Sunday, April 8, 2012

Precision and perseverance, remembered in fiber

I'd never thought much about coverlets until I happened upon the National Museum of the American Coverlet in Bedford, Penn., last week. The museum aims to give "coverlets the recognition and respect they deserve, while bringing their history to life."

Unlike quilts, coverlets are made on looms and in the past, given the smaller size of home looms, were usually made in at least two parts to make them wide enough to fit across the bed. This required a preciseness in weaving so that both parts matched as perfectly as possible. Coverlets made for home use by women usually had simple geometric patterns, so stitching them together was not that challenging. But some weavers turned coverlets into an art form, creating intricate designs, perfectly matched. These makers wove their names into them, often in all four corners of the finished product, backwards and forwards.

Coverlet weavers who did this for money worked up to 18 hours a day, often in unheated sheds, according to Melinda Zongor, the museum director who gave us our tour. It took strength and perseverance to make a coverlet, in addition to nimble fingers and a craft sensibility. But the women who wove coverlets (and other linens for their families' use) often did so in between tending babies and doing all the work required of them to keep the household going. Each day was a series of nonstop chores, none of them much remembered. And yet, here some of their  coverlets had survived and traveled through the centuries, from their small looms to this wide space.

Though the main purpose of the coverlets was to keep people warm at night, I realized they also served a more intransient purpose—to give evidence of these weavers' lives beyond names on gravestones or recorded in family histories. Each coverlet was motion captured, an idea completed, a life remembered in woven fiber.

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