William Morris

Textile Fabrics

The subject I have to speak on is a sufficiently wide one, and I can do little more than hint at points of interest in it for your further thought and consideration; all the more as I think I shall be right in supposing that, except for anyone actually engaged in the manufacture of textiles who may be present, you, in common with most educated people at the present day, have very little idea as to how a piece of cloth is made, and not much as to the characteristic differences between the manufactures of diverse periods. However, one limitation to my subject I will at once state: I am going to treat it as an artist and archaeologist, not as a manufacturer, as we call it; that is, I shall be considering the wares in question from the point of view of their usefulness (using the work in its widest sense) to the consumer, and not as marketable articles, as subject-matter for exchange. I must assume that the goods I am speaking of were made primarily for use, and only secondarily for sale; that, you see, will limit me to a historical discourse on textile fabrics, since at present those wares, like all other wares of civilized countries, are made primarily for sale, and only secondarily for use.

Now before I begin to speak of the actual history of this important art of weaving, I will run through the various forms of it which it comprises. But first of all it may be necessary to explain three words which I shall be compelled to use: warp, weft, and web; because I have noticed that the writers of leading articles and poetry are sometimes a little vague about the way they use these words. Well, the warp is the set of strained threads, sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, on which the work is founded; the weft is the thread which is wafted in and out across this warp, and the woof or web is the product of the two.

As to the kinds of weaving: first there is plain weaving in its simplest form, where the weft crosses the warp regularly and alternately. Of that I need say no more, because I have to speak mostly of the characteristic ornament of the different periods, and this plain weaving is not susceptible of ornament, woven ornament I mean. To obtain that the weft must cross the warp at regular intervals, but not alternately; on the surface either warp or weft must predominate to make a pattern. To speak broadly, in the most ordinary kind of pattern-weaving the threads come to the surface in a regular and mechanical manner. I have not time to explain all the ways in which this is done, but must ask you to accept that simple statement, and allow me to call this kind common figure-weaving. Sometimes, as a subdivision of this common figure-weaving, the warp comes chiefly to the surface, which makes a satin; and also sometimes these warp threads are caught up over wires with a sharp edge, which are pulled out as the work goes on, leaving a surface with a raised pile, that is velvet. In the next kind of weaving the weft crosses the warp alternately indeed, as in plain unpatterned weaving, but instead of being carried in one stroke all across the web, ends or returns wherever the colour changes, so forming a kind of mosaic of coloured patches; this is tapestry, using the word in its narrowest sense. As a detail of this work I ought to mention that in tapestry-weaving the weft is put in so loosely, driven home so carefully, that the warp is entirely hidden by the weft. That work may be considered as a sub-division of this kind of weaving, where thrums of wool, hair, or silk are knotted into a plain canvas as the work proceeds, so as to form a pile with their cut ends; this is carpet-weaving. Lastly comes a kind of ornamental web, in which the ornament is not produced by weaving, but by painting by hand or printing combined in various ways with dyeing in the piece; we call these printed goods chintzes and so on. Needle-worked embroidery is another way of ornamenting a cloth; but I shall not deal with this form of ornamented cloth.

Now all these manners of weaving have been practised from time immemorial, and are in use to-day, with no more variation of method than what comes from the application of machinery for lifting up the threads of the warp, as in the Jacquard machine, now universally used in civilized countries, and the use of steam-power for throwing the shuttle. These variations of method are of little or no interest from the artistic point of view, and are only used to get more profit out of the production of goods; they are incidental changes, and not essential. However, ancient as all these methods are, the oldest way of ornamenting a cloth otherwise than by merely painting on it with a pigment (not dyeing), or by embroidery, must have been the tapestry method, as it requires but a very small amount of technical, though often much artistic, skill. The figured webs of the Homeric poems were probably of this kind of work; in the British Museum there is a scrap of cloth of the ancient Central American civilization so woven; the patterned cloths of the north of Europe before the fourteenth century were mostly tapestries; the South Kensington Museum has a precious fragment of such work of the eleventh or early twelfth century. Among peoples of higher industrial skill, the common figure-weaving took the place of this technically rude work for ordinary recurring patterns, but tapestry was still used for producing what may fairly be called woven pictures; webs whose elaboration and want of repetition of pattern would scarcely allow of any reasonable effect being produced by mere mechanical weaving.

