Patricia L. Cummings
This file is based on a talk and information shared by Donna-Belle Garvin of the New Hampshire Historical Society
Hannah Wilson (1787-1869) and her unique woven “weft-loop” coverlets, in either all white, or blue and white colors, were
the topic of a recent lecture given by Donna-Belle Garvin at NH Historical Society’s Tuck Library on Park Street in Concord.
Since 1990, Garvin, the museum’s former curator who now edits Historical New Hampshire, has meticulously researched the
life of Wilson and her work as a weaver for three decades in Farmington, New Hampshire, from early to mid-nineteenth
A chance encounter at a laundromat between Garvin and a former Smithsonian employee and local antiques and rug dealer is
responsible for her fifteen year quest to find out more about Wilson. The dealer had said that he thought that a coverlet he had
in his possession was "important.” He stated that inasmuch as he was planning a move back to Washington, he was not sure
what to do with certain items in his care, including the coverlet. At the time, he asked if the Historical Society might like his
Time passed. Suddenly one day, the man called Garvin to ask if the coverlet could be picked up right away. He explained that
the shop was having its final sale. He seemed anxious to get the coverlet into a secure location. He explained that he did not
want anything to happen to it.
Not needing a second invitation, Garvin rushed to the shop. The dealer had mentioned that the coverlet may have come from
either New Hampshire or Maine. Optimistic, Garvin was hoping for a New Hampshire provenance. Otherwise, it would have
had to be turned over to the Maine Historical Society.
True to all the other coverlets that have been located and which are attributed to Wilson, a name appears on the lower front.
In this case, the name was, “Rosamon Dame.” In addition, there is a date, and a number.
In searching genealogy records, Garvin found Rosamon listed as having been born in Newington, NH. Later, she moved to
Farmington, NH. As the researcher points out, those two towns will keep reappearing throughout this coverlet investigation.
Rhoda Ann Leighton Coverlet Discovered in Collection
For the fun of it, Garvin decided to look through the New Hampshire Historical Society files to see if any similar coverlets had
been catalogued as part of the collection. She found that the NH Historical Society already owned one in blue and white, rather
than just plain white. That had been donated in 1941, and had arrived with quite a provenance.
This blue and white coverlet has the name “Rhoda Ann Leighton,” the date, and a number. Further research revealed that
Rhoda Ann grew up in West Farmington, and then lived in Milton, both Strafford County locations near the Maine border. In
realizing the geographical proximity of these towns to Maine, Garvin could not help but remember the dealer’s remark that his
coverlet had possibly come from Maine.
Mary C. Leighton Coverlet
Soon after, Ron Bourgeault, an auctioneer of antiques, offered for sale a blue and white Wilson coverlet dated 1841, and
advertised it in a flyer. Garvin discovered that this particular coverlet had belonged to Rhoda Ann’s third cousin who had lived
next door to Rhoda Ann’s grandparents. A picture of community and familial relationships was beginning to emerge as more
and more coverlets were located.
Due to lack of storage space at the time (before the new Museum facility was built), and aware of not wanting near-duplicates
to the collection, the NH Historical Society passed on bidding.
Quest to Locate More Coverlets
Since 1990, Garvin has sought (and found) additional examples of coverlets woven by Wilson. They have been located at the
Smithsonian, the Museum of American Folk Art, the Shelburne Museum, Old Sturbridge Village, the Wadsworth Atheneum,
and the Columbus (Ohio) Museum of Art. Recently, one was acquired by the American Textile History Museum. (The
coverlet which belongs to the Wadsworth Atheneum can be seen on the front cover of the Dublin Seminar publication
described elsewhere in this article).
Book Uncovers Three More Examples of Wilson’s Work
The book, America’s Quilts and Coverlets by Carleton L. Safford and Robert Bishop (New York: Weathervane Books, 1974)
shows photos of three more Wilson coverlets which the author also refers to as “candlewick spreads.”
The first coverlet, pictured at the top of page 288, lists it as being inscribed with “Emily Edson Jones No. 1,” and owned by
the Henry Ford Museum. This was, indeed, the first one that Wilson had made. Tragically, as Garvin learned upon inquiry, it
was lost in a storage room fire at the museum. Only a small remnant remains. The description states that it was composed of
“indigo roving and a white warp and weft”, and measured 105“ x 97."
A second coverlet shown is held in the collection of the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT. That particular coverlet has a
more complete woven inscription: “L.N. Whitehouse no. 177 1839 H.W. Aged 72.” (The “72” will become an important key
to tracking down the coverlet maker).
