Published: July 30, 2002
Made in America:
By Karla Klein Albertson
“Made in America: Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl” — on display until September 1, 2003, at Williamsburg’s Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center — is a tribute to the Pennsylvania couple’s devotion to these vintage textiles and a major advance in our understanding how they were made. Thanks to the efforts of serious collectors such as the McCarls, woven coverlets are emerging from the shadow cast by quilts to take their place as an independent art form.
More than 60 woven coverlets, many never before seen by the public, document another chapter in the Nineteenth Century transition from handwork to factory-made goods that characterized the Industrial Revolution. Most popular in the mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, coverlets developed from simple homemade products into the familiar “figured and fancy” designs produced by specialized weavers who served a defined area.
Collectors’ interest in coverlets has been spurred on by the historical information they provide, usually woven right into the textile’s border. “Where else can you find an rdf_Description that has the name of the weaver who created it by hand, the name of the person it was woven for, the date and the community where the work was completed?” notes Foster McCarl. “When you have a coverlet with all of this information, you have found an indisputable piece of American history.”
“Most of them were made by individual weavers who had only one or two looms,” points out Colonial Williamsburg textile curator Linda Baumgarten. “The makers were often men who farmed part of the year and wove coverlets in the off seasons. They usually supplied a particular neighborhood or region, and there are distinctive regional styles. Some of the more enterprising weavers would drop off information at a store further away and offer to pick up or deliver at that location, so they could cover a larger area.”
Baumgarten, co-curator Kim Ivey and coverlet expert Clarita S. Anderson, who wrote the accompanying catalog, American Coverlets and the Weavers, have been working on this project for years but see their efforts rewarded when visitors first view the McCarl Collection examples on display. The curator explains, “There’s a large exhibit room which must have 35 coverlets in it, and when people walk into that room, their mouths drop open. It’s almost an emotional experience to see so much color and pattern and diversity.
“The thing that strikes me and many of our visitors is the superb condition and artistry of the coverlets they have chosen,” Baumgarten continues. “They’re in good condition, the colors are fresh and brilliant, and the designs are wonderful to look at. They’re really works of art when you see them on the wall in the exhibit.”
As many collectors know, Clarita Anderson began to gather information in the 1980s for a comprehensive database of extant . The results of her research are the catalog’s in-depth entries on 50 coverlets and a valuable biographical dictionary of more than 700 weavers printed at the back of the reference. Anderson has worked with Catherine Hawthorne on what may be a never-ending project.
She writes in the preface: “Neither of us realized what we were getting into; I often wonder if we would have started if we knew then what we know now…. The incorporation of the coverlet archives from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg brought our total number of coverlets to about nine thousand, with new entries being added weekly. The database will never be complete. We will always be chasing a new weaver, new information, or a new coverlet previously unknown to us.”
In addition to sharing the biographical information she has gathered on weavers, Anderson supplies valuable technical details that help explain the process to people who are not themselves weavers. Wool and cotton coverlets use a limited color palette with most patterns contrasting natural undyed yarn with indigo blue and red from madder root or cochineal bugs. Anderson also describes the compound weave structures of coverlets – double weave, Beiderwand, tied Beiderwand and weft loop — that helped produce their characteristic appearance.
Pattern, influenced in part by the cultural design sources of immigrant coverlet weavers, has always been a strong draw for collectors. The fancy coverlets popular between 1830 and 1855 could only be made with specialized equipment: a draw loom, a barrel loom or one fitted with an attachment invented in France by Joseph Jacquard, who has given his name to one type.
While many coverlet patterns are floral, others weave more dramatic elements into their design: birds from American eagles to the peacock, domestic and exotic animals and even houses, boats and trains. One rare Pennsylvania example in the exhibition is tropical riot of palm trees, giraffes, leopards and alligators. In such a wealth of woven detail, visitors find one coverlet after another catching the eye.
Even Linda Baumgarten has trouble picking a favorite: “I like them all — each time I go in the exhibit, I have a new and different favorite. I like the weft-loop weave coverlet by Hannah Leathers Wilson, although it’s quite different from all the others. It’s the only one in the exhibit woven by a woman and not woven on an elaborate loom. And it’s a different technique from all the others; the loops are pulled up on the surface, so there was more intensive handwork.”
Then she adds, “But I love the New Jersey ones with their crisp definition — very dark indigo and white or indigo and blue — and such charming borders. And an example attributed to Harry Tyler in an unusual brownish gold with a snowflake effect in the center field.” Once enthusiasts begin to look closely, the choice just becomes more difficult.
People in the antiques business who came in contact with the McCarls over the years are quick to offer tributes to this extraordinary collection. Lancaster, Penn., dealer Trish Herr says, “Foster McCarl is a high-end collector with a wonderful sense of what’s good. He’s just a remarkable man and a very nice person, still actively collecting and very knowledgeable. It’s probably the finest coverlet collection you’re going to see.”
“He’s a wonderful guy and I’m privileged to call him a friend,” says coverlet specialist Melinda Zongor in Bedford, Penn. “My husband Laszlo and I have known him for a number of years. We were thrilled to attend the opening of the Williamsburg exhibit. Mr McCarl should get the credit for much of the interest in coverlets that exists today. He began collecting at a time when nobody took them seriously at all. There was a moment when he was just about the only guy out there. He not only amassed an absolutely wonderful collection, he also elevated coverlet collecting to a higher plain.”
As an added bonus for collectors, Melinda Zongor has authored a second publication, Coverlets and the Spirit of America: The Shein Collection, just out from Schiffer, that documents another Pennsylvania collection that was formed by Philadelphia attorney Joseph D. Shein. She points out, “In the book, we’ve tried to take a different approach. For the first time, we’ve shown all 105 coverlets with full-page color photographs of both the front and back. We’ve kept the captions short to have as much room as possible for the images, and I have written a separate essay about the history of coverlet production in this country.”
Zongor has examined individual coverlets for historical clues to people and events of their period, noting, “I talk about the fact that pattern motifs are very often a reflection of historical events and the fashion sense of the time — why they are what they are and what they represent — so it’s a different approach.” The Zongors are preparing a special coverlet exhibition for this October’s Heart of Country Show in Nashville.
To learn more, suggested reading are:
American : Coverlets from the Collection of Foster and Muriel McCarl by Clarita S. Anderson ($39.95), with a biographical dictionary of more than 700 coverlet weavers, has been published in conjunction with the current exhibition by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Orders: 757/220-7693 or www.colonialwilliamsburg.org.
Coverlets and the Spirit of America by Melinda Zongor, just published by Schiffer ($69.95), features 100 examples from the collection of Philadelphia attorney Joseph D. Shein. Orders: 610/593-1777 or www.schifferbooks.com.
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