Mary Tuthill Coverlet
Mary Tuthill Coverlet
Alexander, James; attributed to
Wool and cotton
86 x 77 1/2 inches
Wichita Art Museum, Museum purchase, Wichita Art Museum Members Foundation
Not Currently on Display
About the Artwork
James Alexander was born in Belfast, Ireland and came to the United States in 1798, where he resided in Little Britain, Orange County, New York and lived there his entire life. His account books are now preserved in the library of the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown. This coverlet is inscribed “Mary Tuthill, Sept. 4, 1822” in two corners that form the terminus of three borders consisting of eagles with shields, stars, Masonic symbols and “Independence Hall” framing six large floral medallions. The fabric is indigo dyed wool and natural cotton woven as double cloth producing a reversible design. The date, September 4, 1822, is probably the date the coverlet was woven and not an anniversary of the client. Two known coverlets bearing the same date are recorded in his account books. Alexander executed this intricate design using a modified drawloom.
Two units of design form the basis of his weaving method: the lower border with the name panel and the large floral medallion with its lateral border. The early weavers worked with a width that suited their shuttle arms, generally equaling half the width of a coverlet. He began with the lower border and name panel and then proceeded to the second unit of his design, weaving half this design and reversing to complete this symmetrical unit. Repeating this later process three times, he achieved the desired length. He then allowed a space for cutting and binding and repeated the entire process again but added the lower border and name panel in reverse so that it read correctly from the reverse side. The two halves were separated and sewn together to complete the coverlet. Most handlooms in the first quarter of the 19th century were limited primarily to rectilinear design. Although many creative designs were produced on these looms by variations in color and elaborate geometric patterns, the trend away from these innately austere designs and toward a fanciful rococo revival style was demanded by a rising middle class in the new republic. The peace following the War of 1812 created a prosperity manifest in ardent nationalism and consumer consumption. Artisan weavers were forced to modify their simple handlooms and create sorting devices for the warp threads to produce designs too elaborate to memorize.
Designs were begged, borrowed and stolen from design books, glass, ceramics, folk sculpture as well as from other artisans. The 1820s and ‘40s saw rococo, classical Gothic, Egyptian, Masonic and American nationalist symbols blended to create a unique American design style that is evidenced in the borders of the Mary Tuthill Coverlet. Alexander’s border, which acts as his signature on many of his coverlets, is noticeable less sophisticated than the central design. This disparity occurs as a result of readily available baroque and rococo floral designs in contrast to the virtual lack of prototypes for his borders, which create a new vocabulary of American design. This naïve combination captivated consumers and achieved a charming and successful, if now somewhat eccentric unity.