The painting or printing of cloths is doubtless a very ancient practice; I mean to say, the painting them with dyes, not pigments. The minute and elaborate figure ornament which is shown on some of the Egyptian sculpture has, to me, a look of being done by means of this art; it is a confirmation of this probability that Pliny, in a now famous passage, notices the fact that Egypt in his day practised a certain art of figuring cloth, his description of which leaves no doubt that it was what we should now call madder-printing or painting. Of this art I shall have to speak in the notice of dyeing which will conclude this lecture.

So here we have to consider (leaving out plain unornamental weaving) first, common or mechanical weaving, including satin, damask, and velvet; second, tapestry, including carpet-weaving; and third, painting or printing with dyes. Let us consider briefly the practical history of these three arts; and first the mechanical or common weaving. With wares so perishable as woven cloth, it is not wonderful that we have little read record of the stuffs of antiquity; because the descriptions of the poets and writers of the time cannot be depended on for accuracy, as they of course assumed a general knowledge in their audience of the articles described. The vase-painting and sculpture of the central Greek period give us at all events some idea of the quality of the stuffs worn at the period, and in so doing fully confirm the beautiful and simple description of the fine garment in the Odyssey, which is likened to the inner skin of an onion: a figure of speech which, taken with the representations of delicate cloth in the figure-work of the time of Pericles, and earlier and later, gives one an idea of something like those mixed fabrics of silk and cotton which are still made in Greece and Anatolia. Only you must remember that the early classical peoples at least did not know of either silk or cotton, so that flax was probably the material of these fine garments; and we know by the evidence of the Egyptian tombs that linen was woven there of the utmost delicacy and fineness. I don't suppose we need doubt that mechanical pattern-weaving was practised by the Greeks in their earlier and palmy days, but only, I fancy, for the simpler kinds of patterns in piece goods, diapers, and so forth. I conclude the running borders to have been needle-work, or maybe dye-painting. We have a few representations of looms to help us in looking into this matter, which however do not prove much; they are all vertical, and at first sight look nearly like the looms used throughout the Middle Ages, and to-day at the Gobelins, for tapestry-weaving. In one which is figured on a tomb at Beni Hassan in Egypt, the details of an ordinary high-warp tapestry loom are all given accurately; but the weavers seem to be weaving nothing but plain cloth; in this loom the cloth is being worked downwards, as in the ordinary tapestry loom. In another representation, taken from a Greek vase of about 400 B.C., Penelope is seated before her famous web, which is being worked in an upright loom; there is only one beam to it, the cloth-beam, and the work is woven upward; the warps are kept at the stretch at the bottom by weights looking too small to be effective; the web is figured, [it] has a border of the ordinary subsidiary patterns of classical art, and a stripe of monsters and winged human figures. It seems to have been concluded that this represents actual tapestry-weaving, but too hastily perhaps, as the high-warp loom only means a certain amount of inconvenience in forgoing the mechanical advantages of the spring-staves worked by treadles. Also this Greek loom of 400 B.C. is in all respects like the looms in use in Iceland and the Faroes within the last sixty years for weaving ordinary cloth, plain or chequered.

