Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).



Our charge today is to discuss strategies and methodologies for gathering and extracting data from textiles. My specific task is to discuss the University of Maryland Historic Textile Data Base. This Data Base was officially established in September 1986 with a grant from the College of Human Ecology. Its purpose was to establish a sophisticated data management program on personal computers to handle the massive amounts of data necessary for research in this area. The long range goal of this project is to include all flat textiles. The immediate goal is to establish a data base on coverlets.

Before discussing the data base itself, I would like to review the background of this project. This will include identification of the relevant academic disciplines, definition of the terms, description of the historiographical framework, and discussion of both the modified model used in organizing the artifact data, and the model used in organizing the technological process.

During my graduate work, the issue of how to study nineteenth century American flat textiles in general, and coverlets in particular, became critical. One could not find a model which had been successfully applied to these textiles. Flat textiles, for the purposes of this research, are defined as finishe'd textile products which have a recognizable utilitarian function. However, the utilitarian function may be of secondary importance. Examples of such flat textiles include coverlets, quilts, samplers, show towels, and political handkerchiefs.

My academic discipline is material culture studies. A general definition of material culture varies not only among disciplines but also among scholars within disciplines. Schlereth finds anthropologist Melville Herskovits' definition of material culture most useful. Herskovits defines material culture as the totality of artifacts in a culture, used by humans to cope with their physical environment, to facilitate social interaction, delight their fancy, and to create symbols of meaning.1 However, all definitions are similar in two respects. First, the "material" in material culture is meant to refer to a range of artifacts that have been either made or modified by man. Second, there is a link between material and culture.2 I would add a third element, the use of physical evidence as primary data. Under this umbrella, decorative arts scholars have had a long tradition of studying functional artifacts, such as, furniture, silver, pottery, and glass as primary data for study, rather than as illustrations.3

My dissertation, Maryland Coverlets: The Artifacts. Technology, and Weaver4 was, in large part, a search for methods of studying flat textiles, such as "figured and fancy" coverlets. I looked to decorative arts scholarship for direction and found many clues. However, many methods were not appropriate, because coverlets were not unique, high style, one-of-a-kind artifacts.