Ozark Coverlet Project founders Marty Benson and Laura Redford are long-time weavers with an interest in re-creating old weaving patterns and telling the stories of the weavers who made them. Their own weaving experience allows them to put themselves in the shoes of the weavers—to question why or how a design decision was made, or why a “mistake” was corrected or not corrected. Their eyes pick up details in the woven cloth that non-weavers might not see until they are pointed out.
In 2012, Marty and Laura saw a coverlet on display at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, Arkansas. They learned from museum collections manager Carolyn Reno that the coverlet was woven by Ozark pioneer Lettie Mills Lewis, who moved to Northwest Arkansas around 1833. This discussion of the Lettie Lewis coverlet led to an idea: Marty and Laura volunteered to research the coverlets and handwoven pieces in the Shiloh Museum collection. The Shiloh Museum enthusiastically agreed!
As Marty and Laura searched for information on Ozark weavers, they found almost nothing—a stark contrast to the volumes of research, documentation, and writing about weavers and weaving in Appalachia, a region with strong cultural ties to the Ozarks.
It quickly became Marty and Laura’s goal to not just document the technical aspects of each historic coverlet and handwoven item, but to also learn all they could about the Ozark pioneer women who often traveled long distances to new homes, bore—and sometimes buried—children, raised gardens and milked cows to feed their families, and, oh yes, wove all the fabric for their household’s clothing, sheets, towels, and blankets. Weaving a coverlet was one of a pioneer woman’s few opportunities to create art and to decorate her home. These textiles were displayed on the bed—the largest piece of furniture in the house—for all to see and were a matter of pride for the owner and weaver.
After hundreds of hours of research, Marty and Laura authored and the Shiloh Museum published Ozark Coverlets: The Shiloh Museum of Ozark History Collection in 2015. Not content to rest on those laurels, Marty and Laura are now working on the Ozark Coverlet Project—a study of historic coverlets and handwoven items in museums and private collections throughout the Arkansas Ozark region.The long-term goals of the project are to shine a light on Ozark weavers and their coverlets by recording their personal histories, and to keep the tradition alive by recreating historic threading patterns in modern notation for today’s weavers.