So much, and little enough, of the loom-work of the early classical period, a time when the merely industrial arts which were, you must remember, mostly carried out by slave-labour, were despised; when private luxury scarcely existed; a fact most happy both for the decency of general life and the glory of the arts. Doubtless the ingenuity of the industrial arts gained much during the later and imperial days of Rome; but there is little direct evidence in the remains, artistic or literary, of the time itself; Pliny, who is very particular on the subject of dyeing, helping us nothing in the matter of weaving. However, perishable as the actual woven wares are, the art is particularly conservative in design, and when we get nearer to our own epoch we have a certain number of specimens preserved to us from the tenth century downward, which not only show us how people wove in those days, but give us more than a hint of the fashions of centuries before their time. A very small fragment of cloth found at Sion, in Switzerland, gives us doubtless a type of a late Roman figured stuff; the pattern, which repeats in a smallish space, is of a woman seated on a fish-tailed, leopard-headed monster, amongst conventional foliage; the point of it, as an illustration of our history, being that it is designed wholly in the classical manner; so that whatever the date may be, it is absolute evidence, so far as it goes, of the kind of work of the later classical times.

However, it is now time for us to leave this somewhat barren desert of vague poetical descriptions, hasty and generalized drawings on vases or tombs, and very rare scraps of the woven good themselves, and march into the more fruitful country of the early Middle Ages, which give us quite direct evidence of the arts of weaving of the days of the Byzantine Empire. Now you must remember that whatever share the city of New Rome took in actually producing works of the industrial arts under her emperors, she was at least the foster-mother of those arts for all medieval Europe, and from her came that influence which brought about the new art of Europe, whose origins are obscure enough till they meet and are fused at Constantinople into a style which for centuries after was world-wide; this was natural enough. Looked upon as an European city, Byzantium was for long the only great city of Europe that was really alive and dominant in peace and war; as a mistress of an enemy she dealt with all the great birth-countries of art and letters, nay, of human life. India, Mesopotamia, Syria, Persia, Asia Minor, Egypt; the ideas and arts of all these countries touched her, and mingled with the remains of the older art of Greece, from which the academicism of the long Romano-Greek period had not crushed all the life, sorely as it had weighed upon it. Byzantium then, the Byzantium of Justinian and onwards, we must look upon as the capital of the industrial arts, from the sixth to the thirteenth century, and in none of them was her influence more obvious than in that of weaving. One event alone which took place there revolutionized this art in Europe, the introduction of the silkworm in the sixth century; which event has also made it more possible to judge of what was done in early times, because the material having the advantage of not being liable to be moth-eaten, some specimens of early date have been left to us.

It would take us too long to discuss the much disputed question of the actual date of these scraps, such as those found in the tomb of Charles the Great at Aix-la-Chapelle; it is enough for us that, as I have said, they undoubtedly represent the design of the stuffs of Justinian's period, and through that period throw light on the fashions of old Rome, and even of classical Athens. These earliest Byzantine or quasi-Byzantine stuffs are most commonly figured with contiguous circles or wreaths, which enclose divers subjects: sometimes the chariot-race in the Hippodrome, or the consular sacrifice, the Byzantine emperors, as consuls of the Republic, being the chief figures; the lion-hunt in the emperor's arena or the park of the Great King; the gladiator again dealing with his lion in the arena, and probably doing duty for Samson in the eyes of the devout Byzantine Christian; all these subjects take us away into classical times. But there are other subjects within these Byzantine or early medieval garlands which carry us further back, and hint at a time before the dawn of history, much simpler though they be on the surface; for often these circles are inhabited (to use an heraldic phrase) by beasts, winged or otherwise, griffins, elephants and birds, opposing one another (again in heraldic phrase) on either side of an upright object, sometimes branched, variously. Now, though you may think that this is a very natural way of filling a circle ornamentally, yet I think it has been conclusively proved that these beasts and their dividing object are symbols of ancient worship, the object being perhaps translated by the Zoroastrians as the holy fire, though originally signifying the holy tree, which has played such a curious part in ancient symbolism, or betokening of mysteries.

