Rogues’ Hollow Antiques recently came across an early coverlet that got us thinking about the history of coverlets in North America. A woven overshot coverlet is defined in Wikipedia as, a type of bed covering with a woven design in coloured wool on a background of natural linen or cotton.
How could the coverlet we found, something so necessary and practical for our early settlers, have survived relatively unscathed? So we set out to find out more about them. We went to the undisputed bible in this subject area entitled, “Keep me warm at night- early handweaving in Eastern Ontario”, by Burnham and Burnham, published and reprinted by University of Toronto Press, 1975.
According to the book’s authors, the oldest securely dated overshot coverlets found in North America were woven in the US, all have dates and sometimes initials woven in the corner. The earliest was dated 1773 and is now in Winterthur. Unfortunately, coverlets in Eastern Ontario do not have dates.
The origin of the overshot technique of weaving was brought from Scotland around (1756-63) and continued to be woven in the US until the late 19th century but demand was waning due to industrialization. Hand-weaving was already dying out by the time of the Civil War (1861-5).
In Canada, no examples comparable to the US have been found. The earliest linen versions date from around 1800. The overshot weaving process in Canada is found most frequently in areas of Scottish settlement (Maritimes, Eastern Townships of Quebec) and in those founded by the Loyalists following the American Revolution.
Overshot weaving ceased entirely with the Great War of 1914-18. In Ontario, professional weavers were virtually all men. Features of overshot coverlets are geometric patterns, the earliest often woven in 2 parts due to smaller looms and were sewn together to form a coverlet. Most are woven with cotton and dyed wool, indigo blue and red being the most common colours (cotton for the warp & wool for the pattern).
Most early coverlets did not survive because they were a staple in the Canadian cold winter and simply wore out or were re-purposed for another use.
When we came across the coverlet featured in this post we thought of our early settlers, people like the English settler, Susanna Moodie, who so eloquently wrote of her experience in her famous book, “Roughing it in the Bush“. Here she reminds us of the sheer force of will it must have taken to survive during the early years of our nation:
From: Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush; Or, Life in Canada (London, England: Richard Bentley, 1852) and 3rd
The necessaries of life were described as inestimably cheap; but they forgot to add that in remote bush settlements, often twenty miles from a market town, and some of them even that distance from the nearest dwelling, the necessaries of life, which would be deemed indispensable to the European, could not be procured at all, or, if obtained, could only be so by sending a man and team through a blazed forest road, — a process far too expensive for frequent repetition.
Antique objects, like the early coverlets that can still be found in Eastern Ontario, give us a window into the world of our early settlers and allow us to touch and feel the remnants of our history.