One of my favorite things to do when visiting my mom in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is to go to the local thrift store. Tucked in a corner is a section where the staff and volunteers sift through the donations and pick out special items to set aside for silent auction. I’m grateful that the sifters have an eye for textiles, as there are often treasures that might otherwise go unnoticed. The way this section works is you get a bidding number and record your bid in a book. If there hasn’t been a bid higher than yours for over seven days, then the item is yours.
During a visit in 2018, I spotted a coverlet hanging in the corner. My coverlet structure skills aren’t great, but I’m pretty good at spotting handspun, hand dyed yarn. It was love at first sight, and although I was leaving soon, my mom kept an eye on it and got the last bid. I can’t remember the exact amount that was paid, but my max was $100 knowing it was priceless, but that was what my budget would allow. My mom ended up gifting it to me, but I don’t think she exceeded my max by much. I thankfully accepted it and hung it in our bedroom where there isn’t any direct sunlight, and there it stayed.
As soon as we all were vaccinated, my spouse and I hopped in the car and drove cross-county to spend a few weeks with mom, who had been dancing with cancer for the past five years. (She took her last dance in July and grateful to be there doesn’t begin to cover it.)
While tucked into her writing room, I noticed a piece in the paper, about an event focusing on coverlets at a regional museum. I saw the notice too late to attend, but I thought of the coverlet and reached out to the speaker Kathleen Curtis Wilson to see if she could shed any light on its origins. I was already familiar with Wilson’s work and shared a story about her discovery of a rare pre-civil war coverlet believed to be woven by an enslaved person. (If you haven’t read Plantation Slave Weavers Remember: An Oral History by Mary Madison, please do. It is an important gathering of Black weavers’ voices.)
Here are Wilson’s thoughts about the coverlet.
“This is a very interesting coverlet. It is not a known pattern and I had a hard time deciding what pattern the weaver altered to come up with it. I have determined that it is a variation of Catalpa Flower or Double Bowknot. The weaver had the drafting skill to deepen the table block and widen the bow to weave a unique pattern. Of course, it could be that she knew how to draft a pattern all her own. Her weaving was consistent throughout, so the blocks meet nicely in the middle. The wool yarn is hand spun – not perfect but very well done. I suspect the cotton is commercially spun but hard to tell. The color is a natural dye, maybe from indigo cake matter but I am not a dye expert. The edges are uniform and consistent. She was an accomplished weaver in every sense. I would estimate the age at 1850-70. Keep it out of the sun and donate it to a museum one day. The pattern makes it very special.”
I reached out to the thrift store to see if they could shed any more light on its origins, but sadly it was just dropped off in the general donation box with no identifying information. I’ve put a flyer up in the store to see if anyone will come forward with more information.
That is the thing about learning how things are made and the cultural environment in which they exist. You begin to understand what you are seeing and place a greater value on the whole of it—the thing and the person’s story behind the thing. Perhaps a piece of cloth such as this is something to be seen as old and worn, but to those who share your love, a rare find. One of the last things mom said to me was, “If you stay awake, look around, and expect people to be interesting, they are.” The family treasure I inherit is to keep my mind open and to cultivate curiosity.