So then Constantinople takes us back not only to the time of the Caesars on one side, but on the other also to that of the Great King of Persia, to the Kings of Assyria, the monarchs of Babylon, and far beyond them to the Accadian people and their astronomical lore. But if Constantinople was the capital of the weaver's art till the twelfth century, during the new two centuries Palermo took her place. The chroniclers tell us that just in the middle of the twelfth century, Roger the Norman, King of Sicily, in a raid he made on the Eastern Empire, took Corinth, Thebes, and Athens, where there was still a considerable silk-weaving industry; and that part of the booty which he carried off from those towns consisted of the silk-weavers themselves and their families, whom he took back with him to Palermo and established in a royal factory attached to his palace, bidding them teach their mystery to his own people. From that time till past the middle of the medieval period Sicily was the great workshop for silk goods.

Although this story has been much accepted, told as it was gravely and circumstantially, it must be looked upon as a legend founded on the undoubted fact that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Sicily was the headquarters of the silk-weaving craft. The population of Sicily consisted largely of Saracenic tribes, who kept amongst them the skill in the industrial arts which they had acquired (chiefly, no doubt, from Byzantium, though not always directly) in the early Middle Ages; besides Sicily had been a most important out-work of the Byzantine empire in its palmy days; was, in fact, much more important than the towns of Greece proper; and was not at all likely to have lacked its due weaving craft. Altogether its seems extremely unlikely that Roger should have been the first of the Norman kings to set up a royal weaving-shed, especially as the Norman kings from the first had affected to imitate oriental customs, reigning, as I have said, among a population which was really oriental; and this custom of a royal factory, connected as it was with the establishment of the seraglio, which, 'tis said, the Norman kings were not slow to adopt, would have seemed a necessity to a monarch at Palermo long before the time of Roger's raid on Greece. You may note at this place that these weaving-sheds of oriental potentates turned out those rich stuffs which were especially used for presents and robes of honour, and had Arabic writing intermingled with the design; a fact which has served to date some of these webs beyond dispute, as the writing sometimes includes the name of the reigning prince. A word or two on these written stuffs will have to be said presently.

Anyhow, however the manufacture was established, there is no question that in the fourteenth century Palermo was the headquarters of the silk-weaving craft; and most happily we have abundance of evidence of the kind of work produced there, for a great many fragments have been preserved to us in the treasure-houses of the churches of that and the succeeding century. Nay, even in England, in spite of the Reformation, some evidence is left us of the long way that these beautiful goods travelled; for on the backgrounds of painted panels in the richly adorned screens of our East Anglian churches, and on the robes of the saints depicted thereon, after figured patterns more or less accurately taken from the Sicilian webs, which doubtless formed part of the vestments of the sacristy.

North Germany, where the Reformation went on in its earlier days more peaceably and with less destruction than in England, has, however, been the great storehouse of these invaluable treasures, the sacristy of the Church of St. Mary at Danzig being particularly rich in them. The museums at Vienna, the Louvre, and the South Kensington Museum here, are well stocked with examples, which I must say, as to ourselves, are not treated with the respect (by the public, I mean) which they deserve. For I must tell you that these stuffs, designed in the heyday of medieval art, uniting the wild fancy and luxurious intricacy of the East with the straightforward story-telling imagination and clear definite drawing of medieval Europe, are the very crown of design as applied to weaving.

To a certain extent they preserved the older fashions, and repeated, though not servilely, the patterns of the Byzantine epoch. The writing on the webs seems to have been used on them as a sort of trade mark, implying that they were of fine oriental manufacture; only for the most part it is mere sham writing, a scrawl which has borrowed certain obvious forms from the real Arabic letters, whose graceful and energetic curves fitted them specially for this kind of written ornament; for the rest, the resources and the ingenuity of structure, the richness of imagination in these stuffs is amazing. Beasts, birds, and compound monsters are frequent, often arranged in opposition on each side of the holy tree or holy fire as aforesaid; but often simply passing their lives in the scenes of nature, and generally admirably drawn as to their characteristics, though of course generalized to suit the somewhat intractable material. Then we have castles, fountains, islands, ships, ship-sails, and other such inanimate objects. Finally the weaver uses the human form often enough, though seldom complete; half-women lean down from palm-trees, emerge from shell-like forms amongst the woods with nets in their hands, spread their floating hair over the whole pattern, water their hounds at the woodland fountains, and so forth. Now and again definite winged angels are introduced. In one whole class of designs a prominent feature is the sun-dog, as it used to be called in the older English tongue, a cloud barely hiding the sun, which sends its straight rays across the design with admirable effect.

