A History of Stripes

Whitchurch silk millNicola here. A couple of weeks ago I visited the Whitchurch Silk Mill. Built in 1813, on land owned by Winchester Cathedral, it was built by the Hayter family and then developed by William Maddick. Through the 19th and early 20th century it produced silk, providing work for the local populace and going through some hard times and some good like many small businesses. From 1911 the mill wove silk for Burberry, producing 22 different colours of silk lining for their famous raincoats. In the 1980s after falling into disrepair it was restored as a working museum using traditional machinery and methods.

Visiting the museum was completely fascinating. Weaving silk is a very complicated business but it was so much easier to understand when you could follow IMG_1082 (002) the different steps in the process and even have a go on the silk looms yourself. It was also a real insight to see what working conditions were like in the Victorian age – some of the child workers started at nine years old!

The Whitchurch mill has always specialised in stripes and there was a very interesting exhibition on show about striped designs and their history. Stripes in
nature have long been an inspiration for designers. Stripes can be used as both camouflage and as warning. Both prey – zebras, for example – and predators such as tigers, have stripes that allow them to blend in. Snakes, various insects and even badgers have them to scare the predators away.

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The Trousseau

Gonzaga-Montefeltro-chest_7_custom_base_custom_base_custom_baseNicola here. Last night we had dinner with my mother-in-law and when I admired the beautiful, hand-embroidered table mats, she told me that she had made them in 1961 as part of her trousseau. That made me think; I hadn’t heard that word in such a long time and I have always loved the sound of it. And I also wondered whether people still had a trousseau or if it was another thing that has gone out of fashion.

The definition of “trousseau” is the clothes, linen, and other belongings collected by a bride for her marriage but originally the trousseau was the box itself. It’s also known as a hope chest or dowry chest, glory box or “bottom drawer.” It’s this last term that I remember from when I was growing up. My grandmother used to refer to putting things in your bottom drawer for when you got married, but by the time I married in the later 1980s things had changed!

The “cassone” of medieval Europe were large, decorated chests  like the one in teh picture that were extremely valuable in themselves and were a part of the dowry of a bride from a rich and/or aristocratic family. Elizabetta Gonzaga of Mantua and Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, were betrothed in 1486 and married in 1488. In an inventory of Elisabetta’s trousseau corredo, compiled around 25th February 1488 was recorded: ‘Venti forzieri, dieci lavorati d’oro, dieci depinti a la divisa’ (twenty chests, ten gilded, ten painted with heraldic arms/devices" which included the flames of love. This was a trousseau on a very grand scale both in terms of the boxes and their contents!

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The shawl of beauty and grace

Madame-recamier-by-francois-gerard 1802

An old familiar friend of a painting, but do we ever look at the shawl?

Joanna here, talking about that fashion accessory of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the shawl.

Why shawls? We wear form-fitted, sleeved outer garments mostly — coats and sweaters and parkas and anoraks and Macintoshes — in the Twenty-first Century and feel pleased and practical doing so. Why did folks spend centuries throwing loose garments around themselves that didn’t button up and had to be draped and fidgeted with in a manner that may strike us as awkward?

I think an ideal of feminine beauty was at the root of it. The drape and swirl of a shawl, the varied possibilities with all their minute adjustments were alluring to the watcher. Displaying the shawl was an art, and this length of silk or wool might well be the most expensive object a woman wore.

So let’s talk paisley, since we’re talking shawls.

Paisley is based on a repeated, teardrop-shaped design pattern called a bota or boteh – a word that means  “shrub” or “cluster of leaves” in Persian.

Wenches star shaped tile from iran 1262

A decorative Persian tile from 1262. The boteh design comes from such roots

 This boteh is an ancient pattern, widespread in rugs, paintings, and tiles. It's an abstract shape that probably comes from the simplification of many sorts of feathers, fruit, flowers and so on in older designs. That is, there's no one origin. It's derived from many complexities that lost detail as they were copied and recopied.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries the East India Company imported these Indian designs to Europe where they became immensely popular. Soldiers returning from service in the East brought back lovely, expensive scarves of silk and soft Kashmir (cashmere) wool to their sweethearts and family. The British version of the scarves might cost more than 20 pounds. Sir Walter Scott’s French bride Charlotte Carpentier was given a Kashmir shawl in 1797 for her trousseau that cost 50 guineas, a huge sum in those days.


A fine shawl wrapping up mother and child 1825

Period portraits are full of these Kashmiri scarves gracefully swirled round the shoulders of women in flimsy low cut, high-waisted dresses. The survival of generations of scantily clad British beauties doubtless depended on these lengths of wool.

Wench british hand loom wool asilk 1810

British wool and silk paisley shawl showing boteh 1810

Almost as soon as the imported scarves arrived, they were copied enthusiastically by European weavers, among them the craftsmen of the Scottish city of Paisley, so much so that the Persian design ended up named "paisley" after that city in Renfrewshire, Scotland, far, far from the exotic mountains and plains of the East.

The handlooms and, after 1820, Jacquard looms, of the misty north produced quite a good imitation of the original Indian product. But it was  not a perfect likeness.

Throughout the import period, imported Kashmiri shawls were more expensive and preferred over the British version. The colors were more varied. Even at the height of Scots weaving they were using a mere 15 colors as opposed to the more than 40 colors used in the Eastern imports. The quality of foreign weaving superior, and the fabric itself was lighter. British shawls were made from sheep’s wool. Kashmiri scarves, from softer, more supple, more lustrous goat’s hair. And Kashmiri weavers used the “twill tapestry technique”.

Those of you in the know about weaving technique will recognize that this means the horizontal (weft) threads of the pattern do not run all the way across the fabric but are woven back and forth around the vertical (warp) threads to where the color is needed again. This is the way Europeans weave tapestries. And no, I knew nothing about weaving technique before I looked this up.

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Five Centuries of Style

Lotherton grand hallNicola here! A couple of weeks ago I went on a family visit to my native county of Yorkshire. It was a great opportunity to catch up with the places I used to love visiting as well as with family and friends. When I was a child one of my favourite local places was a house called Lotherton Hall near Leeds The name itself sounds exactly the sort of place you would find in a Bronte novel and I remember wandering through its rooms lapping up all the historical displays and soaking up the atmosphere. It was one of the places that fostered my love of history.

When I went back a few weeks ago I barely recognised the place. It now has a bird garden, a café and a shop, an adventure playground and beautifully landscaped gardens. It was an absolute delight rediscovering it.

Inside the house there was an exhibition called “Fashionable Yorkshire: Five Centuries of Style.” Each exhibit not only showed the clothes that women wore but through them gave an insight into the lives of those women. They reflected the period they were made in and provided an insight into the women’s place in society. Yorkshire women have always been renowned for their sense of style – my grandmother was a good example – so this was particularly fascinating.

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Anne here, considering the humble apron. RegencyApron

When I was a kid, pretty much every woman I knew wore an apron when in the kitchen or elsewhere in the home. My maternal grandmother wore one almost all the time.  The apron wasn't just to protect her dress and to wipe her hands on, it carried all sorts of things; fruit and vegetables from the garden, fresh-laid eggs, pegs from the line, wood chips for the fire. When visitors came the apron would be whipped off, or if it was dirty, she'd pop on a fresh one. She had maybe a dozen aprons, some workaday, some pretty.

My mother, who was a professional woman, would get home from work, walk into the kitchen, put on an apron and get to work. She also had a number of different aprons, from the ones that covered her dress well, to pretty ones made from worn-out old dresses.  

Me? The truth is, I hardly ever put on an apron from one month to another.

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