Probably made in Ulster County, New York; Made in New York, United States
Wool and cotton, woven
103 3/4 x 79 3/4 in. (263.5 x 202.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Laura Tillson Vail, 1925
Not on view
This double cloth coverlet is woven in one wide panel of undyed cotton and dark blue wool. The central field has large floral medallions, and the borders are decorated with images of eagles with outspread wings alternating with Masonic symbols.
At first glance, this blue and white double cloth coverlet seems nearly identical to another example in the Museum’s collection (see 67.33). They are both of the type of woven coverlet that traditionally has been attributed to Orange County New York weaver, James Alexander. Both are patterned with the same medallions, and each has a border that alternates eagles and Masonic symbols. Distinct regional differences exist in the wool and cotton coverlets woven in the United States during the years between 1820 and 1850, when they were at the peak of their popularity, and these two works are good illustrations of the New York style.
The earliest New York weavers who set up businesses in the lower Hudson Valley and Long Island were immigrants from the British Isles. They had been trained in Britain as "scotch carpet" weavers, an apprenticeship that lasted at least seven years. This training in carpet weaving explains both the usual structure and the appearance of New York coverlets. For the most part, they are made of undyed cotton and indigo-dyed blue wool that has been double woven for strength and weight, much like woven carpets of the early nineteenth century. The large medallions in the central fields of these two coverlets look very much like the designs found on English and Scottish carpets of the period.
Coverlets like this example have often been attributed to Alexander because of their similarities in pattern to his "flowert" coverlets. Closer examination, however, reveals many differences between the works documented to Alexander (such as 67.33) and this second type. Small variations within this second group led to the conclusion that they were most likely woven by two or more different weavers, possibly trained by Alexander, who were working in the Dutchess and Ulster County areas, both of which border on Orange County. Woven in a single wide piece, this type of coverlet is distinguished by the legend in the corner block that relates: "AGRICULTURE & MANUFACTURES ARE THE FOUNDATION OF OUR INDEPENDENCE. JULY 4". A number have been found that are also inscribed with the year "1825" and the name of "General Lafayette," who toured America during that year. This variation of the non-Alexander type, for the most part dated between 1825 and 1830, are further distinguished by the appearance of three small figures hidden in the border: A monkey and a deer or goat sit at the feet of the eagles on the narrow ends, and a small man appears at the bottom of the Masonic columns. The names found on this type of coverlet have all been traced to Dutchess County, usually around Poughkeepsie and Fishkill, and it is thus possible that there was one weaver in that area making this small-figured type. There is a second distinct group within the "Agriculture and Manufactures" type of coverlet, into which this example falls. These works bear the same inscription but are usually dated somewhat later in the 1830s, and their borders contain no small figures. The 1830 Census reveals that Phoebe Tilson, for whom our coverlet was made, and who was the grandmother of the donor, lived in Eddyville, Ulster County. It is therefore highly probable that there were at least two other weavers in neighboring counties who made variations of Alexander's original design.
The Tilson coverlet was most likely woven on a hand loom with the assistance of a Jacquard mechanism, the invention responsible for the flowering of coverlet weaving in this country during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Invented in France in 1804 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), it enabled a weaver, working without the help of assistants, to produce intricate woven designs of almost any type. The first documented use of the Jacquard mechanism in America was in either 1823 or 1825, by William Horstmann, a Philadelphia manufacturer of coach lace. There is some speculation, however, that the mechanism may have been fitted for a coverlet or rug loom at about the same time, perhaps in New York. Since the Jacquard mechanism had not yet been imported to America in the early 1820s, when Alexander started weaving his "flowert" coverlets, he must have made them on a drawloom, employing a drawboy to pull separate cords after each throw of the shuttle, which controlled the raising and lowering of warp threads necessary to produce the figured pattern. It was a complicated and time-consuming process when compared with the relative ease of weaving fancy patterns with the aid of a Jacquard mechanism.
The Jacquard mechanism is attached to the top of the loom frame and is activated by a single treadle. The principle behind it is very much like a keypunch system: The mechanism "reads" punched cards that tell the loom which individual warp threads are to be raised or lowered. One card is punched for each weft in the pattern; all the cards are then laced together and placed over a four-faced cylinder. With each depression of the treadle, the cylinder turns and presses the pattern card against a group of long needles. These needles read the card; if there is a hole punched, the warp thread should be raised; if there is no hole, the warp thread should be lowered. Each needle is attached to a vertical hook, which is connected to a heddle through which each individual warp is passed. The cards are stitched together in a closed chain, so once the initial pattern motif is completed, the design will continue to be repeated. Weavers could punch their own designs on cards or purchase the cards pre-punched. The Jacquard mechanism was a major step toward completely automated weaving. It saved the weaver time and the need to hire help, since the warp threads no longer had to be pulled by hand. Most importantly, with the introduction of the Jacquard mechanism, the client was guaranteed a far greater choice of novel designs.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
Inscription: inscribed in four corner blocks: AGRICUL / TURE. & MAN / UFACTURES. / ARE. THE. FOUND / ATION. OF / OUR. INDE / PENDENCE. / JULY. 4. / 1837.; inscribed forward and reverse four times at ends: P. TILSON