The name “Whitehouse” immediately rang a bell with Garvin. She was quickly able to confirm that the initial "L.” in the Bishop
book caption is a shortened version of the name “Liberty”, who was the wife of George Leighton Whitehouse, a nineteenth
century instrument maker in Farmington, NH.
Additionally, Bishop’s caption transposed the date incorrectly. In truth, the coverlet was finished in 1859, not 1839. This
incorrect date will also become a critical piece of the puzzle.
A third coverlet pictured in the book is privately owned. This time, “Liberty” is written out in the inscription, "Liberty N.
Whitehouse no. 47 1833.”
In his book, Bishop wonders whether the name “Whitehouse” is placed on both of these coverlets because 1) she is the
weaver or, 2) an “innkeeper who liked his spreads numbered and dated.” The correct answer, of course, is “neither.” Baffled,
he exclaimed that it would be interesting to know “the true facts.”
White Coverlet Remembered
Garvin began to remember another, all white “candlewick spread,” which had been the topic of an earlier contact between an
antiques dealer in South Berwick, Maine and the New Hampshire Historical Society. This coverlet was reported to have been
made by Mary Ham of Middleton, NH in 1856. Since the only “Mary Ham” found would have been only three years old at the
time this piece was created, the idea of purchasing it from the dealer was dismissed.
Third Wilson Coverlet Added to NHHS Collection
About a year later, a coverlet made for Abigail Hayes who had lived in Milton and in Farmington during her lifetime was found
at a church rummage sale in Sanbornton and was brought in to the New Hampshire Historical Society. Abigail was found to
have been the sister-in-law of Rosamon Dame (who had married a Hayes). She was also a neighbor of Liberty Whitehouse.
The clues to a tight, interconnected network of people who were related to Wilson or somehow knew her were beginning to
add up. Now, the museum owned a third example of this weaver’s work.
Provenance Information Woven on Back of Coverlet
The lower front of each of Wilson’s coverlets carry the name of the person for whom it was made, her own initials, H.W., a
date, and a number, or at least some of those pieces of data. All of the coverlets were numbered sequentially.
At first, it was thought that the weaver was a man. Following all clues, like a true sleuth, Garvin keyed into the number “72,”
as part of the inscription on one of the coverlets. She knew that she would have to start looking through census records for
someone who was 72 in 1839 and who had the right initials of H.W. That Bishop’s date of 1839 be amended to the correct
one of 1859 became an integral part of the search.
All Wilson Coverlets Have Common Traits
The common factor, or “signature trait,” for all of these coverlets is the
“weft-loop” construction that is so unique to them. Several dealers who have examined the coverlets deemed them to be
“candlewick spreads.” In this case, that terminology is actually a misnomer.
Candlewick work is a very specific type of embroidery in which heavy cotton yarn, similar to that used to make wicks for
candles, is used to make Colonial Knots, or “tufts,” which sit on the surface of the bedcovering. Wilson’s coverlets were
definitely not of this type of construction. Hers were completely woven on a loom, and had a double weft. The second weft
was pulled up to form a raised surface. The double weft feature is repeated throughout the twenty two known examples of
Toward an Understanding of Terminology
We have been speaking of Wilson’s weavings as “coverlets.” The word coverlet comes from Middle English and is an Anglo-
Norman French derivative according to the New Oxford American Dictionary. The word simply means “something to cover a
Today, while we think of coverlets as being woven, usually with 100% cotton yarns, or with a cotton/wool yarn combination,
quilters also refer to pieced or wholecloth, cotton bedcoverings as “coverlets.” In some areas of the country, such as
Pennsylvania, the same (usually un-quilted) bedcoverings would be called “"summer spreads.”
Wilson was engaged in making Bolton style coverlets, popular in England at the time. No one is completely sure where Wilson
would have learned how to weave this kind of a coverlet. Abroad, they were known as counterpanes.
The seventeenth century word “counterpane” is a noun meaning "bedspread.” Garvin states that she has found an early
nineteenth century source which describes a counterpane as a coverlet with decorative protuberances.
In use, we see the term “counterpane” used to describe bedcoverings made of 100% cotton fabrics, too, such as the
counterpanes made by Martha Washington in the last quarter, eighteenth century, which have one or more layers of cloth.
Often, the term “coverlid” shows up in old inventories. Whether we are using the word “coverlet,” “summer spread,”
“bedspread,” “counterpane,” or “coverlid,” we are thinking of a bedcovering. The terminology just changes with the
geographic location, materials used in production, and century being discussed.
How Did Wilson Happen to Be a Weaver by Profession?
Speculation has it that Hannah Wilson may have begun her career as a weaver in order to support her son, born out of
wedlock. She is listed on her death certificate as a “spinstress,” meaning someone who had worked with fabric.
More to Discover
The breakthrough in researching this topic seems to have come when it was realized that there was probably only one coverlet
maker who was making all of these similar coverlets and numbering them consecutively, and in a consistent manner, not an
easy conclusion to arrive at, inasmuch as each of the coverlets showing up in different locations lacked extensive information,
and they were spread all over the country and in various museum collections.
Who was Hannah Wilson that no birth records could be found, nor any siblings or even parents? One of the most intriguing
parts of this story is the mystery of Wilson’s identity. Hannah’s parents seemed to have disappeared until ... the truth was
revealed! Through probate records, Garvin verified that a Mary Wilson was Hannah’s sister.
By accident, Garvin stumbled upon a November 1825 newspaper announcement which stated that “Hannah Leathers” had
won three dollars for “Best Counterpane” at the Strafford County cattle show. Again, the name “Leathers” was a familiar one
to the researcher because her husband had known of the “tumble down shacks” where this group of people lived near a lake
in Barrington, NH. Locally, the area was called “Leathers
Here, yet another ah-ha! Experience had led Garvin to conclude that Hannah Wilson had been born “Hannah Leathers.” Over
time, the “Leathers” name had became synonymous with a nomadic tribe of basket makers who would travel door to door,
gypsy style, to sell their wares. Some members of the clan would also engage in illegal activities, like stealing.
After a while, members of the family began to want to change their surname for the purpose of disassociating themselves
from the criminal element of the family so that they could appear more respectable. Hannah Leathers Wilson was one of them!
In changing her name, she broke any association with the rowdy family crowd.
Outstanding Work by a Master Weaver
As you can see, Hannah Wilson was a master of the art of weaving. Her beautiful, woven coverlets are so visually compelling!
In her lifetime of 82 years, she created one hundred seventy seven coverlets in all. Like most women of that time, her
activities would have fallen below the level of scrutiny of the community. Had she not signed her work, with each and every
inscription, we would probably still know nothing of her life.
While this is a lengthy account, there is more that could have been said. We are indebted to Donna-Belle Garvin for her
generous sharing of lecture notes used in the preparation of this report, and for bringing this intriguing story to the attention of
Her research into the life of Hannah Wilson formed the basis for a journal abstract that she wrote entitled, “The Warp and
Weft of a Lifetime: The Discovery of a New Hampshire Weaver and Her Work.” This piece of scholarly writing appears in
The Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings 1997: Textiles in Early New England: Design, Production,
and Consumption, published by Boston University, 29-47.
The journal is still available to purchase, or you may choose to request a copy of the appropriate pages from Interlibrary Loan
at the Reference Desk of your public library.
Cover of a Dublin Seminar publication
With just 21 coverlets located so far, we know that there are more to find!
If you happen to find one of the other 156 coverlets, please report this new sighting to Donna-Belle Garvin! We will all be
most anxious to hear from you!
In Maine Antique Digest, February 2006, p. 25D, there is a photo of another coverlet that is attributed to Hannah Leathers
Wilson. The recent discovery, offered for sale by Raccoon Creek's George R. Allen of Oley Forge, Pennsylvania, was made
for Jamson A. Leighton whose name appears with the date of 1852 at the top of the 9' 6" woven square. Allen surmises that
the Leightons were probably neighbors.
February 6, 2006: Donna-Belle Garvin reports that yet another Hannah Leathers Wilson coverlet has been located in a private
collection in Wisconsin. A reader of this Quilter's Muse column alerted her about it!
2/13/07 - We received a Letter to the Editor from Anna Champeney who is a professional weaver in Galicia, Spain. She is
interested in reviving the technique of felpa gallega, a traditional form of Spanish weaving.
Post note: Many thanks to Donna-Belle who shared all of this information with me. Without her hard work and tenacious
tracking of every detail, this story would never have been written. This extraordinary tale has much to tell us about the
coverlet maker and the times in which she lived. Patricia Cummings
©2006. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Contact Patricia at: email@example.com
To contact Donna-Belle Garvin at the NH Historical Society, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org