Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In Palmyra, NY: America's Largest Collection of Antique Handwoven Coverlets

Here in western New York -- just 24 miles east of Rochester on the Erie Canal -- weavers can enjoy the country's largest collection of antique woven coverlets. Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of collector Merle Alling and colleagues, the Alling Coverlet Museum opened on July 4, 1976, in a beautiful old building in Palmyra, New York.

The museum houses some 400 handwoven and Jacquard-woven coverlets dating from 1820 to 1880, many of them woven by Palmyra natives Ira Hadsell and James VanNess. Weaving was a profession largely of men until the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution.

From my viewpoint as a weaver, dyer, and handspinner, the pieces are masterful, starting first with the yarns themselves, many of which are handspun and then hand-dyed with indigo and cochineal. The brilliance of the weaving continues to amaze!

Double weave, "Four Roses and Pine Tree" pattern in wool and cotton

Many of the coverlets were woven just before the Civil War, when hopes to preserve the union were fraying. You can see the patriotic fervor woven into the fabric.

Jacquard double weave, floral pattern, dated 1858

Typically, the weavers were commissioned to weave a coverlet for a homeowner, whose name they wove into the piece (as with Mary Jane Hall, above). Double weave, summer and winter, overshot, Beiderwand, point twill -- the names of the patterns are familiar to anyone who studies weaving. Sometimes, however, it's difficult to analyze, as in this piece below, with a description that reads "Jacquard Combined Weave, Lilies of France."

An important note: the Jacquard loom, which used a peg plan much like the key-punch cards of the 1970s, was the progenitor of the computer! Anyone who is interested in weaving history and science history would enjoy the book, Jacquard's Web: How a Hand Loom Led to the Birth of the Information Age, by James Essinger.

The book is available in the museum shop, along with a lot of other wonderful books, pillows made from coverlet remnants, and other gifts and memorabilia. The museum is open Mondays through Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. In the summer, you will meet members of the Weavers' Guild of Rochester, who often work as docents for this historic treasure. A visual feast!

1837 coverlet, Jacquard doubleweave in wool and cotton, 
woven for Theresa V. Parsons, Jefferson County, New York

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