The Process of Weaving a Figured Coverlet
In addition to custom yardage and household textiles, my focus has expanded into the branch of figured weaving, specifically figured coverlets and carpeting. To my knowledge I am the only producer of these goods working by hand in the United States today. The Jacquard head I work with is among the oldest operational Jacquard machines in North America, and quite possibly the oldest in use for professional handweaving on the continent. A purchase of a figured coverlet directly supports the care of this historic equipment and the skills to use them. Place a standard order in the shop, or contact me about a custom commission.
My figured coverlets are inspired by those woven in the 19th century whose designs, sentiments, and aesthetic continue to resonate with me 200 years later. Coverlets like those woven by John Campbell of Komoka, Ontario, or the Agriculture & Manufactures coverlets woven by unidentified weavers in Dutchess County, New York, examples of which I have available to study in my own collection. While I pride myself in remaining as faithful to the originals as possible, some adaptation of design is required to match the patterning capabilities of my loom.
Each piece of figured weaving begins on the point paper, a grid 500 columns wide and as many rows tall as the pattern requires. My Jacquard head contains 500 hooks, each controlling the warp yarns represented by one of the columns on the point paper. Every row of 500 blocks represents the weft picks for one row of the pattern and this information will later be contained in a single punch card. The columns are divided into groups of ten as an aid when punching the cards.
Once the point paper is complete it's transferred to the board of the piano cutter. This particular piano cutter was manufactured by John T. Hardaker Ld. of Bradford, England ca. 1880. The board is fitted with an adjustable straightedge to guide the cutter's eye and a pointer that indicates to the cutter which group of ten on that row is being punched on the card. My Jacquard head has fifty sets of ten needles, so the cards are arranged to match with locations for fifty sets of ten holes each. The cutter punches one card for every row on the point paper, beginning with the first grouping of ten columns. The necessary holes for that set of ten are selected with the fingers on keys and the punching block is brought down through the card by depressing a treadle. The opposite treadle is then depressed which releases the carriage holding the card, advancing it to the next set of ten. The cutter repeats the process until reaching the other side of the point paper. With the row of pattern on the paper now punched into its corresponding card, the straightedge is advanced one row and the next card is cut.
When the cards are cut they are laid out on a jig and laced together. The lacing is carried out with a pair of cords that weave in and out of the lacing holes on the cards and are twisted around each other at every junction. This twisting prevents the cards from becoming overlapped with each other as they wrap around the cylinder of the Jacquard machine. There are as many cards as there are rows in the design. In the case of my adaptation of the Agriculture & Manufactures coverlets, there are just shy of 300 individual cards.
As a manually operated loom becomes more technologically complex it becomes increasingly specialized in the fabrics it can produce. Possible yarn size, fabric density, and weave structure are all directly connected to the setup of the harness and comberboard. My loom is harnessed in a single straight tie giving me 500 design blocks from selvedge to selvedge across the fabric and weaves 2:1 tied doublecloth.
Tied doublecloth utilizes two warps, a heavy ground warp controlled by the Jacquard head and a separate tying warp that binds the fabric together. The ground ends pass in pairs through heddles attached to the Jacquard leashes while the tying warp passes independently between them. All of the ends are drawn into heddles in the ground harness that sits between the figure harness and the lay. The ground warp pairs are individually drawn into long-eyed heddles on two leaves, the tying warp through standard heddles on two leaves.
The weaving sequence begins by treadling the Jacquard machine and locking its treadle under a cleat that's fastened to the floor. Following this, two picks of weft are woven, one pick of the heavy wool figure weft, the other of a fine cotton tying weft, each one with a different combination of sheds in the ground harness. The row of pattern is then complete, the Jacquard is treadled to read the next card, locked open, and the process repeated. Without a ground harness the Jacquard would require three times the number of hooks and double the number of cards to complete the same amount of weaving.
Visit the online shop to place an order for the only handwoven figured coverlets made in America today. Your support ensures a future for this piece of uniquely American folk design, historic weaving technology, and traditional skills.
Below left, an Agriculture & Manufactures coverlet woven in 1830 for Sarah Ham, my version of this same design meets it at right.