Friday, October 09, 2015

Eleanor Nut McCain's Homespun Coverlet

Detail of the overshot coverlet

The Georgia Museum of Art recently received as a proposed gift an overshot coverlet, woven out of wool and cotton and dyed with indigo and madder. Like all overshot coverlets, it has a simple geometric pattern. The red, white and blue yarns as well as the striped pattern suggest both the American and the Confederate flags. It was woven in three separate pieces on a four-harness loom, and then the pieces were sewn together. From the style and the genealogical information provided by the donors, direct descendants of the original weaver, we can confidently say that this coverlet dates from the middle decades of the 19th century.

Eleanor Nut McCain is identified by a piece of cloth sewn onto the coverlet as its original maker. Genealogical information provided by her family tells us that she was born on May 2, 1818, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and died on July 25, 1899, in Gadsden, Alabama. The descendants who inherited this coverlet remained in Etowah County, Alabama (the location of Gadsden), until the second half of the 20th century.

It is unknown if Eleanor’s descendants are correct about her being the weaver of this coverlet, as most coverlets were made by professional male weavers who traveled from town to town, taking commissions from individual families. It could be that Eleanor merely commissioned the coverlet, and her descendants, upon inheriting “Grandma Eleanor’s handwoven coverlet,” assumed that she was the one who wove it. Several factors, however, speak strongly in the favor of Eleanor being the weaver. The simple geometric style of the coverlet tells us that it was woven on a four-harness loom, without the fashionable Jacquard attachment that was invented in 1820, as opposed to the kind of loom owned by a professional weaver. We also know that many southern women took up spinning and weaving during the days of the Civil War, as the blockades limited the amount of new fabric that could be imported. Homespun became a patriotic statement.

It would make sense if Eleanor McCain wove this coverlet at that time, as she would have likely been unable to purchase a new coverlet in the bellum atmosphere of scarcity. The colors of the coverlet are also the colors of the Confederate flag, which raises the possibility of the coverlet being made as an explicitly patriotic gesture. Dale Couch, the museum’s curator of decorative arts, points out that it could have expressed either Confederate sympathies or covert Union sympathies. Support for the Confederate cause was not universal, and some counties, Couch says, tried to secede from Alabama (as Jones County attempted in Mississippi).

It would only be natural for her children and grandchildren to treasure, pass down, and publicly exhibit this coverlet, which in their time was unfashionable, if their grandmother made it as a gesture of self-sufficiency and patriotism.

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