A Brief History of Overshot Weaving

So, now that you are weaving overshot on your loom- what exactly is overshot? Where did it come from? What makes it so cool?

Incredible, multi-colored, early 19th century coverlet.
Incredible, multi-colored, early 19th century coverlet.

The origin of the technique itself may have started in Persia and spread to other parts of the world, according to the author, Hans E. Wulff, of The Traditional Crafts of Persia. However, it is all relatively obscured by history. In The Key to Weaving by Mary E. Black, she mentioned that one weaver, who was unable to find a legitimate definition of the technique thought that the name “overshot” was a derivative of the idea that “the last thread of one pattern block overshoots the first thread of the next pattern block.” I personally think it is because the pattern weft overshoots the ground warp and weft webbing.

A beautiful overshot coverlet with fringe on three sides.
A beautiful overshot coverlet with fringe on three sides.

Overshot gained popularity and a place in history during the turn of the 19th century in North America for coverlets. Coverlets are woven bedcovers, often placed as the topmost covering on the bed. A quote that I feel strengthens the craftsmanship and labor that goes into weaving an overshot coverlet is from The National Museum of the American Coverlet:

A quilt is generally assembled from pre-existing cloth. A coverlet is made from scratch.

Though, popular in many states during the early to mid 19th centuries, the extensive development of overshot weaving as a form of design and expression was fostered in rural southern Appalachia. It remained a staple of hand-weavers in the region until the early 20th century. In New England, around 1875, the invention of the Jacquard loom, the success of chemical dyes and the evolution of creating milled yarns, changed the look of coverlets entirely. The designs woven in New England textile mills were predominantly pictorial and curvilinear. So, while the weavers of New England set down their shuttles in favor of complex imagery in their textiles, the weavers of Southern Appalachia continued to weave for at least another hundred years using single strand, hand spun, irregular wool yarn that was dyed with vegetable matter, by choice.

Coverlet from the early 19th century.
Coverlet from the early 19th century.

Designs were focused on repeating geometric patterns that were created by using a supplementary weft that was typically a dyed woolen yarn over a cotton plain weave background. The designs expressed were often handed down through family members and shared within communities like a good recipe. And each weaver was able to develop their own voice by adjusting the color ways and the treadling arrangements.  Predominately, the homestead weavers that gave life and variations to these feats of excellent craftsmanship were women. However, not every home could afford a loom, so the yarn that was spun would have been sent out to be woven by the professional weavers, who were mostly men.

And, due to the nature of design, overshot can be woven on simpler four harness looms. This was a means for many weavers to explore this technique who may not have the financial means to a more complicated loom. With this type of patterning a blanket could be woven in narrower strips and then hand sewn together to cover larger beds. This allowed weavers to create complex patterns that spanned the entirety of the bed.

Another coverlet from the early 19th century that was woven in three pieces and sewn together.
Another coverlet from the early 19th century that was woven in three pieces and sewn together.

What makes overshot so incredibly interesting that it was fundamentally a development of American weavers looking to express themselves. Many of the traditional patterns have mysterious names such as “Maltese Cross”, “Liley of the West”, “Blooming Leaf of Mexico” and “Lee’s Surrender”. Although the names are curious, the patterns that were developed from the variations of four simple blocks are incredibly intricate and luxurious.

This is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the history of this woven structure. If you are interested in learning more about the culture and meaning of overshot, check out these resources!

The National Museum of the American Coverlet- a museum located in Bedford, Pennsylvania that has an extensive collection of traditional and jacquard overshot coverlets. Great information online and they have a “Coverlet College” which is a weekend series of lectures to learn everything about the American coverlet. Check out their website – coverletmuseum.org

Textile Art of Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women – This was an exhibit that traveled from Lowell, Massachusetts, Morehead, Kentucky, Knoxville, Tennessee, Raleigh, North Carolina, and ended at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, Scotland. The exhibit contained a large number of overshot coverlets and the personal histories of those who wove them. I learned of this exhibit through an article written by Kathryn Liebowitz for the 2001, June/July edition of the magazine “Art New England”. The book that accompanied the exhibit, written by Kathleen Curtis Wilson, contains some of the rich history of these weavers and the cloth they created. I have not personally read the book, but it is now on the top of my wish list, so when I do, you will be the first to know about it! The book is called Textile Art of Southern Appalachia: The Quiet Work of Women and I look forward to reading it.

