carry. These inscriptions can be interesting and informative. Although they vary in placement, content and complexity, they can denote the weaver’s name, the location of the loom, the date, a bible verse or political slogan, a commemoration and, in some cases, the owner’s name. When a coverlet carries an inscription, it is usually woven in backwards and forwards to allow it to be read from either side of the coverlet.
Both men and women ordered and purchased coverlets. Since comparatively few weavers were women, a woman’s name inscribed into a coverlet is generally that of the owner and not the weaver. So, it was made for the woman, not by the woman named. However, if a man’s name appears on a coverlet, it could be the name of the owner but, then again, it could be that of the weaver.
The price of antique coverlets can span from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the design, condition and provenance.
Antique coverlets were treasured by families through many generations and were frequently mentioned in wills and stored for future descendents in dower chests. They are true American heirlooms.
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business is based in Rare Finds in Washington. If you have questions or finds, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.