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Learning to See

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.

faded purple coverlet woven in the 1800s

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.

Thanks mom!

16 thoughts on “Learning to See”

  1. Thank you Liz, a moving post. I recently became a motherless child as well – may you have peace with the transition.

  2. What a lovely tribute to your mother, I’m so sorry you lost her Liz. I will check out the book you referred to and thanks for an uplifting tale to begin the day with. I completely agree with and appreciate her last words to you. Thrift shops are hallowed ground.

  3. What a treasure. Makes you wonder how many precious things are just dropped at a thrift store and never identified.

  4. how fantastic that you saw the value in this coverlet…beyond the $ value is the time it took someone to spin the yarn, dye it and then weave it…wouldn’t it be great if we all would put names and dates to our handmade treasures so that someday when someone else sees the value, they’d also have the history. loved this story.

  5. Beautifully written Liz! Your mother left you with an amazing philosophy of life and how to live it. You and your family will hold on to that forever. Thanks for sharing💕

  6. Liz,

    Thank you for coverlet story, and your thoughts about your Mom. I am so sorry for your loss. What a touching legacy you have received.

  7. It is a tribute to our foremothers that collectors, textile lovers, and historians like Liz care enough to pay attention to what is left behind. Each piece has a story to tell. Thank you Liz for your efforts to discover what you could about the overshot coverlet.

    PS The blue color is darker in the photograph than it is in reality.

  8. Beautiful coverlet and a lovely post. You will always think about your mother when you look at your coverlet.

  9. I really appreciated the coverlet story. Interestingly, earlier today I attended [on line] a presentation at Stitches by Myra Wood, all about weaving overshot, coming from her new book, Crazy Shot, about weaving variations in overshot patterns on the RHL. Your name came up during the Q&A, as one woman asked Myra about the best vids and teachers for RHL weaving and she suggested you and a couple other sources for learning to weave. Myra went into the global history of supplemental weft patterning and how various patterns are universal around the world. Anyway, my mind was on overshot patterning, when I saw this entry from your older Yarnworker entry. How wonderful that your mother saw to it that you could have this beautiful coverlet.

  10. Liz, I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing the interwoven stories of your mom and textile history with us – it’s a generous gift! I wish you peace and comfort.

  11. Beautiful coverlet story and fascinating story about the pre-civil war coverlet. I just ordered a copy of the book “Plantation Slave Weavers Remember”. I can’t wait to read it.
    Thank you.

  12. Thanks for sharing this, and condolences. I bought Plantation Slave Weavers Remember and was knocked flat. I recently donated it to the library at the Minnesota Textile Center in case anyone local is interested in it.

  13. Liz, thank you for highlighting the skills of women in the past. Their inspiration to make beautiful the items essential to life — no IKEA or Bed, Bath and Beyond — is a creative urge I admire always. Peace to you as
    life goes forward.

  14. Beautiful piece of writing (and cloth)! Heartwarming and brought back memories of my own mom who passed away many years ago. Don’t be surprised if you pick up the phone to call her when you want to share something with her for many years to come. Moms leave quite a legacy through their children!
    Wishing you peace and happy memories,

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