Published: August 15, 2017
By Karla Klein Albertson
WILLIAMSBURG, VA. – From clothing to comfort to décor, civilization – as we know it – is dependent on the presence of textiles. Without their pliable utility, people would still be sitting on rocks and wearing skins. The invention of methods for printing cloth brought new texture, pattern and color into homes at every level of the social structure, while allowing fashionable folk to step out in style.
In celebration of their role in American life, “Printed Fashions: Textiles for Clothing and Home” is on view at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg through March 2019. The museum was able to draw from its extraordinary permanent collection and present a broad selection of examples – all made between 1700 and 1820 – which fill the institution’s dedicated Textile Gallery. As the show’s title suggests, fabrics on display relate principally to personal adornment or home furnishings. The exhibit includes men’s and women’s clothing, bed coverings and hangings, room curtains and case covers for furniture.
The display was the final one for senior curator of textiles and costumes emerita Linda Baumgarten, who retired from Colonial Williamsburg in April after 39 years there. Before her departure, Baumgarten, now an independent scholar and consultant, said, “We hope that visitors will take away the richness of pattern and color that was available in the Eighteenth Century. The impetus for the exhibit was that Colonial Williamsburg has a really superb collection of early printed things, so we limited the exhibition to pre-1820 textiles. We focused on the advances in printing prior to rollers and chemical synthetic dyes. We wanted to concentrate on the early things our collection was so rich in. We have more than 70 pieces in the exhibit, including clothing as well as household furnishings, as well as some study documents – such as a single repeat that shows us something of the techniques that were used.”
The curator continued, “I suspect that visitors will linger at the large, glass-fronted center case where we have the mannequins and the large quilts, because those are visually rich. People are very interested in what people wore in the Eighteenth Century. We have a section on accessories and smaller costumes using printed textiles. There’s a section on sources of design. For example, we show a printed textile that imitates a more expensive brocaded silk. We show those two side by side. Or we display a print source showing Washington and then the textile that’s based on that print source. The final section is a technical area where we talk about dye stuffs, printing techniques and painting techniques.”
Many of the earliest exhibits were made in India, whose history of exporting textiles goes back more than two millennia to a time when it traded with China and the Roman world. Indians were innovators in the field of patterned, colorfast fabric, which became very popular in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England, where it was called chintz, a word derived from a Sanskrit root. One example on view, a colorful cotton chintz fragment with a blue and red floral design, 1710-30, was mordant painted and resist dyed, pattern techniques that preceded printing. The fashionable Indian fabric for a 1780-90 gown displayed on one of the show’s mannequins was created by the same method.
Baumgarten explained, “Textile workers in India occasionally used blocks, but the type of technique that they were most famous for was mordant painting and resist dying. A mordant is a chemical fixative that fixes the color to the textile. In order for it to be colorfast to washing, it needs to have the mordant in conjunction with the dye stuff. For the finer chintzes, they painted the mordant by hand, then dyed the textile in ‘chay,’ which was a type of dye stuff that could produce reds or lavenders or blacks depending on the mordant composition. They were able to add blue by resisting all of the areas that weren’t going to be blue with wax and then dying it in an indigo vat. Yellows could be painted on separately, but the colors they are most famous for are the chay derivatives and the indigo.”
Inspired by the popularity of the Indian fabrics, manufacturers in England and Europe began to develop labor-saving techniques that sped up the process by printing rather than hand painting elaborate designs. Using blocks, copperplates and rollers, they were able to more quickly reproduce intricate patterns on yards of cloth. Another mannequin wears a circa 1790 gown made of a floral block-printed cotton from England. Such standardization gave rise to the “pattern book” of fabric swatches from which the desired print could be selected. On view is one such collection from 1783, which has more than 7 feet of samples – 430 swatches in all.
The exhibition’s other organizer is Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles and historic interiors, who focuses on how printed textiles were used for comfort and decoration within the home. While furniture and china may have better survival rates, collectors should remember that textiles were among the most valuable possessions of an Eighteenth Century homeowner.
