One of Historic Palmyra’s five museums, the Alling Coverlet Museum in Palmyra, New York, displays an impressive 500 bed-sized coverlets, along with a few quilts. A coverlet is a loom-woven bed covering usually made of cotton or linen.
Bonnie J. Hays, executive director of Historic Palmyra, said that equipment developed in 1804 by Frenchman Joseph Marie Jacquard, the Jacquard loom attachment, enabled people to make coverlets in whatever creative design they wished. By inserting punched cards into the attachment, they could make coverlets in custom designs, which launched a whole industry of traveling coverlet makers.
“You would have to lay it out with graph paper,” Hays said. “It’s kind of like needlepoint. Before that time, people could weave them. People wove baskets during Jesus’ time.”
The attachment made it much easier to make intricate designs.
“Typically, in that day, the only people working at coverlets were the men,” Hays said. “The women didn’t really weave. They’d have a quilting party. The men were the breadwinners. They’d weave coverlets and sell them. They had to sell their wares and people would special order them.”
The large looms were made by carpenters using barn wood with tongue-and-groove construction and pegs, not screws.
Advertisements would let townspeople know when and where to expect a traveling coverlet maker so they could have their special design woven into a coverlet.
“They would take their looms with their wagons and take the loom apart,” Hays said. “People in the town would give them wool or linen and they’d weave what they wanted. It was like a drive-by shopping experience.”
Some people wanted smaller items like a table dresser, piano scarf or a vest. Once all the orders in a town were filled, the traveling tinker would move on to the next town to find work. The looms could make items of any size up to eight feet.
Assessing Coverlet History and Worth
The Coverlet Museum receives donated coverlets from all over the country, but typically most come from the Northeast and Atlantic Coast.
Hays said that as the older generation is passing away, the donations are increasing as families seek a new home for coverlets. Hays said that coverlets were made to be durable, which was part of their appeal, and that means the donations are usually in good shape.
Any coverlets in good condition are worth more than those in poor condition. It also helps if the coverlet is rare or woven by a well-known weaver or a woman weaver, of whom there were few.
“If you’re lucky enough, a lot of weavers had a corner block (on the coverlet) with their name on it and they may put on (it) the person they wove it for,” Hays said.
That can be helpful for tracking down who wove the coverlet.
“If a woman’s name is in the corner, it was a gift to her,” Hays said. “She (probably) wasn’t the weaver. There are only four women weavers (that were known).”
Usually, the head weaver of the company making the coverlets would use his name instead of the name of any female weavers working for him.
People knowledgeable about textiles can also identify the material and dyes used, which can also give clues about the origin and value of the coverlet.
Various factors affect an antique coverlets value. For instance, a coverlet could be rare due to a unique feature like a mistake in a coverlet made by an excellent weaver ordinarily. Or, a coverlet that belonged to someone important or famous may be more valuable.
“But they have to be in excellent condition,” Hays added.
Rare coverlets could be worth up to $3,000. The museum has a few rare coverlets and one that was made by a female weaver.
Caring for Coverlets
The museum hangs at least 70 coverlets a season among its display rooms. There is also a quilt room since some people donate quilts.
Hays wishes that anyone with an unwanted coverlet would find an appropriate home for it, rather than treat it as an old rag or unwanted.
“People today are a throw-away society,” she said. “They don’t have a great love for coverlets. If you’re out changing the oil, it gets messy. But a coverlet sure soaks that grease up. (Or, people think) they’re good for drop cloths (and) put them down when (they’re) painting. Dogs love them in their dog houses. They have many uses.”
She would prefer that antique coverlets get used on a bed or else donated to a place like the museum, so others can enjoy them. The museum sews a cloth tube on the back so the coverlets can hang by the top on wooden rods. Those not on display are stored in a temperature-controlled, waterproof vault.
Cleaning soiled coverlets is a multi-person job. Hays only cleans one if it is truly soiled, because older coverlets will likely lose color if they are washed. A washing machine is not advised to clean them, because cotton coverlets pucker and woolen ones that go through the wash will look fuzzy.
Hays vacuums them lightly and washes them outside in a large tub of water and a non-chemical, gentle soap like Dreft.
“They don’t like to be shoved around and dipped and dipped,” Hays said. “Do everything gently; not too hot. The wool can take it, but the color may not. No wringing or twisting. I’ve had to wash a few and I’m not a fan of it. It takes a whole day and that’s to get it to the point where it will dry.”
Hays lifts the wet coverlets out with a rubber-coated paddle to avoid laving marks on the coverlet. She spreads it out flat instead of line drying.
“When they’re wet, they’re so heavy that they break their yarn,” Hays said. “What I do, is I get a couple of big sheets that match the size, I lay (the coverlet) on the sheet on the ground so no grass gets on it. Hold down each end and let it dry. It’s quite a procedure.”