With painstaking detail, Tyler Coverlets thrived for nearly 25 years
By Lenka Walldroff
Jefferson County is known for many things but perhaps one of the most famous is the Tyler Coverlet. Harry Tyler, the maker of these coverlets, built a successful business from their manufacture.
Mr. Tyler was primarily known for his bridal coverlets. Each piece was inscribed with the name of the bride, her county of origin, and the year in which the coverlet was woven; these coverlets were an essential piece of every bride’s “setting out.” Though famous for wedding coverlets, Mr. Tyler’s repertoire also included baptismal and birth coverlets, as well as woven carpets.
Mr. Tyler was born in Connecticut in 1801 to English parents. His father was a marine merchant who was lost at sea when he was young, so his mother raised him. He spent his early years in Milford, N.Y. After he married, Mr. Tyler moved his family around New York’s central tier for a number of years before finally settling in Butterville — a small hamlet in Jefferson County located between Henderson and Adams.
Once in Butterville, Mr. Tyler set out to fulfill his dream of weaving carpets and coverlets. He was a man of high principles, very painstaking in all of his work and accurate to the last degree. Being of a mechanically inclined and scientific minded, he not only invented his own looms, but he made every part of them himself. In addition, he also drew his own designs for the coverlets, which were numerous.
In 1834, the weaver’s shuttle started flying in Butterville. All of the work on the coverlets was done by hand — either by Tyler himself or three of his children who apprenticed under him. No coverlet was ever worked on by anyone outside of the family in order to keep secret the manufacturing process. Even the dyeing of yarn was done by a member of the Tyler family — by hand and at home.
The coverlets came in two predominate colors: red or blue. The blue dye was sourced from indigo; the red came from cochineal — the crushed bodies of small red insects that live on cacti in Central America and Mexico. The dye was bought locally from Elisha Camp of Sackets Harbor. The coverlets were reversible with the dominant color on the front set against a white background on the back. They were made of two pieces sewn together — the top and bottom of each coverlet were mirror images of one another.
Another distinguishing feature among the coverlets is the symbol on the bottom right corner. Early coverlets were adorned with a lion, a nod to Tyler’s English heritage and, eventually, the American eagle was introduced. It is said that British brides preferred the lion while British brides with American sympathies requested the lion with stars, and American brides chose the eagle.
Coverlet orders were completed on a custom basis. The customer provided the yarn spun to Harry Tyler’s strict specifications. Customers would then choose the design, border edging, whether a lion or an eagle would appear in the lower right corner, and their preference of red or blue dye. Tyler charged $2.75 per coverlet in 1840.
The business closed after 24 years in operation when Harry Tyler died suddenly of a stroke in 1858. His eldest daughter, Cynthia, completed the last few coverlets that were in progress on the looms and then shut the doors.
The Jefferson County Historical Society is fortunate to have within its collection approximately 40 of these coverlets.
Lenka P. Walldroff is the former curator of collections for the Jefferson County Historical Museum. She was a museum specialist and conservator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.