And my own collection of books that I pulled together information from:

The Key to Weaving: A textbook of hand weaving for the beginning weaver by Mary E. Black

Mastering Weave Structures by Sharon Alderman

And the book that got me fascinated with overshot in the first place, A Handweaver’s Pattern Book by Marguerite P. Davison.

Do you love overshot as well? Tell me what you know about it! I would also love to see what patterns you have woven yourself.

Images were sourced from ARTstor, a digital library of images from the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences.

13 thoughts on “A Brief History of Overshot Weaving

  1. The overshot technique results in beautiful complex pieces! The only problem is that it takes twice as much time to be woven…

    Thanks for the information!

    1. I agree. Sometimes if you get a pattern with a good rhythm you can breeze right through it! Though I never seem to be infatuated with anything easy. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi, Im not a weaver and just purchased what another person identified to me as an overshot. Its double woven and completely reversible. She and I agree that the work is very nice, but we are confused about the brightness of the red color. I have no knowledge of these coverlets, other than what Ive seen on the web the last few days. I was wondering if you could look at ebay auction 111260815076. If you go to ebay and copy this number into the search you will see it. Sinve the auction has ended once you get to it you will click on the thumbnail of it and then scroll down to see many closeups. I hsve not received this yet, so this is the only way to send pics at this time. These are great closeups. Please help with any info you can give me. Such as a weaver guild or individual that may have made this. I definitely believe its American.. Dont worry no matter what you say I wont be disappointed. I only paid 16 for it. thanks for any info you may have such as pattern name, etc.. thank you so much, Debra

    1. Hello Debra! I think I can help a little bit with your new blanket (which looks wonderful by the way!) I do agree with you in that I think it is an American coverlet. As to the age of the blanket itself? I do not know. The red is very bright and the white very clean- so it was either excellent preserved or it is a newer cloth (not contemporary, but 20th century I think). Here is what I can tell you: the pattern that is woven is a table and rose pattern. The wonderful qualities of overshot is that the front and back are reversed of each other, allowing for two different looks to choose from. This particular motif looks similar to one that was woven in the very early part of the 20th century. It looks like it was woven on a narrower loom and seamed together. And the edges look like they were sewn and then gave it a crocheted trim. Other than that I do not really know. The best way to find out more about the blanket is to bring it to a historical society. I don’t know where you are located but maybe someone from the American Coverlet Museum would be able to help you find more specific terms to the throw. I sure you could send them some pictures. When you receive the blanket you could see if you could pull a little bit of the yarn from the blanket and do a burn test. With a small piece of the yarn, light it with a flame and you could either let it burn or extinguish it. If it smells like burning hair then you have a wool blanket. If it smells like paper, it is possibly cotton. And if the smoke gives off a chemical smell, it is a synthetic material.

      Let me know what more you find out! Looks like a beautiful piece of cloth and I hope it keeps you warm on many of these winter nights!

      -Tegan

  3. Thank you so much Tegan! Just knowing the pattern name will help. I will definitely do the smell test you describe. Seller advertises it as Cream color, so Im not sure the white is as white as it appears, but no doubt it has been taken care of. I inquired of the seller who lives in OH of anymore info as to where it was purchased etc. I live in NM.. not exactly the coverlet capital of the world, but we do have many master and Indian weavers here and there is a group near my home, so maybe Ill ask them. Its really hard to determine color on ebay photos. Believe me Ive recd blankets that shock me when they get here as color seems to change thru the mail. I have seen some Goodwin Guild coverlets that seem to be the same white and red, just not double woven, but Im going to keep following you.. I dont collect and am in the process of putting together 3 separate decors in a vintage canned ham trailer. Just liked it but really doubt if it will ever go camping. Its just too nice! I cant wait to receive it and will let you know when it gets here and how the smell test went. Thanks again, Debra

    1. Tegan, i did hear back from the seller and she purchased it in Shaker Heights, OH, She said it was from an upscale estate sale there. She said the daughter of the woman who purchased it said that it had always been stored and never used as far back as she can remember. She said her mother bought it on one of her .travels, but doesnt know if it was abroad or here. I think it was here. Im learning alot from your site, thank you, Debra

    2. Debra, That is amazing! It looks so new. Sounds like is was deeply cherished and that is very exciting that you are able to bring it into your life! I’m working on a few more posts about overshot, so hopefully you can learn some more on how it was made. That canned ham trailer sounds AWESOME. Id love to see pictures as you progress. -Tegan

  4. Tegan, Im sorry its taken awhile to get back to you. I recd the coverlet and its in superb condition, but as I study it more I know that you are probably right about late 19th /early 20th century. Each of the 3panels are 20inches. The wool is coarse and the color is a deep cranberry not as red as the auction photo. The linen is an oatmeal color. There is one missing weave in the linen of the center panel and it looks as if it was made this way by accident, I guess. To me it only makes it more interesting. The crochet picot edge is very tiny and I have seen others they claim to be from 1860s with the same edge.

    I cant use this in camping decor and cant use it here either, as my dogs and lifestyle dont go with delicate…lol, so I need to know the proper way to store it and keep it nice. Would an old hardsided suitcase be ok..how do I keep moths at bay! and odor free..Hear its not good to store cotton in wood but dont know about linen. This is definitely a linsey woolsey..Thank you for your help and I will continue to follow this thread to learn as much as I can, Heck Id like to trace it to a weaver..Debra

    1. I talked this conundrum with my husband and I think we had come up with a solution. I would store it like you would in a museum. In an acid free box with acid free paper (both of these things can be purchased at an art store). To pack in the blanket I would fold it loosely, and in the folds I would put some packed acid free paper. This will prevent the folds from becoming creased and weakened. To prevent moths would be either some lavender sachets or some cedar chips. Store it in a cool dry place if you can. Then I would periodically take it out and refold it in a different direction (once to twice a year should be sufficient). You could also see if you have a local historical society that cares for textiles. I learned about these methods from the Erie County Historical Society when I was taking a course in textile history. It sounds absolutely gorgeous! I have a few books on overshot and they weren’t always perfect, which makes them so much more endearing. Keep me updated on what more you find out about it, I can’t wait to learn more! -Tegan

  5. Your website is a lovely inspiration to us weavers. Thank you.
    I am hoping you can help me with a problem concerning an overshot draft called Snail Trail. I sampled on my table top loom and felt that the set would be fine if I could beat harder on the floor loom. But it isn’t going to work out.
    I am using 2/8 cotton, sleyed 20 EPI for my warp.
    I am committed to using a 2 ply course spun wool.
    Problem. My pattern is slightly off the perfect 45 degrees (it is steeper) while still on the loom. Once I take it off and wash it, it will be worse.
    Should I sley my ends @ 18 EPI? I am afraid it will be to loose if I do that.
    Is it an acceptable solution to change some of the weft repeats without changing all the number of repeats in order to balance the pattern shape?
    I would appreciate your comments.

    1. This is actually an issue that I had encountered time and time again. What I have learned that as annoying as it is- it is best to sample on the loom that you are actually going to be doing the final weaving on. I had some yarn that on my small loom was just fine at 18 EPI, but once I carried it over to the floor loom- I couldn’t even open a shed. I had to spread it out to 14 EPI!

      With that being said- you could try an 18 EPI. I would try another sample first. It may seem loose on the loom at first (especially after getting used to weaving 20 EPI on the table loom), but you may find that the yarn will settle into its appropriate position. Once washed the threads should cozy up to one another nicely. Try another sample on the loom that you are going to weave the final product on- and let me know how it works out!

      Edit: I was thinking more about this after I replied to your comment. I always pick the sett that I think will weave up correctly and then do that sett and two setts above and two setts below the sett I think will work for the weaving on the same loom as I am going to do the final weaving on. One other thing to think about is that it may not necessarily come out dead on at a 45 degree angle when you are weaving it, you want that perfect 45 after you have washed and finished the weaving (this angle can change with the fulling of the fabric during the washing and finishing process), so keep track of your setts and execute your entire washing and finishing process just as you would for your finished piece. This will give you a pretty solid idea of what you will get when you finish your final project.

  6. 8/2 cotton at 20 epi should be just fine. Don’t be afraid to increase the size of the pattern bits, or to decrease the size to make your pattern suit your needs.

  7. I do all of my overshot coverlets and throws with 20/2 cotton warp and tabby at 30 epi and 30ppi. Pattern weft can vary in size2/8 or 3/8 wool is fine. 5/2 or 3/2 cotton works well, too.

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