Museum L-A will unveil its latest exhibit, “Covering the Nation: The Art of the Bates Bedspread,” on Saturday, July 23, from 1 to 4 p.m. The exhibit brings together a remarkable array of never before displayed examples of world famous Bates Bedspreads from the museum’s impressive collection. The event is free and open to the public.
As part of the opening day festivities, a special “pop up” boutique will offer a wide array of Maine Heritage Weavers bedspreads for sale to the public. A selection of bedspreads will continue to be available in the museum’s Gift Shop after opening day. Sale proceeds will benefit Museum L-A.
Curated by textile historian Jacqueline Field, the exhibit highlights over thirty bedcovers that, organized thematically, present a rich design history created by teams of highly accomplished Bates & Co. artists.
“Upon meeting Jacqueline Field, she asked to see some samples, probably expecting to be presented with a few white and beige pieces,” said Museum L-A Executive Director Rachel Desgrosseilliers. “After viewing over twenty pieces, I could see she was stunned to find so many vibrant colors, weaves and designs. She told me that our collection is likely a national treasure, and one that certainly has never been publically displayed before.”
As a textile and dress historian, Professor of Textiles & Design, and former Costume Curator, Field is well-versed on the subject. Her publications include the book “American Silk, 1830-1930: Entrepreneurs and Artifacts” and numerous journal articles. She holds a Dip.A (similar to an MFA) from Edinburgh College of Art, Textiles & Design in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“Lewiston’s skilled spinners and weavers crafted Bates bedspreads, and another group, with different skills and abilities, created the designs,” said Field. “This exhibit, with immense appreciation for the actual production, focuses more on Bates design diversity and innovation in the twentieth century.”
“As curator, I had to make tough decisions regarding which bedcovers to select,” she continued. “This was certainly not an easy task, given the array of designs and types of bedcovers, which include the five main Bates fabrications: tufting, damask, matelassé, colonial and screen-printing.”
Established in Lewiston in 1850 by Benjamin Bates, Bates Manufacturing Co. became one of the largest textile manufacturers in New England. By the end of the 1850s, the Bates Mill ran 36,000 spindles and employed 1,000 workers to produce 5.7 million yards of top quality cotton goods each year.
Though bed coverings had been made by Bates Manufacturing since the 1850s, it wasn’t until after the turn of the century that Bates began expanding into new loom processes to produce such textile goods as damasks, satins, Jacquards, and brocades, and to invent the tufting process known as terry. It was during this period that the Bates brand achieved iconic status, synonymous with heirloom bedspreads appreciated for their quality, functionality and aesthetics.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, talented designers, including Herbert Hecker, who extended his knowledge with further study at Rhode Island School of Design, Ray D’Amour, whose career as a textile designer spanned 50 years, Fern Pelletier, who started in the business as a “yarn man,” and others, worked together at Bates to create innovative new bed cover patterns.
Once approved, their hand-drawn designs and patterns went through a meticulous and expensive process before the first sample could be produced. The approved design was then transferred to a series of hole punched cards for use with the Bates Jacquard looms. These operating punch cards functioned, much as a player piano scroll, to guide the weaving of the designs on the looms.
Bates & Co. stopped producing bedspreads at the Bates Mill Complex in 2000. Today, Maine Heritage Weavers carries on the art of the Bates bedspread at their manufacturing plant in Monmouth, where they employ many former Bates mill workers in weaving many of the company’s original designs. The Bates Mill complex in Lewiston still includes many of its original buildings, comprising approximately one million square feet on a 10-acre parcel in the city’s downtown core.
Since opening to the public in 2004, Museum L-A has evolved into a broader community and cultural museum, but honoring and documenting the lives and skills of the community’s legions of mill workers remains a central focus. As a special tribute, the museum is preparing a program that will ask people across the nation and the world to share their memories, stories and images of Bates bedspreads.
The exhibit will run through April 30, 2017. Museum L-A is located in the Bates Mill Complex at 35 Canal Street in Lewiston. For more information, or to set up a private tour, contact Museum L-A at 333-3881 or see www.museumla.org.