Coverlets and Fabric from York County Sheep and Flax
One of the colorful patterns from Abraham Serff’s pattern book, now in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives.
Weavers were essential members of the community in 18th and 19th century America. In Pennsylvania before the Industrial Revolution you would raise sheep for wool and cultivate flax for linen fibers. After processing and spinning the raw materials into thread or yarn, you would take them to the local weaver. Well over 500 York County weavers from 1800 to 1860 have been identified, and as I point out below in my recent York Sunday News article, there were probably many more.
The colorful legacy of the weaver lives on in the brightly patterned coverlets produced in quantity from the 1830s through the 1860s. The more intricate patterns were produced with a special Jacquard attachment, which the weaver would purchase to add on to his loom. At least one York County craftsman manufactured the attachments, as advertised in the newspaper add immediately below. It was first published February 11, 1834 and ran for quite some time.
“Machinery for Weaving DamaskANDInstruction to Weavers
The subscriber informs the public most respectfully that he makes Machines for
WEAVING OF DAMASK,
on which coverlid and tablecloths can be wove on the newest fashion, into which can be made all sorts of animals, trees, plants and fruits, and all sorts of house furniture, houses, and churches, also all languages in writing or print, or any thing that maybe desired. Every weaver, either coverlids or linen, can immediately weave on them, and any loom can be used for the purpose. The machine costs half as much as a roller and requires no patent right. As I have made the machinery for a number of persons, and all have been satisfied with it, I can recommend it to the public. I can give instructions in every branch of weaving, and therefore ask printers generally to make it known for the good of the public. My residence is on the Baltimore turnpike, at Dr. Rouse’s Factory near York, Pennsylvania.
Fb. 11, 1834.”
See below for the York Sunday News column on York County weaving and Abraham Serff.
Weavers Essential Part of York County Life
Where did York County people get their clothing, bedcovers, towels, tablecloths, carpets, and other fabrics a hundred years or so ago? There were only a few merchants selling cloth, and the material, some of which was imported from Europe, was often too expensive for every day use.
The answer starts with home grown raw materials. Sheep were shorn each spring to supply wool, and flax was grown each summer to produce linen fiber. After laborious cleaning and processing of the wool and flax, it was home spun into yarn and thread of wool and linen. Then what?
That’s were the neighborhood weaver came in. These skilled artisans with their large looms would turn the homespun fibers into whatever fabric the customer wanted. Then, with the exception of items like coverlets and carpets, which were pretty well finished when they came off the loom, the customer would take the fabric home to sew into finished clothing and other items.
Well over 500 weavers (all male) are listed in the existing York County tax records of 1800-1860. There were certainly more, as the records are not complete, and most weavers practiced other occupations, such as farming, and never got picked up in the tax records as weavers. Abraham Serff (1791-1876) of Paradise Township was a quite prolific weaver, but the only source that lists him as such is the 1850 census. Serff’s pattern book, showing beautiful schemes for geometric coverlets, and one of his account books is in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives collection. The existing account book, with entries concerning weaving and farming from 1843 to 1873, was probably one of a series since he was already 52 years old when it was started.
What did Serff weave besides coverlets and carpet? He wove lots of linsey, also called linsey-woolsey, a common coarse fabric of wool and linen. Serff also produced many yards of linen and also tow, which comes from the shorter fibers of flax than those of linen. One entry is for 11 days weaving one piece of table linen at $.25 a day for Andrew Menges in 1861. That probably equates to about 40 yards. Perhaps Menges was a retailer or wholesaler to order that much at one time. Serff’s accounts also show yards and yards of huckaback (toweling), flannel, crossbar (checked) flannel and diaper, which is named for the weave. (Diaper became a favorite fabric for use with babies, hence the common name.)
Colorful coverlets, especially popular from the 1830s to the 1860s, were usually woven on a loom strung with cotton warp (vertical) threads. Even though not grown in this area, cotton was readily available after the invention of the cotton gin in the 1790s and it was inexpensive before the Civil War. In 1845 weaver Andrew Kump of Hanover advertised that he would “furnish necessary Cotton Yarn for each Coverlet for $1.62 1/2.” The weaver would then use the customer’s own spun wool, which had been dyed in the desired shades, often striking reds and rich blues, for the weft (horizontal) weave. The rest of the cost of the finished coverlet would be for the weaving itself. Abraham Serff charged from $1 to $1.87 1/2 each for the many coverlets listed in his account book.
Serff’s pattern book illustrates carefully blocked out geometric star-like and block patterns in red and black ink. It also shows diagrams for threading looms. Even though he wove many coverlets, he does not seem to have ever used a Jacquard-type attachment. This loom attachment, which uses punched cards to control the pattern, was invented in France and became quite popular in America by the 1830s.
In 1834 Frederick Koch, just south of York, advertised that he made this type of machine and would teach weavers to use them to weave their “coverlids.” A weaver would need one of these attachments to weave the familiar intricate designs of eagles, houses, trees and the like. He would also use it to sign the quilt with his name as well as the year and often the name of the person for whom it was made. No signed Abraham Serff coverlets have ever shown up. Combined with his pattern book of strictly geometric patterns, it is assumed he never used a Jacquard-type attachment. Coverlets by weavers such as Andrew Kump and Martin Hoke are much more identifiable since they used the attachment to sign their work with their names.
The Civil War hastened the end of the solitary craftsman and his loom. Material was needed for the war effort and cotton became very difficult to acquire. The cost of raw material and labor rose. Prices in Serff’s account book doubled from the beginning of the war in the early 1860s until its end in the mid-1860s. By the end of the war, factory-woven cloth was also becoming more economical for the consumer.
Abraham Serff’s pattern book is featured, along with 42 Jacquard coverlets, many of which have never been displayed, in the current exhibit “From Old Looms to Heirlooms: York County Coverlets” at the York County Heritage Trust. Several modern samples of fabric woven according to Serff’s patterns are also on display. You can see Jacquard coverlets and other textiles currently being woven at Family Heirloom Weavers near Red Lion.
The photos below are of Abraham Serff’s ledger, now in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives. It lists customers for coverlets and other fabrics.
Click below to read about another York County craft, furniture making.