June 1993

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The Ailing Coverlet Museum

Palmyra, New York


Bill Treichler

The Ailing Coverlet Museum in Palmyra, New York, has the largest collection of coverlets in the United States. Some were made by women on home looms from yarn they had spun and dyed. Many were woven by regular weavers, often men, who sometimes used yarn brought to them by individuals who wanted a coverlet loomed. The professional weavers generally used larger looms and produced coverlets that were about 80" by 90". Some coverlets were woven in two strips and then sewn together to make a bed-wide cover.

Home weavers made coverlets from yarn spun from wool shorn from their sheep, or of linen that had been processed from flax grown on their farm. At the Museum is a linen coverlet woven in an overshot pattern by a woman near Ithaca who raised the flax and spun her own yarn.

Housewives used yarns of natural color and yarns tinted with dyes made from berries, bark and plant roots.

The domestic looms often had only four sets of heddles harnessed for carrying the warp threads, but with them women could weave geometric patterns for coverlets, as well as make plain weave fabric.

Warp threads run the length of the cloth. Each warp thread passes through a hole in one heddle that is held with a group of other heddles in a frame. The simplest loom has two sets of heddles that carry every other thread across the width of the warp. A weaver using a two-harness loom steps on a treadle to pull down half of the warp threads and pull up the alternate threads. Between the separated warp threads she places a thread the width of the warp, then presses the opposite treadle that reverses the position of the warp threads. Alternating the position of the warp strands and placing a cross thread between them each time makes plain weave fabric. The weaver also compresses the horizontal thread against the preceding cross thread each cycle with a beater to form plain-weave fabric which, as the weaving continues, is slowly rolled onto the loom's cloth beam.

Adding more frames with fewer threads carried by each frame allows more intricate geometric designs. Some looms had 24 sets of heddles.

Looms with four or more harnesses can weave double-layered fabric. German weavers in this country after the Revolutionary War developed what were called Summer and Winter coverlets that had a lighter side, the summer side, and a darker side, the winter side. The Beiderwand, "tied double cloth," coverlets are woven with some threads tying the two layers together. Some looms had two beams with warp threads which came together in the weaving process to roll up on a single cloth beam.

The device that allowed great freedom of patterning was a French invention, the Jacquard attachment, which controlled single or small sets of warp strands. Instead of shifting threads by foot treadles, punched cards regulated which threads would be raised each time the shuttle carried through a woof thread. A card was used for each shifting of the warp, and a chain of cards programmed the order of the weave so that an intricate pattern might be woven. A skillful person could punch the cards and arrange them in such order to produce not only fabric but a complicated design, even letters and numerals. Skillful and artistic weavers produced handsome coverlets—American tapestries.

The Jacquard system allowed weavers to incorporate dates and names, often the name of the weaver and the future owner into the weave. Some symbols identified weavers. Harry Tyler had come from England and he used a lion in the corner of his coverlets. His son who wove with him asked, why the English lion. The Tylers changed to an eagle.

In England where the guild system controlled the crafts, patterns that a weaver could use were restricted by his particular guild. Weavers in America were free to devise any pattern they wished.

There are many coverlets with similar motifs in the Ailing Museum showing that weavers may have frequently exchanged of borrowed design ideas.

The middle of the last century was a time of American self-confidence when craftsmen experimented in many ways, and weavers produced works of art for everyday use.

The Ailing Museum preserves the ideals of that era of craftsmanship by saving and showing coverlets produced in America, and in New York. It is situated in Palmyra where James Van Ness and Ira Hadsell wove coverlets. A number of examples of their work are shown in the Museum. One of Van Ness's Palmyra coverlets has at each corner the motto "E Pluribus Unum" in a banner above stars and a shield-bodied eagle. The date on this coverlet is 1849. It is blue on cream. Another Van Ness coverlet woven of yarn dyed with cochineal was made for Jane E. Hoaglund in 1850. Van Ness and Hadsell were partners from 1848 to 1852, when Van Ness who had first taught Hadsell, turned to farming and sold out to Hadsell, who continued weaving until 1875. Hadsell liked floral patterns and spent time sketching from nature for his designs.

The founder of the museum, Mrs. Harold Ailing began collecting coverlets in the 1930s. She lived in Rochester and had a cottage on Lake Keuka near Penn Yan, and was herself a weaver. Mrs. Ailing gave 200 coverlets to the Museum, and after her death her children contributed 47 more coverlets. The collection continues to grow with coverlets that come back to Palmyra from as far away as California.

The Museum opened on July 4, 1976, in a building that was donated by Mrs. Henry Griffith of Palmyra. Women volunteers painted the walls. George Larsson made simple wood frames to display the coverlets. Members of the Rochester Weaver's Guild sewed heading strips to the coverlets for hanging them in the display racks. The frames are placed at right angles with edges together, but away from walls, so that a viewer can see both sides of each coverlet. Following Mrs. Ailing's wishes, visitors are encouraged to touch and feel the coverlets.

One room upstairs is set aside for quilts. In another place are the sample rugs that were made by Sarah Hall Bonesteele. The exhibit contains many kinds of rugs that women made using materials they had at hand. At times the Museum has other exhibits, such as the hooked rugs that were shown on the floor by the coverlet racks the day we visited.

The Museum is run by a committee set up by Historic Palmyra, a non-profit organization that also oversees the Wm Phelps General Store Museum and the Palmyra Historical Museum.

A number of women in addition to Mrs. Ailing and Mrs. Griffith have been active contributors to the work of the Museum. Margaret Carr, a well-known weaver in Rochester, was chairman. She also duplicated a coverlet Mrs. Alling's mother had woven. Both coverlets are shown in the Museum.

Martha Jack and Marjorie Clark are co-chairmen now. Beth Chopek from Naples runs the gift shop.

The day we visited the Ailing Museum Marjorie Clark explained to us the history and the kinds of coverlets, and told us about the start of the Museum and the work of the volunteers who keep it going. Marjorie Clark has been associated with the Museum since its beginning. When she told us that her home adjoins the small farm where Ira Hadsell lived we felt even closer to the weaver who had made some of the beautiful coverlets we saw that day.

Go and see the marvelous weaving, the quilts, and Mrs. Bonesteele's rug samples at the Ailing Coverlet Museum in Palmyra. It is open between 1 and 4 daily from the first of June through mid September. Groups may make special appointments to visit at any time, May to October.

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