Color in textiles has played a significant role in history. Once used to distinguish class, royalty, or profession, color has long served a practical purpose in society. Color has also served creative purposes, and as the western world grew wealthier in the Nineteenth Century, color in textiles became more prevalent and accessible to the middle class. Coverlet weaving, therefore, bloomed into a colorful, successful art and market for middle class Americans.
While weaving was a profession exclusive to men, women contributed to the process as spinners and dyers. Today we imagine purchasing yarn easily, already dyed in a distant factory. In the Nineteenth Century, buying or importing entirely manufactured goods could become expensive. Instead, just like the weaving process, the dyeing process took place on a small scale. Women first turned to the forest and fields to collect plants, and would emerge with a rainbow of opportunity. Yellows, reds, greens, browns, and blacks were drawn from a variety of simple items, including leaves, stalks of sumac, and the bark of alder, birch, walnut, hickory, oak, butternut, hemlock, poplar, and maple trees. If her purse allowed, she could purchase plants sold commercially from overseas, such as Nicauragua wood, Brazil wood, and camwood which produced bright crimson, or indigo and woad for a lovely blue.
As collectors of color, women learned a great deal about which plants provided certain colors and then devised recipes to create dye in the desired shade. These recipes provide us with a window into these ladies’ workspace and natural dyeing process. Here is an example of one woman’s recipe for creating the color indigo:
“Indigo Dye – To two gallons of warm water add one pint lye from wood ashes. Mix one pint of madder with one pint of wheat bran, and a little water – enough to wet it. Put this in the bottom of the kettle with a white plate over it. Put the indigo in a thick cloth in the two gallons of water and when it is soft, rub out the dye. Then put in the blue yeast saved last for dyeing.”
Blues and reds are popular coverlet colors, while greens are less frequent, and pink, yellow, orange, and purple are the least common. Sometimes, in place of dyed yard, weavers could interweave two colors to mimic another color. For example, reds and blues could be woven so closely from a distance they appear purple. One example from a coverlet currently on display in our American Architecture exhibit is shown below:
Through skilled observation and experimentation, women produced dazzling hues that men wove into intricate patterns, both memorialized in coverlets like those in the McCarl Collection.
Now it’s your turn: What’s your favorite favorite color of yarn to knit or weave with?