Tag Archives: Textiles

Batik Textiles of Java at the Art Institute of Chicago

For my last post about the museums in Chicago, I want to show you what to me was a revelation. Being a teenager in the 1960s and 70s, I thought I knew batik, that ubiquitous dorm room decorator fabric. It was cotton with designs painted in hot wax to make a resist, then dipped in indigo. So I was not prepared for the range of colors and designs on exhibit in the textile galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The process of dying batik is not terribly old, dating only to the early 19th century. It was developed on the island of Java, located in Indonesia, and used in traditional Javanese garments.

Because this was so new to me, my time spent looking at the batiks was one more of discovery than of learning, and my post will be pretty much the same – a visual introduction to some of the most beautiful fabrics I’ve seen in a while.

The fabric above was dyed in the early 20th century by Eliza van Zuylen. It was fashioned into a sarong, which is still intact.

These pieces are huge, as they were intended to wrap the body. This piece is a ceremonial hip wrap called a dodot.

The closeup shows that this is a forest scene, with all the universe of Java.

This stunning hip wrapper was made in the early 20th century.

This sarong was one of my favorites. Made around 1930, this piece is unusual in that it was stamped using a copper plate, rather than drawn by hand. The printing process was developed in order to speed up the production time, but it also meant a drop in the quality of the design.

The topic is that of a moonlit garden; the artist is Obin, who has been working to re-establish traditional batik techniques since the 1970s.

Click to enlarge

At first look I thought this hip wrapper was patchwork, but no, it is entirely hand drawn and dyed. Made in the mid 20th century, it symbolized the afternoon garden. Note the difference in pattern on the two halves. That meant the wearer could change the direction of the wrap for a whole new look.

This early 20th century shoulder wrap shows the influence of the large Muslim community in Cirebon, on the north coast of Java.

On display until September 17, 2017.

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Associated Fabrics Corporation, 1939 Creations for the Dance

Dance costumes are a bit out of my area of knowledge, but I just can’t resist a book of fabric swatches.  Today, you would not find a fabric store located at 723 Seventh Avenue, as it is along Times Square, but in 1939 I’m sure a lot of Broadway costume designers patronized Associated Fabrics as it was so convenient to the theaters.

What is remarkable is that Associated Fabrics is still in business, though the company is now located in New Jersey.  They still are a supplier of theatrical fabrics, and according to their website, they now specialize in Spandex.

Associated Fabrics was founded in 1928, not an especially great time for a new business.  They somehow weathered the Great Depression and eventually became the largest theatrical fabrics company in the world.

I always learn something new when looking through a great old vintage reference like this catalog.  Tarletane is, evidently, a starched, net-like muslin.

Metallic and lame’ fabrics were very popular in the 1920s for evening wear, but you don’t see them as often in clothes of the 1930s.  My guess is that they were expensive to produce.  None of the “sparkle fabrics” above are true metallics.

These sparkles are fantastic.  The glitter was just glued on, but whatever glue they used still has staying power.

For even more sparkle, Associated offered sparkle shapes and tape that the costumer could apply to an otherwise plain fabric.

Just look at the range of colors available in duvetyne.  Duvetyne is brushed on one side, like flannel, and these samples appear to be made from cotton.

Yes, these are real silk.

And here’s a selection of rayon.

But probably the most interesting page in the catalog contains no swatches at all.  According to the Associated Fabrics website, just before WWII they were the first company to offer florescent fabrics in the USA.  Here you see the concept, where the fabric was printed to look one way under regular lighting, but under UV lights, a different pattern appeared.  This must have been amazing for audiences in 1939!

 

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Currently Reading: A Fabric of Defeat

One of the things that makes fashion history so interesting to me is that there are hundreds of ways to approach it, and hundreds of subtopics to grab my attention.  Growing up in the South in a town that was dominated by its relationship with the local factory (paper, not textiles) and having relatives who worked in cotton mills from the 1930s through the 90s  has made me quite interested in the textile and garment industries of the Carolinas.

People often make the mistake of confusing the two states. The piedmont (the area between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) of both was textile country, but having different governing bodies meant that what applied in one state did not always apply to the other.  Being from North Carolina I am quite familiar with the labor movement here, and the struggles workers went through in order to have safe working conditions and a fair wage.  I knew about the deadly battles fought between unionizers and law enforcement in my state, but was ignorant of similar situations that happened just south of me.

I found A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910 – 1948 at my favorite Goodwill.  I’ve been reading it over the past month, interspersed with other, lighter reading.  It’s not that the reading is hard, but that it is difficult to digest.

