by Kim Ivey
Senior curator of textiles and historic interiors
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The exhibition Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, showcases a century of printed textiles from India, Great Britain, and Continental Europe, dating from the early eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. This was an era before the widespread adoption of mass-production methods, which ultimately made printed textiles cheap and widely available. Nearly eighty examples of dazzling printed cottons and linens from the Colonial Williamsburg collection, many of which have never been exhibited before, illustrate the design, history and techniques of printed textiles during this formative period. “The history of printed textiles may sound modern to today’s consumers,” says Linda Baumgarten, Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of textiles and costumes, emerita, who organized the exhibition. “Traders shipping goods from the other side of the world in ships, domestic workers trying their best to respond to foreign competition, people making the effort to dress in up-to-date styles despite their limited means, and the importance of chemistry and mechanical expertise in the production of consumer goods: All of these concepts could easily represent textile production today as well as it did centuries ago.”
Printed Fashions, which will remain on view through 2018, is made possible through the generosity of Barbara and George Cromwell, Mary Turner Gilliland and Clinton R. Gilliland through the Turner-Gilliland Family Fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the DeWitt Wallace Fund for Colonial Williamsburg, Jay and Annie Frick, and Ellan and Charles Spring.
Textiles were a vital part of the lives of early consumers and just as today, they were made to be used, worn, scrubbed, crumbled, and sometimes slept on. Printed cottons, cotton-linen mixtures, and linens were especially popular because they offered customers beautiful color and pattern in washable, easy-to-maintain form. Valued for their obvious aesthetic qualities, printed textiles were also economically important as trade goods. In fact, worldwide trade made it possible for fashion-conscious Americans to import most printed fabrics. For example, one Williamsburg, Virginia storekeeper advertised around 1760 “a very large curious & compleat Assortment of European and India goods” including “a very pretty Assortment of Callicoes, English and India Chints, Printed Linens”. A few years later in 1776, Williamsburg resident and president of the first continental congress, Peyton Randolph, owned a very expensive bed cover of chintz, which was more valuable than his marbletop table in his dining room.
How were they saved?
Many early printed cottons and linens seldom survive because they were worn, washed, remade, and eventually wore out. Some of the earliest printed textiles in the exhibition endured only because they were used as linings for artifacts that were not laundered. For example, the interior of a ca. 1730 English leather trunk is lined with four different patterns of original block-printed linen and cotton-linen linings. A woman’s straw hat worn in the Netherlands during the late eighteenth century is lined with scraps of an earlier Indian chintz, probably dating to the first half of the century. The hat also illustrates the thriving trade between the Dutch East India Company and India during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Mordant-Painted and Resist-Dyed Cottons from India
During much of the first half of the eighteenth century and earlier, cotton was an exotic fiber exported from India and mostly used in expensive household textiles and some garments. Brilliantly patterned and colorfast Indian cottons with luxurious polished surface finishes were created using laborious techniques of hand painting with chemical color fixatives known as mordants and then dyeing to produce reds, pinks, and purples. Separate processes for creating blue involved covering an entire cotton panel with wax except those areas intended to be blue, followed by a separate dyeing in indigo. The mordant-painted and resist-dyed process could take as much as a month to produce one panel of printed cotton. Often called palampores, the panels were used as bed counterpanes, bed hangings, and window curtains.
European merchants regularly suggested patterns to be copied in India to appeal to western taste in decoration. The floral cornucopia was one such popular decorative motif, as was a sinuous flowering tree rising from hilly ground. Although often considered typically Indian, the flowering tree motif derived from a hybrid of influences, including Chinese, Persian, and European, as well as Indian. Later known as a “tree of life,” this design influenced English and American appliquéd quilts for a century after the first palampores entered the West.
Inspired by the fashionable Indian chintzes, European printers developed labor-saving techniques to imitate the high-quality, expensive, and labor-intensive printed cottons of India.
Blocks, copperplates and rollers allowed printers to apply color fixatives at a faster rate than the painstakingly hand-painting Indian method.
Block printed cottons were created in multiple colors using floral designs with a regular repeat. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the area around Manchester, England, offered a wide array of colorful printed cottons for use in household textiles and clothing. One 1783 swatch book contains 430 samples of block-printed textiles, which were available for sale in a single year by the Manchester printing establishment of Thomas Smith. Customers could select specific colors and patterns for their tailors or seamstresses to fashion into clothing.
