Family Heirloom Coverlets in Smithsonian Museum

Writer  /  Nancy Craig .  Photographer  /  Forrest Mellott

An heirloom is defined as “a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations.” In my family, we had a blue and white coverlet passed down from my great-great grandmother marked in the corner with W Craig VW Greensburg IA 1855. My husband is Ken Craig, and his family is from Greensburg, so we researched this heirloom and determined that the coverlet was woven by Ken’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Craig, Sr. of Greensburg, Decatur County, Indiana.

William Craig, Sr. immigrated in 1820 to America from Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland. In the mid-1800s, William and his two sons, William Jr. and James, were very successful professional weavers in Indiana. William Craig, Sr. made both coverlets and in the corner inscription, the “VW” means master weaver and the “IA” means Indiana. Pauline Montgomery features the Decatur County Craig’s in the book, “Indiana Coverlet Weavers and Their Coverlets.”

Last fall we went to The Craig Family Creative Legacy exhibit in Greensburg, Indiana, which featured art photography by Fred Craig and a collection of Heirloom Craig Coverlets organized by Diana Elder Springmier. The Craig coverlets were from private collections, and Rex Hauser from Michigan brought a beautiful American eagle patterned coverlet. Ken, Fred and Rex are descendants of William Craig Jr. and Diana is descendent of James Craig.

In researching the coverlet, we met several of Ken’s cousins over the years. The weaver, William Craig Jr., had three children: William, James and Serena. Ken’s great-grandfather was James Craig. Serena Craig Gilchrist kept a black book with the Craig family history. Sarah Craig Richey had this book micro filmed and given to the Indiana State Library. Serena’s granddaughter, Rena Mae Gilchrist Powell, did some genealogy work in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and found James Craig, the father of William Sr., was a carpet weaver.

In 1981, Ken and I went to Kilmarnock, Scotland, and met Rena Mae’s contact there who knew the history of the area and showed us a monument that lists William Craig Sr.’s older brother, Archibald Craig. That is a family story for another time, but Archibald was the first to come to America and among the first pioneer settlers in Indiana. In 1995, we visited Kilmarnock again to show our daughter, Ann, her Craig family history.

The Craig coverlets are in several museums across America, including the Smithsonian in the National Museum of American History. Locally, Conner Prairie has a collection of handwoven coverlets made by Indiana weavers including the Craigs. Conner Prairie says, “Many of the emigrant weavers brought supplementary appliances for their looms known as Jacquard mechanism, named after its French inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard. The Jacquard device was an intricate system of resolving pattern-punched cards that guided warp threads into complex designs. The result was a repeated motif which could be endlessly varied and recombined, but most often consisted of a field of floral medallions with a three or four-sided border.”

The Craig coverlets are double woven and therefore reversible, making them very sturdy and warm. Every family wanted a coverlet for their daughter’s dowry or hope chest. The Craig’s were paid $5 for a coverlet, which they could make in one day. The jacquard loom punch card system made it faster to weave a coverlet and provided a great variety of designs.

The weavers were known by their designs, and the Craig’s often used the courthouse with a copula. Note the punch card system was the forerunner of the present day computer technology. These coverlets are indigo dyed blue wool and white undyed cotton. The coverlets were also woven in several other color combinations. The jacquard coverlets were woven in two pieces and then hand sewn together.

After the Civil War, the coverlets fell out of fashion, and the hand weavers could not compete with the power looms of the Industrial Revolution. Now the coverlets are valued as a pioneer art and design of Americana. Maybe my great-great grandmother’s 1855 Craig coverlet was part of her “hope chest”; I do not know for sure since its story was not passed down. However, my mother remembered the coverlet used as a hanging curtain in a doorway (it was separated at its seam) at her grandmother’s house. She said she and her cousins used to swing on it! Our 160-year-old coverlet is a true work of art and a Craig family legacy.

Comments 5

  1. Pam says:

    I don't see a date on this article. I have 3 Craig coverlets – just collected them over the years but thanks to Pauline Montgomery's book, which I recently purchased, I now know what I have. I LOVE them! Feb 18, 2015

  2. Schooley says:

    We recently found one in grandparents attic in a trunk. They were from Indiana It is marked “W.CRAIG DC. Co. IA”. Would love to see photos of those you mentioned in your article & would share photo of ours. Appreciate the info in your article. Ours has in the border woven menorahs which indicated to us some Jewish connection. Do you know if the makers were Jewish or would this indicate the person purchasing might have been? Also, any idea how many of these were made?

  3. Paula Newkirk says:

    I have one that was my great-grandmother's dated 1854 Greensburg. It has a farm and animals on border and is blue and white. My family was wither the Hoff or Bennett side. I'm open to ideas what to do with it "later". I love displaying it .

  4. Diana Miller says:

    I have one that was my great-great-grandmothers dated 1850 Greensburg, My ancestors were the Wright and Smiley families from Greensburg and Letts, Indiana. The markings are: W.C.Craig Greensburg DC. Co IA 1850. It is made of antique blue indigo wool and natural dyed white cotton jacquard double-weave center seam coverlet. The loom width doubled is the size of the coverlet, the center seam is another way to verify these pre-civil war coverlets.

  5. Marcie Garrison says:

    I am currently doing my family history. I might be a distant relative. My great great great grandfather was James Craig born in Kilmarnock in 1820. Married to Margaret also from Kilmarnock Scotland. They had 7 children one being my great great grandmother. If you have any other information I would greatly appreciate it.

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