There were quite a few truisms that I was exposed to in my days as a history student, and one of them was that it is rarely fair to judge the actions of people in the past by the mores of today.  Still, it is hard to come to grips with the way people were treated in factories, and also with the racism that kept Blacks out of the mills and in the worst kind of poverty.  It is especially true knowing that mill conditions have not really changed, they have just moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There is no way I can summarize the story this book tells, as it is too complicated to go into the sort of detail that would lead to a real understanding of the situation.  But simply put, the situation in the mills was good through World War I because of the increased demand for textiles.  We tend to think of the 1920s as boom years, but for many Southern textile companies, this was not so.  The loss of army contracts combined with fashions that required much less fabric led to over-production, which led to the collapse of prices.  Many millhands lost their jobs even before the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression just served to make the situation worse.  And in another of those great history truisms, it was not until the war machine cranked back up in the late 1930s that recovery came to the mills of South Carolina.  By that time the mill workers had tried, and failed, to influence the politics of South Carolina in a way that would better their lives.

There are no heroes in this story.  Most of the state’s leaders were not from the area where the mills were located, and saw no reason to pass laws to help the workers. The few politicians who did fight to improve the lives of the mill workers also worked to keep the vote from Black people.  The mill workers themselves refused to work in factories where Black people worked, thereby keeping their one claim of status – that they were at least better off than the Black man.

Several years ago I visited the South Carolina State Museum.  There were several great exhibits on the textile industry and the lives of mill workers.  I can’t recall reading a word about the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, even though workers were killed.  In all, it now seems like a sanitized version of the past, with a model of a cute mill village viewed through a rosy lens.  To be fair, I may have missed that part of the history, and will be revisiting the museum in the near future.

Bryant Simon managed to take a difficult subject and report on it objectively and without judgement.  Even though I found A Fabric of Defeat to be very enlightening, I can’t really recommend it to readers who are just wanting to read about fashion.  What I do suggest is that you explore the historical roots of your own state or region, whether it be on the subject of fashion or any other topic.

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Currently Reading: Liberty: British, Colour, Pattern

Liberty of London is one of those companies whose products make my heart skip a beat.  Their Tana Lawn cottons simply cannot be beaten, and the scarves are some of the best in the world.  I always have my eyes open for Liberty scarves and garments made with Liberty fabrics when thrifting, as quality of this caliber comes at a price.  I also appreciate the history of the company, which has its roots in the Orientalist movement of the nineteenth century.

I can’t remember where I first saw this book, but after seeing the photos online I scurried off to Amazon to see if it were available.  This was back in the summer, and the book just arrived last week.  I spent much of that afternoon being absorbed into the world of Liberty textiles.

For those not familiar with Liberty’s history, the author, Marie-Therese Rieber, gives a good overview of it.  She tells about the founder, Authur Liberty, and how his Oriental emporium became one of the world’s most famous stores.  But the best parts of the book are the sections about the Liberty textiles and the clothing made from them.  Above you see two early twentieth century evening wraps.

An interesting feature of the book is that it is somewhat interactive.  The are several envelopes throughout that are filled with replicas of old Liberty advertising and other ephemera.  These are quite interesting, but this type of thing adds considerably to the cost of the book.  I enjoyed playing with all the little bits, but I’m not sure they actually add a lot to the value of the book.

Fortunately, there is more than enough great information in the book to make it valuable to the lover of textiles.   There was an excellent feature on how the Tana Lawns were originally block printed by hand.

In the early 1930s Paul Poiret was commissioned to do designs for Liberty.  The green and ivory gown on the left was designed by Poiret for Liberty in 1933.  Seeing all these early 1930s designs along with the fabric swatches makes me want to spend a week lost in the Liberty archives.

The peacock scarf above is in one of Liberty’s trademark prints, the Hera.  It was created in 1887  and continues to be a Liberty favorite.

In the late 1960s, Liberty prints became very popular with fashion designers, and so Liberty expanded the fabrics available to designers.  Their fabric designers like Bernard Nevill and Susan Collier called upon the feeling of nostalgia for Art Nouveau and Art Deco in their work.

The last section of the book is about modern Liberty prints and the inspirations and stories behind them.  This is the stuff textile lovers dream of.  To fully appreciate this book, you have to love textiles, and Liberty in particular.  It is not so much about fashion, and there is a small section on Liberty furniture and ceramics.  Still, there was enough material that was new to me to earn this book a spot in my library.

 

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Mitchell Company Rayon Piece Goods, 1949

When I was a kid in the 1960s, going to Spindale meant going to the numerous fabric mill outlets to buy bargain fabrics.  It was the heyday of North Carolina textiles, and Spindale was right in the center of the action.

From the name, you could guess that Spindale got its start as a spinning and textile center.  It was not a town at all until the 1920s when the company town around the textile mill incorporated.  By the mid century there were several large textile and sewing factories in and around Spindale.  Stonecutter, which was a vertical operation, which involved both spinning and weaving, Spindale Mills, and the factory that made Bon Worth clothing were all located in Spindale.

I could not find a reference to a Mitchell factory, so I’m guessing that the Mitchell Company was one of the many sellers of textiles in the area.  From what I can tell, it was in business until fairly recently, though I could not find a reference to its closing in the local newspaper.  But it probably happened after 1998, when the bottom fell out of Spindale industry.  That was the year Bon Worth moved their operation to Mexico.  From there it was like dominoes falling.