Indigo Resist Printing
Also available were indigo resist-printed fabrics which were achieved by blocking out with wax or clay the areas that were intended to remain white and then dipping the entire textile into a vat of indigo. Repeated dippings created darker blue shades. The wax or clay was then boiled out and the ground cleared. These blue and white textiles were just as popular then as they are today. One side of a small child’s quilt has a bold floral design in two shades of indigo blue on white. The ca. 1770 quilt descended in the Van Rensselaer family from Albany, New York. The reverse of the quilt is a China blue block-printed design. China blue was a chemically sophisticated technique for printing patterns with indigo.
Around 1752 the development in England and France of a mordant that was thick enough to use on copperplates for the printing of textiles resulted in a seemingly endless supply of patterns and designs for home decorating. These copperplate-printed fabrics were almost always printed in one color – red, blue, purple, black, or sepia – on a white ground, but one design for a textile could be printed in multiple color ways.
Copperplate printing resulted in fine-line designs that captured considerable pictorial detail within long repeats and rivaled engravings on paper in their intricacy. In fact, designers borrowed heavily from prints on paper. Robert Jones, a textile designer, used a number of engraved sources spanning almost one hundred years for his large-scale design depicting a pastoral scene of a spinster and flute-playing shepherd. The printed textile was used to create an entire set of textiles for a bed chamber that originally included bed hangings, several covers for side chairs, and a ruffled cushion cover for an easy chair.
Printed Textiles for Bed Hangings
During the eighteenth century, American and English furnishing practices dictated the use of the same fabric throughout a room for bed and window curtains, and other upholstered pieces. Printed cotton and linen textiles became extremely popular for bed hangings. In 1758, Benjamin Franklin sent 56 yards of copperplate-printed cotton from London to his wife in Philadelphia to furnish an entire room, and in 1771, Robert Beverly of Essex County, Virginia, ordered a set of textiles for his new home, Blandfield, that included bed and window curtains, coverlet, and chair bottom covers all of matching cotton.
Most fashionable beds of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were enclosed by curtains and topped by narrow valances that formed a decorative heading and hid the curtain hardware. Unfortunately, few sets of bed hangings survive in their entirety, not only because they wore out, but also because the extensive yardage in the curtains was later cut up and reused. Bed valances survive in far greater quantities because they were usually more decorative than the curtains and they did not contain enough useful yardage to warrant cutting them up for other purposes. Valances came in a variety of shapes and printed patterns.
Printed Textiles for the American Market
Most of the copperplate-printed textiles imported into the colonies were of English manufacture and were known as “copperplate calicoes.” In fact, English manufacturers lost little time after the Revolutionary War in producing copperplates with patriotic scenes specifically for the American market. Many American customers bought textiles that honored war heroes and founding fathers and celebrated the new nation in allegorical scenes. One popular pattern that was used in bed hangings by Dr. John Galt’s family of Williamsburg, Virginia, was “The Apotheosis of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington”. In the allegorical scenes, George Washington drives a leopard-drawn chariot, accompanied by the seated female figure representing America. She holds a plaque inscribed “AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE 1776.” Benjamin Franklin, wearing his trademark fur cap, stands next to the figure of Liberty. When Mr. Franklin sent 56 yards of copperplate-printed cotton home to his wife in 1758, little could he have suspected that his own image would appear on one some thirty years later!
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, printed textiles with their luminous colors and attractive designs were widely sought for fashionable clothing and home furnishings.
Prices varied widely, from relatively cheap two-color English or European block prints used for children’s clothing and linings to exceptionally fine and expensive mordant-painted and resist-dyed chintzes painted by hand in India for use in fashionable garments and household furnishings. Eventually, almost everyone could afford to have some printed textiles in their homes and wardrobes.
Kimberly Smith Ivey is Colonial Williamsburg’s senior curator of textiles and historic interiors and is the co-author of Four Centuries of Quilts: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection (2014) and author of In the Neatest Manner: The Making of the Virginia Sampler Tradition (1997). A native of Virginia, Kim began her museum career at Colonial Williamsburg after graduating from the College of William and Mary. In addition to collecting, cataloguing and exhibiting the textiles, quilts and needlework in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection, she oversees the installations and furnishing plans for the historic buildings.
About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Colonial Williamsburg operates the world’s largest living history museum, preserving Virginia’s 18th-century capital as a fully functioning city. Fun, engaging experiences transport guests back in time and highlight the relevance of America’s founding era to contemporary life. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed buildings, historic trade shops, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives. All images appear courtesy of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg.