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Joseph Marie Charles (1752-1834) never really bore the surname that has been applied to his loom. Rather Jacquard was a nickname of sorts given to his family’s particular branch of all the Charleses in Lyon during the 18th century. Despite the family’s prosperity (his father was a master weaver), Joseph had very little education and did not learn to read until he was a teenager. Joseph’s father died when Joseph was 20, but it is unknown how he spent much of his early adult life.

Historians are fairly confident that he married in 1778, had a son in 1779, fled the spreading rebellion in Lyon in 1793, and joined the revolutionary army, where his son would die in battle. By 1800, Joseph had returned to the family tradition and was experimenting with innovative new ideas – including the Jacquard loom, which could be “programmed” to weave pattern. Although there was opposition from weavers who felt they would lose their work and there were technical glitches that would not be resolved until 1815, the potential of his loom was immediately recognized and the French government awarded Jacquard a pension and royalties on machines.

In traditional weaving, warp threads are stretched up and down on a loom, while weft threads run at right angles to the warp through the “shed” or the gap created between the lower and upper warp threads, which are raised and lowered by the operation of the loom in between passing the weft threads across back and forth through the shed. For plain cloth, this is simple – every other warp thread is raised and over hundreds and thousands of passes of the shuttle of weft threads, the cloth is built up. Then it gets complicated… By raising warp threads in different orders and by changing out the colored threads in the weft, a weaver can create a wide variety of textures, patterns, colors and even designs, but the process is slow and complicated. Jacquard’s loom, which used punched cards with rows for each row of the design that were then strung together in order, aimed to expedite the process and eliminated common errors, building on the work of more than 70 years’ of contributions from other French weavers, none of whom had been able to create systems that would execute textiles complex enough to justify the expense and the learning curve. But Napoleon was eager to incentivize improvements in the French textile industry in order to trump Britain’s textile business, Jacquard had the work of several other key inventors to build on, and his success was quickly recognized.

Jacquard coverlets in America are occasionally seen from the 1820s, but 1830s dates are much more common. The production of Jacquard pieces in the United States would hit its peak in the 1840s and 50s, but would taper off fairly rapidly with the equally dramatic rise of New England textile mills. As with all textiles, condition is important. While there were looms large enough to accommodate the full width of a coverlet, most were woven on smaller looms, necessitating the weaving of two separate panels that were then stitched together along the center – the same center line along which they were often folded. As a result, coverlets are often found with split or fraying areas down the middle. Weavers would frequently sign and/or date the corner blocks and these coverlets tend to be more desirable, as are the rarer patterns with railroad or steamboat imagery (as opposed to the much more common flower or bird motifs).

Values for coverlets have softened over the past decade. Textiles always require a different kind of commitment than many antiques, as they cannot be used, and coverlets in particular are difficult because they are woven, meaning they pick easily, and they are wool, so they collect dust and pet hair. Coverlets in rough condition can bring as little as $10-$25, while most fetch between $300-$700 at auction, although ones with rare designs or from areas with few documented examples can still get to $1,000-$3,000 on the auction block.

A circa 1860 cast iron finch sewing bird inscribed A. Jerould & Co. PatentFew people sew these days and the majority of those who do use a vast area of expensive equipment and gadgetry, but “sewing notions,” as they’re often called, are nothing new. Take, for instance, the sewing bird. In the days before things like quilting hoops and dressmaker dummies (or at least affordable ones), a woman stitching would use a sewing bird to clamp her work to the edge of a table top, keeping a steady tension as she worked on a seam. A sewing bird is simply a clamp, made of everything from brass to wood, embossed tin to bone, cast iron to wrought iron, typically with a figural top in the form of a bird.  Sewing clamps dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries have been discovered, but their heyday was the 19th century, when sewing birds in particular were popular. Initially they were a screw-type clamp, but later models sometimes employed springs. They occasionally appear in other forms – frogs, dolphins – but perhaps birds were the most common because when in use it appeared as though the bird was “perched” on the table. And, since the sewing bird was just sitting right there, the form was soon embellished, often appearing with a small pincushion.

As sewing birds go at auction, value seems to be “clamped” to a couple factors, aside from the usual caveats about age and condition (the spring models in particular are often damaged): materials and form. Bird forms make up the vast majority of those that appear at auction, so rarer forms can command bigger prices and standard mass-manufactured versions from cast iron or brass have far less value than those made from rare more “individualized” handcraft materials such as wrought iron, wood and bone.

A fabulous early American silk embroidered sailor's jumperWinter passes slowly. We count the days, watch the shifting sea of snow outside the windows, and try to occupy our time, but whenever I start to be really weary, I try to remind myself that it could be worse: I could be on an 18th-century whaler. Whaling voyages lasted years and the only thing that could possibly be more unchanging than a snowy Ohio cornfield would be an endless vista of water. So it’s no surprise that sailors found a number of small, intricate projects to occupy their time.

As we highlighted a few weeks ago, sailors often worked on scrimshaw pieces, carving scenes in teeth or pieces of baleen, and fashioned small objects like pie crimpers or jagging wheels. (At one time, it was thought that sailors made these “sailor’s valentines,” but research in more recent decades indicates that they were likely made in the Caribbean, Barbados specifically, and sold to sailors as keepsakes.) While modern depictions of sailors in centuries past are often of rough, pirate-esque men, the objects they left behind frequently reveal finer, more delicate skills, but perhaps few more so than this recent offering at auction, a sailor’s shirt or jumper with intricate embroidery, work that would far more likely be attributed to a woman in any other setting. In reality however, sailors did a great deal of sewing (a great deal of all manner of domestic work, in fact), spending their hours repairing sails and ropes, as well as their own clothing. So it’s not difficult to imagine the detailed embroidery on this piece being the work of a sailor as well, a sailor who, the American flag and eagle would seem imply, served in the United States Navy. Few such pieces are known to exist aside from objects in the collection of the Winterthur Museum and the Smithsonian, although there are a few extant images, including this one which has collar and cuffs tinted blue, showing sailors in shirts of similar style.

A circa 1805 needlework sampler, "Nabby Fowler," reportedly Salem, Essex County, MassachusettsLinsey-woolsey is a fabric that is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of linen and wool woven together to create a coarse, durable fabric, sometimes woven plain or as a twill (for twill, think the diagonal weave pattern often seen on denim). “Lin” is an old term for flax, the plant whose fibers are used for linen. Occasionally, it’s referred to as “woolsey-linsey” or by the blending of the two terms, “wincey.”

Linsey-woolsey as a term has been in use since the 15th century, although the fabric itself was used much earlier (even making an appearance in the Old Testament where its blended nature made it forbidden) and it gained popularity in the American colonies in the early years when wool was not as common as it was throughout Europe. Its rough nature made it popular as a utilitarian fabric, as it was cheap, wore well and was heavy enough to be warm, but for these very reasons, it also had an association with poverty and lower classes. It appears to have been used primarily for clothing, blankets and as a foundation for needlework (like the one pictured above).

The term has become somewhat diluted as it is often applied to a form (coverlets), to other coarse blended fabrics, including those of wool and cotton, or simply to the rougher “homespun” goods of the 18th and 19th centuries.

An 1834 sampler of Elizabeth Voorheis, age 13, made at Elizabeth L. Wycoff's school

An 1834 sampler of Elizabeth Voorheis, age 13, made at Elizabeth L. Wycoff's school

To paraphrase The A-Team‘s Hannibal Smith, I love it when resources come together!  This month, we got an e-mail from researchers in Hunterdon County, New Jersey who have been accessing the database through their library.  Dan and Marty Campanelli are working on a book on Hunterdon County samplers, and in searching, they found a sampler with unidentified origins by an Elizabeth Voorheis with the name of her teacher, Elizabeth Wyckoff, included, and the date of 1834.  In the early 1800s, young girls, especially those from upper and middle class families, were educated, but not in the same manner as their male counterparts.  And, like their male counterparts, if it was available and affordable, they were educated outside of the home, or at least by outsiders who visited their homes, as well.  However, instead of studying Latin, geometry or history, young women learned skills that are often grouped under the heading of “schoolgirl art” – things like landscape and tole painting (on paper or canvas, but also often seen on small pieces of furniture), music, and needlework, all skills designed to help young women create and entertain in lovely, cultured homes.  As a young unmarried woman, it’s likely that Elizabeth Wyckoff supported herself in a modest manner by instructing young women in the finer points of needlework.

After some genealogy work, they’ve determined that the Voorheis sampler was likely made in neighboring Morris County, New Jersey, a fact which not only offered them an example from one of Ms. Wyckoff’s earlier schools, but allowed them to determine where she had been living prior to arriving in Hunterdon County.  All this has made it possible to identify similar characteristics in the works and draw together a group of several New Jersey samplers influenced by the same woman – Elizabeth Wyckoff.

This is a great story, not just of the results of dogged research or the shadow of the story of a young woman who by all rights, as an unmarried middle-aged woman in the early 19th century, should have been lost to history by now, but also of how Prices4Antiques is able to offer so much more beyond just pricing information.  (And this is also one of the things that makes what we do special – we’ve gone back and annotated the record so that it includes more information and more current information than what the auction house originally offered.)  Amazing things can happen when materials are compiled in such a way that the right people can find them at the right time, and we’re pleased to have helped with another little piece of the historic puzzle!

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor, p4A.com

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