Aug 31, 2009

Two ancient blue dyes

Before the advent of aniline dyes in 1897, there were several natural blue dyes used in Europe, with only two used extensively for fabric dyeing.

When thinking of blue dyed fabric, it's usually indigo that comes to mind.  Indigo dye, from the Indigofera genus and native to Asia, was known in Europe very early, but was not widely used until the 16th century. For many years, indigo was imported from India and the Far East. Later, it was also imported from the New World. The other blue dye that was used before the 1890s is native to Eastern Europe. It is called pastel in French and 'woad' in English and is from the plant called Isatis tinctoria.

Pastel is tubfast, colorfast and amazingly, also has insecticidal properties. It was used in dozens of ways as diverse as body paint by the Scottish warriors, for medicinal purposes in the Middle Ages and as a fabric dye in most parts of Europe. It was even painted on cows' horns to protect them from parasites and was often used to paint houses and shutters to help protect against termites and other insects.
Neither indigo or pastel dye is in a usable state in the leaves themselves. Both plants must have their leaves fermented and processed in order to produce the powdered blue dye. It takes more than a ton of leaves to produce a pound or so of usable dye.

Until the advent of aniline dyes, Marseille was the primary port of entry for importing indigo. Pastel was grown in France in the region around Toulouse and created great fortunes there, evidenced by the chateaux that dot the countryside. By 1900, synthetic indigo dominated the market. Sadly, the cultivation of natural plant dyes was mostly abandoned.
Below are a couple of pictures of indigo resist-dyed French fabrics from the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  (Resist dyeing is done by first painting wax on the fabric where the white pattern is desired.  The cloth is then put into the dye bath so all except the waxed areas turn blue.)
For pastel fabrics, dyes and other products, check out the French website called Bleu de Pastel de Lectoure.

Aug 27, 2009

Color schemes in 19th C French textiles, part 1

Many people, when imagining French antique fabrics, have visions of soft faded romantic floral patterns. This kind of motif certainly existed and was very popular, but the French textile designers and manufacturers were too audacious to be confined to using only pale romantic colors.

Early in the 19th century, bright chrome yellow dye was discovered and perfected and then quickly became a trend. The bright yellow background was often printed with a monochromatic red motif. Three examples are shown below.
In the top picture, the shading of the red in an acanthus pattern is very subtle and gives a woven look. The middle is a quilted piece with an intricate floral design. The bottom picture has a simple pattern, depicting juicy, almost-ripe grapes.

Aug 25, 2009

Dinner at the home of Elsie deWolfe

This post is not exactly a textile story, but it does reveal something about the values by Elsie deWolfe - America's first interior designer.
She lived on Irving Place in New York City and vacationed at her impressive mansion in Versailles, France during the final years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century.
Elsie absolutely loved to entertain. She created sumptuous dinner parties and many evening extravaganzas - some that even included elephants and exotic dancers or the construction of a tented wing to her home. The invited guests were the fashionable, the wealthy, the European titled families and the literati of both the old and new world. All vied for invitations to the Versailles home of Elsie deWolfe.
Elsie's decor always included hundreds of yards of textiles, many potted plants and dozens and dozens of orchids. The dishes and the cutlery were carefully chosen. Each room was perfectly laid out. Every vista was planned for maximum impact.
But, food? Not so much! She was known for being very skimpy with any food she served, even at a sit-down meal. Elsie loved decorating and designing. She created the ambience, master-minded the guest list, decided on all the decorations and entertainment, but never spent much effort or money for the food! Her guests soon realized this and ate before they departed for a soirée at Elsie's home.
I find this quirk completely inexplicable and totally amusing!