But in 1949 business was thriving, as textile companies switched from war production to making consumer goods for the new and fast growing families of America.

Click to enlarge

Inside this sales brochure are samples of the various rayons offered by Mitchell. Especially handy are the different samples along with the name of the colors.

I was amazed at how many of them were advertised as being washable, as 1940s rayon is notorious for shrinking and having color bleed.

I found several references to Mitchell Company on the internet, with an address and telephone number.  I called the number and was informed that it was no longer in service.

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Currently Reading – The Age of Homespun by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Today’s book review features a book that, quite honestly, will not be to everyone’s taste.  In fact I almost did not buy it after spotting it at an estate sale months ago.  I wasn’t sure it would fit in with my current interests, and I already had a huge stack of books waiting to be read.  It was written by a Harvard professor and had hundreds of footnotes, and my fear was it would be a bit too academic (meaning dry…)

But the subject matter drew me in.  A quick look through The Age of Homespun revealed that this was a book about colonial textiles and the stories behind the objects.  I’d not done any real reading of American colonial history since my college days, but it was my first historical love and my university degree.  So I thought this book might be a nice change of pace.

Ulrich examines twelve homemade objects, all from New England and all having to do with textiles.   There is a chapter for each object and the stories the objects reveal.  Each one was so engrossing that I have only read a chapter a day to give myself time to properly digest all the information.

What could have been a dry examination of physical objects was instead a carefully woven account of how objects reflect the history of the time of their manufacture, how people related to these objects, and how these stories can be revealed to us today.  Ulrich used many sources to gather the information for the book, but what really struck me was just how much information still exists from hundreds of years ago.  Those New Englanders were real record keepers.

I was also impressed at how many diaries from the period were kept and handed down through generations of a family.  I don’t even have my own teenage diary, so to see that many diaries were kept and treasured is interesting.  Even better, Ulrich actually had access to diaries from some of the families who made the objects she featured in the book.  The diaries along with family histories and public records helped to paint a vivid picture of these people’s lives through the objects that survive.

Quite a bit of the book is concerned with the production of cloth.  For many families, producing yarn and fabric was a way to obtain other necessities and small luxuries.  The system of trade was complicated, but it worked for a society in which money was scarce.

To best enjoy and appreciate this book, one does need to have at least some knowledge of the history of New England.  A lot happened in that region between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the Shot Heard Round the World at Lexington in 1775.  Ulrich pulls from this extensive history in interpreting the objects.

I learned from 28 years of teaching history to pre-adolescents that the best way to study and learn it was not through the memorization of facts and dates.  The best history students were the ones who looked at the past and could draw conclusions about cause and effect and overlapping influences and see that historical events did not happen in isolation.  This book is a masterful example of that kind of history.

All this go me to thinking about weaving and how treasured a textile would be if one had to either grow or trade for the raw materials, then process the fiber into yarn, and then do the weaving in order just to have the cloth.

In the midst of all this textile pondering, I happened upon a little tabletop loom at an antique store.  I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to leave the store without the loom.  But I was not quite out of the woods.

Now this little flea market find was more my speed!  At least it didn’t take up six square feet of table space.

So yes, I am now trying my hand a some very simple weaving.  I figured that anything suitable for a ten-year-old couldn’t be too complicated.  And it makes a nifty bit of fabric.

Okay, it is a bit loose, but this is my first try.  Do you think all my family members should get handwoven belts for Christmas?

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Acorn Peau de Satin, The Bruner Woolen Co.

Click to enlarge

Here’s a bit of color to brighten the day of those of us being held in the grip of winter.

This is a silk sample card from the Bruner Woolen Company.  As far as I can tell, Bruner was a jobber, or a middleman between the fabric manufacturer and the clothing maker or fabric retailer.  There was a Bruner Mill in Pennsylvania, but I don’t think there is a link between it and this company. I also found reference to a Bruner mill in  Winooski, Vermont, so it is possible that they made at least some of the goods they sold.   There were four branches of the company, in New York, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The big woolen jobbers like Bruner and Detmer sold to tailors and factories and stores by the use of sample cards.   The salesman would have a big case filled with his samples for the buyer to consider.   I have a case from Detmer from the 1920s that is worth a look if you have not seen it. Smaller cards like this one would be left with the buyer or mailed to them.

This sample card is a tri-fold.  The first fold had a large sample of black Acorn Peau de Satin, and the information the buyer needed to know.  Unfold it again and there were the color samples.

The range of shades offered is quite extensive, with there being thirteen different blues and ten tans.  Unfortunately there is no date, and I don’t know enough about color usage of each era to say the exact date of these colors.  I do know it is before 1922, when Bruner merged with Detmer and two other companies.  My guess is that from the 1910s.  Any thoughts?

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