Imprisoned weavers at Auburn State Prison loom house wove this Jacquard, double-cloth coverlet with an ornate carpet medallion centerfield and floral borders in Auburn, Cayuga County, New York in 1838. The coverlet also features the dated floral cornerblocks associated with the prison’s other attributed coverlets. Being double-cloth, the coverlet is composed of two sets of warp and weft. The red and blue wool yarns are S-spun singles and the natural cotton yarns are 2-ply, S-twist, Z-spun. The coverlet measures eighty-eight by sixty-four inches and features a center seam.
Not much work has been done on prison weaving in the 19th century. Ralph S. Herre wrote a dissertation while at Penn State University entitled, "The History of Auburn Prison from the Beginning to about 1867." He confirmed that the prison did have a carpet weaving shop, sold to local customers, and even attempted to cultivate and manufacture silks. In American Coverlets and Their Weavers (2002), Clarita Anderson included an entry for a coverlet which had a family history of being from Auburn State Prison and dated 1835. Anderson pointed out that of the four confirmed Auburn State coverlets she had encountered most are Biederwand structure, not double weave. She attributed the coverlets to New York weaver, James Van Ness (1811-1872).
The two Auburn State Prison coverlets in the NMAH collection have a similar corner block organization but different motifs, suggesting the possibility that the individual(s) designing the point papers and cutting the cards for these coverlets were the same person, maybe even Van Ness. More research is needed to confirm Anderson's attribution. It could be, and likely was the case, that the prisoners were trained in coverlet and ingrain carpet weaving by a master weaver, perhaps even Van Ness. At the very least, ornate Fancy weave jacquard card sets were purchased by the prison with the express purpose of producing fancy weave coverlets for general consumption. Prisoners at Auburn State were organized in what became known as the Auburn- or Congregate-Style. Prisoners spent most of their time in isolation in their cells. They were released for work hours, six days a week. They walked silently to work, worked in silence, and lived in silence. This coverlet is a fascinating material glimpse into the culture and economics of prisons in the 19th century.
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