Aug 20, 2009

Red ticking

The deep red striped mattress tickings and other tickings with saturated colors are from the Alsace region of France and the neighboring regions of Germany. The Alsace-Lorraine region became part of France by the 1500s, but was later twice annexed by Germany - from 1870-1919 and again from 1940-1945. Because of this intertwined history between Alsace-Lorraine and nearby Germany, there were cultural cross-overs as well as a similarity in the textiles produced on both sides of the border. This area had many textile manufacturing companies that produced a variety of both printed textiles and woven mattress tickings.
The deeply-saturated red and blue tickings in heavy woven cotton stripes were the coverings for featherbeds and for duvets. Many of the more intricately striped tickings, found only in smaller sizes, were used for down pillows and cushions and not for the larger featherbeds.
Because feathers cannot be imported into the USA, all red tickings and other Alsace tickings must be cleared of their feathers and washed at least twice before trying to pass through US Customs. These stringent rules affect the availability and the quality of red tickings in the USA. (Note: I have noticed various online vendors of French red tickings giving their origin as "Provence" or "France." Technically, "France" is correct, but these red tickings are only from the region of Alsace.)
Below are photos of several Alsatian tickings.

Aug 18, 2009

The scallop shell motif in French design

During medieval times, the Christian pilgrims who traveled La Route de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle (in Spanish El Camino de Santiago de Compostela and known in English as the Way of Saint James) carried a scallop shell as a badge and essential accessory of their pilgrimage. The shell had been associated with the stories and legends about Saint James and thus was adopted by the pilgrims to Compostela who wore it on their clothing and often used it as a handy scoop to eat their food or to drink water.
As they traveled the route, which often took many months, they would need safe places to sleep and places to eat along the way. Churches and villages that had accommodations to offer to the pilgrims began using the symbol of the scallop shell to indicate a welcome - sort of like a motel vacancy sign.

Pictured above is one such shell carved into the ancient stone of a building in a French medieval village. The sign below it says Rue de la Coquille which means Shell Street or Street of the Shell.

As a centuries-old symbol of welcome and of lodging and food, the scallop shell soon became incorporated as a popular motif in textile design, was used in flatware and dinnerware patterns and is even used in the mouldings of elegant French mansions. The picture below shows the scallop shell moulding in the corners of a dining room of a maison de maître in the South of France.

Aug 16, 2009

Evolution of French textile design

Early French printed cotton textile designs were copies of the Indian and Persian motifs, slightly revised for the French market. Due to their source of inspiration, these early designs were oriental in flavor. Only late in the 18th century did French textile designers start to use European flowers as inspiration for their motifs.

Because of this change in focus, by the early 19th century, the textile companies began to hire French textile designers and often recruited well-known artists. These artist-textile designers were highly respected for their art and the position commanded a good salary and prestige.

Their designs, created expressly for printing onto cloth, took inspiration primarily from flowers. During the Napoleonic era, roses dominated the motifs. During the era of the Restoration (1814-1830), new themes derived from classical antiquity were in favor, such as the acanthus leaf, scrolls, garlands and urns, although still incorporating floral motifs. The textiles pictured below are both from the later part of the 19th century, but depict the classical motifs that were made popular during the Restoration.

Aug 14, 2009

Toile de Jouy - monochromatic prints

Almost everyone is familiar with French toiles and in particular, the monochromatic prints - the toiles de Jouy - produced by the 18th century Jouy factory owned by the Oberkampf brothers.

Besides employing top artists and designers to create the patterns for their printed cottons, the company was at the forefront of inaugurating mechanical and technical advances in printing methods as well as research into the chemical processes used in dyeing fabrics. Prior to the 1770s, all Jouy fabrics were tediously printed by hand with engraved wooden blocks. Wood block printing limited the dimensions of a pattern and was very time-consuming.

In the early 1770s, the factory installed its first copperplate press. The engraved copper plates, much bigger than the wood blocks, allowed for large scale floral and scenic patterns. Engraving on metal plates also allowed for far greater detail and intricacy in the patterns than had been possible with the wood blocks. These beautifully designed and expertly engraved patterns were printed in one color and are the earliest prints that we now identify as the toiles de Jouy. Interestingly, in 1800, about 65% of their monochromatic prints were done in violet while the other third was done in red or blue. Tastes change!