And all these things are drawn at once with the utmost delicacy and complete firmness; there is no attempt to involve or obscure anything, yet the beauty of the drawing and the ingenuity of the pattern combined give us that satisfying sense of ease and mystery which does not force us to keep following for ever the repetition of the pattern; in short, in most of the designs of this place and period there is nothing left to desire either for beauty, fitness, or imagination.

From Palermo the art of silk-weaving found its way into the more northern parts of Italy, and settled definitely at Lucca, the centre of a great silk-growing district, whose manufacture overlaps that of Palermo in date, so that it is not easy to state with any certainty whether such or such a piece of goods was woven at one city or the other. But as the years passed a kind of design peculiarly graceful, but not so strongly accentuated as in the earlier patterns, marks this school; these patterns are generally founded on the vine; birds and animals are often introduced into them, but do not play such a prominent part as in the earlier cloths. As to the technique of these webs of Sicily and Lucca, it is on all sides admirable, and in nothing more so than its simplicity; so fertile was the designer, his work so crisp, elegant, and powerful at once, that it would have been the height of bad taste to complicate or huddle it up with tormenting the webs into ribs or stripes or honeycombs or herring-bones, or long weak floats of silk; these are the poor refuges from barrenness of invention which a less artistic age is driven to, and has used, and still uses in a most profuse and wearisome way.

One peculiarity I may note about all these early stuffs; gold is freely used in them, but the gold thread is not like that of our time and some centuries back, to wit, a thin ribbon of gilt silver twisted round a floss silk core, but it made by gilding strips of fine vellum and twisting that round a core of hemp or hard silk. This plan has both its advantages and disadvantages; it does not wear as well as the wire-twisted thread, but also is not so apt to tarnish. The Chinese still use similar gold thread, only be substituting gilt paper for gilt vellum do not make so good an article.

Before passing to the next century, I must mention that all this while much silk was made in the East. At Cairo and thereabouts was a manufactory of striped silk, in which the Arabic writing, real and finely designed, played a great part; in this work the gold was always flat stripes of the gilt parchment which marks the special manufactory. In all cases you must remember there was at this time no essential difference between the ornament of East and West; even in architecture the resemblances are more noticeable than the differences; but of course in the lesser art we are considering, the needs of climate and manners had not the same influence as in architecture; accordingly we find not only the same details but the same patterns in use in Persia and Syria as in Sicily and Italy. It is also interesting to note that pieces of Chinese damask are not seldom to be found as the grounds of needle-embroidered ecclesiastical vestments, whose patterns are identical with those even now woven there.

As to Northern Europe, doubtless the ornamental weaving, which was mostly worsted, was chiefly tapestry work; but its seems that some kind of figured stuff other than that was made. In the edicts of S. Louis mention is made of tapisserie à la haute lisse, tapisserie sarracenoise (of which more anon); and also of tapisseries nostrez, which last are obviously goods made in a long piece for cutting and joining. My own impression is that these tapisseries nostrez (judging by the context) were like the rudely flowered stuff traditionally made by the Italian peasants to-day, in the Abruzzi, for instance, and of which the Roman peasant women's aprons are made. This impression is chiefly founded on the fact that exactly the same make of cloth is woven in Iceland for coverlets, saddle-cloths, and the like, the inference being that it was formerly in use very widely throughout Europe; it seems, however, that early in the fourteenth century there was some sort of silk-weaving and even velvet-weaving in Paris, but I imagine it to have either been plain weaving or tapestry, and the velvet to have been made like a carpet. One may note, as showing clearly that the East made mechanically-woven cloth and the West tapestries, that when the unlucky Frenchmen who were taken by Bajazet at the rout of Nicopolis, in the year 1396, were arranging their ransom with him, and were trying to find out with what rarities they would be likely to soften the heart of their conqueror, they were told that he had a turn for the fine tapestry of Arras, "if so be they were of good ancient stories"; fine linen of Rheims would not come amiss to him either, or fine scarlets (more of those afterwards): "for," said their friends, "as to cloths of silk and gold the king and the lords there in Turkey have of them enough and to spare."

