Harber’s History: Rutherford coverlets preserved in time

Susan, Harber, The Daily News Journal, February 19, 2017

Rutherford County artisans created beautiful hand-woven coverlets.
(Photo: Submitted)

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a two-part series.

Coverlets in Rutherford County of the 19th century were an artistic expression of high expertise. These exquisite gems are preserved over time from both Peru and Egyptian deserts in the pre-Columbian era (before 1492); and their beauty features antiquated textiles of fine weaving. The National Coverlet Museum in Bedford, Pa., displays the most pristine antique coverlets in the world.

These twill hand-woven materials are vulnerable unless well-preserved. Humidity is a strong force to disintegrate fibers in a short time frame; yet, several exemplary coverlets remain ever-present from our Rutherford County artisans, who pioneered this craft as their own.

Weavers showcased in this story preferred Overshot coverlets that utilized undyed cotton warp and weft with repeating geometric patterns enriched by a dyed woolen weft. The Overshot Pattern Block was woven of a supplementary weft of wool interlaced with plain weave and formed blocks of floating wefts. These coverlets crafted on a French Jacquard power loom (created 1801) utilized within a home manifest large-scale floral prints. Some weavers preferred double-weave (two-layer) coverlets. The loom read patterns from punched wooden cards held together in a long row by rope. Paper punched cards were used in the 20th century. The new loom allowed for a pioneer woman to weave 2 feet a day and proved a grand asset to this craft.

The weft included threads woven back and forth with a shuttle, while the warp was the cotton threads placed on the loom. Coverlets were usually made of two woven panels joined with a center seam. Geometric coverlets had two seams with three panels joined. The length of the coverlet was woven twice and then hand-sewn together to create an adequate width to cover a bed. The weaving of one bedcover often encompassed one to two days of toil.

Natural dyes were conceived from native trees, barks, roots and flowers within our county. Blue was a predominant color, as indigo was inexpensive and colorfast. Some dyes faded and blemished the textile. Much testing was required, and the skill was truly an art form.

An excellent weaver from our county was Mary Ann Sanders Dill, whose pattern “Nine Snowballs and Table” is a masterpiece. The coverlet was woven in 1855, and the weave is Overshot. Mary Ann was born in Rutherford County in 1815 and died in 1900. She married at age 16 to Marvel “Jack” Dill on May 3, 1831. She bore 11 children and named one son Tennessee Dill.

Her textile was 82 inches in length with a weft of natural cotton and red and blue wool with 3-loom widths joined.

Mary Ann’s parents were Phillip and Elizabeth Bean Sanders. Elizabeth was Phillip’s second wife, bearing Thomas, Hiram, Lydia, Hale, Angie and Mary Ann (weaver). Mary Ann’s granddaughter Dora Dill Pattilo inherited the coverlet.

A second outstanding weaver was Miss Josie Holland. She created a Counterpane (bedspread) textile in 1893 with a Huck weave that was 94 inches long. The coverlet was cotton and 3-loom widths joined. The cotton was hand-spun from the crop grown on her family farm.

Josie’s niece Mattie Ines Holland Davidson inherited the coverlet. Then, the coverlet was given to Mattie’s daughter Elva Ruth Davidson Jackson.

These historical textiles were primarily woven from 1771 to 1889. Many coverlets retained hard “wear and tear” and have not stood the test of time, while others were conserved and survive today as whole and very special. Our county weavers were smart and ambitious in this feat.

In a second article, we will explore more talented Rutherford County weavers, who reached great heights in this endeavor with both ease and complexity.

Contact Susan Harber at susanharber@hotmail.com.

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