Ivey said, “I tell people that when we look at estate inventories, right below wrought silver and the enslaved people on the site, you find textiles. When we look at a bedstead, almost always it’s of less value than the textiles that are on the bedstead. The exhibition showcases some really lovely quilts that would have been quite expensive, but also there’s a great collection of bed valances. Those would be the decorative tops of bed hangings that would cover the hardware – the curtain rings and iron rods. We have a broad selection of them that depict a wide variety of printing techniques and various shapes. I believe all of them are of English manufacture, so there’s block printing and copperplate printing, but there are no Indian chintzes.”
Ivey pointed out that not only were they expensive, but separate sets of fabric appointments were needed for different seasons: “All of the textile bed hangings in the exhibition are either cotton, linen or cotton and linen mix. In period references, you would see them called ‘bed furniture,’ actually, which refers to the textiles, not the wooden part of the bed. If you could afford it, you would hire an upholsterer to come in, take down the heavy bed hangings in the spring months, and put up lighter hangings. We do that here at the foundation every spring. And here in the South, of course, you would put up mosquito curtains if you could afford to do that. In the winter season, that upholsterer would come back and put up your heavier bed hangings and window curtains, maybe even put down carpeting for you.”
Ivey spoke about one of her favorite things in the exhibition: “We have a wonderful Philadelphia quilt on show. The printed textile was created in Philadelphia by a printer by the name of John Hewson. We know a little bit about him – he had trained in England as a printer. He arrived in Philadelphia sometime around 1773, he’s advertising in 1774, he enters part of his family in a parade in Philadelphia in 1788. His wife and his daughter are in the parade, and they’re illustrating how to do some of the printing techniques. The center of the quilt has a wonderful vase of flowers that he printed, and radiating out from that are panels of printed textiles.”
Moving into the Nineteenth Century, the American textile industry expanded so that more and more printed fabrics were made in the United States.
Walking through the exhibition, collectors who own an antique quilt or garment may have questions about conservation. Conservator of textiles Gretchen Guidess talked about the procedures followed when caring for the museum’s extensive collection: “Handling and the way we display them are very important. How they are supported within the exhibit is critical to their preservation. In the exhibit, there are both mounted textiles as well as garments dressed on mannequins or torso supports. For the flat textiles, we have those fully supported on backs or rolls.
“We try to keep lighting at a minimum because light exposure is something that is cumulative over the life of the object. When we’re selecting objects for display, we’re considering how long the light will be on the object, how long the display is, and how high the lighting levels are – the textile gallery lighting is kept much lower than in other parts of the museum. Then a lot of the lighting for our cases within the gallery is on motion detectors, so if there aren’t any visitors in the gallery, those lights turn off. And we’re mindful how long an item has been on display. If we judge that an item is particularly important to provide access to but is inherently fragile because of the light levels used, no matter how low, we’ll also consider rotating objects in and out of the exhibit so they’re not there for its full duration.”
“Printed Fashions” is a learning experience in the history, creation and preservation of textiles, but the exhibition is above all visually dynamic.
Co-curator Ivey said in conclusion, “First of all, visitors should feel joy. I can’t help but think that people walking into it will somehow have a joyous experience because the pieces are so beautiful. Just be amazed at the variety of printed textiles that were available in the Eighteenth Century and early Nineteenth Century. They may not realize how colorful the Eighteenth Century was, and this clearly shows that. Not all checks and stripes, by any means.”
Although there is not an official catalog for “Printed Fashions,” additional information about techniques used for early bed coverings was provided by curators Linda Baumgarten and Kimberly Smith Ivey in the opening chapters of Four Centuries of Quilts: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection, published by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in association with Yale University Press (2014). Another useful reference is Printed Textiles: British and American Cottons and Linens, 1700-1850 (2014), Winterthur curator Linda Eaton’s complete update of Textiles in America, 1650-1870 by Florence Montgomery.
For information on the next chapter in Linda Baumgarten’s professional life, visit www.lindabaumgarten.com.
The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is at 326 West Francis Street. For information, www.history.org or 757-229-1000.
Journalist Karla Klein Albertson writes about decorative arts and design.
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