The fifteenth century brings us to Florence and Venice, where the splendid cloths were wrought which were used so profusely in the magnificent stateliness of the later Middle Ages. This is a part of the subject that wants treating clinically, so to say; that is, we should be alongside some of the fine specimens in the best museums in order to make you understand it properly. Nothing can exceed the splendour of some of these Florentine and Venetian webs, whose speciality was a particular kind of rich velvet and gold, often with one pile raised on the top of another. In these cloths the vellum-twisted gold gives place to gold thread as we know it, but gilded so thickly that it is not uncommon to find specimens where the gold is very little, it at all, tarnished.

Rich and splendid as these cloths are, they have, to a certain extent, lost some of the imaginative interest of the earlier designs; it would not be true to say that they depend on their material for the pleasure they give, because in these great patterns, founded on vegetation of the thistle and artichoke kind, there is a vigour and freedom that is most delightful and captivating; but they are more architectural and less picture-like than the Sicilian stuffs; the strange monsters, the fairy woods and island shores, the damsel-peopled castles, palm-trees and shells, the lions drinking at the woodland fountain, hawk, swan, mallard, and dove, the swallow and his nestlings, and the hot sun breaking through the clouds - all these wonders and many another have given place to skilfully and beautifully arranged leaves and tendrils. As we shall see, later on, picture-weaving had reached its height by this time, and there was something of a division of labour between the two kinds of weaving-design; at the same time the design was absolutely pure and suitable to its purpose; no atom of corruption had crept in.

Now as to the relation of this design to that of the East; they still marched close together until the false taste of the Renaissance began to affect the later medieval work. Throughout there is more of distinct elegance in the eastern work, and that more especially in that kind of design which we call Persian.

The sixteenth century saw the change in woven work which fell upon all the architectural arts. I have said that weaving is conservative of patterns and methods, and this is very obvious in this great period of change; one may say that the oriental-gothic feeling, which was the very well-spring of fine design in this art, lasted side by side with divers new fashions, some of which were merely the outcome of the general pseudo-classical feeling, and shown in detail rather than general arrangement of the pattern, and in some pieces of fantastic ugliness which indicated only too surely the coming degradation of the weaving art.

By the first years of the seventeenth century that degradation had befallen the art in Europe, in fact it was becoming, or had become no longer an art, but a trade, as we very properly nowadays call work, which is really but an accident of the profit-market. I need not, therefore, trace its degradation further, though that degradation was checked, to a certain extent, by the traditions of the better times; and some good work was done until the great flood of the vileness of the eighteenth century swamped everything, and prepared the way for the inanity of the nineteenth; which, in its turn, let us hope, is doomed to prepare the way for a new life once more, even in this small corner of the result of man's intelligence, the textile arts.

Having thus gone very briefly through the story of mechanical weaving, I must now turn back to take up the other side of weaving, and talk of it as producing something which we must call pictures for want of a better word. I have said that in the early days of Greek civilization the more elaborately figured cloth must have been either embroidery or tapestry; of course in the later classical times, when the mechanical arts had attained a great degree of perfection, some of this elaborate work might have been done in the mechanical loom; but judging from Ovid's description of the contest between Minerva and Arachne, which at least admits the possibility of weaving quite an elaborate picture (for at least they were not embroidering), tapestry-work must have been practised in classical times. But we need not dwell very long upon these times of uncertain evidence and guess-work, since we have in later times such abundance of clear material for carrying out our inquiries. It is at least pretty certain, as I have already said, that all the more elaborate figured hangings actually made in the north of Europe before the end of the fourteenth century were woven in the tapestry loom; a piece of such work, North German, or perhaps Scandinavian, of the beginning of the twelfth century, is preserved at the South Kensington Museum, and is itself a portion of a larger piece at Lyons. The design of this piece is practically an imitation in tapestry of the mechanically woven patterns of the south-east of Europe; its design being of that kind of contiguous circles enclosing monsters of which I spoke before. It is worth while noting that patterns of exactly the same character have been traditionally used in Iceland till within the last hundred years, only by that time they had got to be done by means of worsted embroidery upon linen. Now of course you understand that these tapestry cloths were done always for special decorative purposes, for wall-hangings and curtains, I mean; their thick, heavy, and rigid texture unfitting them for use as garment-cloth to the same degree that it would fit them for use as hangings. As on the one hand the northern craftsmen, who had, by the way, to work chiefly in wool, as I have remarked, had not learned the special mystery of the mechanical figure-weaver from the East, so also this kind of wall-hanging would be likely in the cold, damp climate of the North to take the place of the wall-pictures which so commonly decorated important buildings in the south of Europe. This in fact happened, and the use of tapestry hangings grew commoner as pictures grew more elaborate; the earlier pictured tapestry hangings partook of the simplicity of the paintings of the time, as one can clearly see by the one or two precious relics of that period which we have left. These simple pictured cloths were no doubt woven all over the north of Europe, but one of the chief places of manufacture in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was Paris. I have mentioned the edicts of the time of S. Louis which show that the craft of tapestry-weaving, tapisserie à la haute lisse as they call it, was an important craft at that time. Later on, in the second half of the fourteenth century, the tapestry-weavers are frequently mentioned at Arras (which city, as you know, has given its name to the whole art), Tournai, Valenciennes, Lille, and Douai; Flanders, in fact, was taking the place in tapestry-weaving which it filled to the end. In the last years of the fourteenth century there is much mention made of the craft, and the names of two designers are mentioned, John of Bruges and Nicholas Battailles, who were both in the employment of Charles the Fifth of France.

There is fortunately a piece of tapestry still in existence of this period, a portion of a great hanging made for the Cathedral of Angers. It represents scenes from the Apocalypse, arranged in frames and divided by figures of the prophets twice the size of life; it is a grand and monumental work, severe in style, and decidedly belonging, especially as to its scheme of decoration, to the fourteenth rather than the fifteenth century, though it was not finished till about 1453. Of about the same period are certain cloths made in Germany on a small scale, not above four feet high or so. These are quaint and playful in subject and design, and have a domestic sort of look about them; in fact I think they were made in the houses they were intended to decorate. The subjects are chiefly secular; scenes from romances, sports and pastimes, the occupations of the months, and so forth; they were probably meant for what were called dorsars, that is, cloths to hang at the backs of the diners' benches in the hall; the South Kensington Museum has some good specimens of these.

From the middle of the fifteenth century the art of tapestry-weaving went on vigorously, and we have many specimens left us of the time, at least of the latter half of the century. It may interest you to hear what some of the subjects of the tapestries were which Sir John Fastolf left behind him at Caistor in Norfolk. You must remember he was a powerful country gentleman, say of [the] second rank. "Imprimis j clothe of Arras, clipped the schipherds clothe. Item j of the Assumption of Oure Lady... Item j clothe of IX Conquerouris," the Nine Worthies, doubtless. "Item j clothe of the Siege of Faleys for the west side of the hall. Item j clothe of Arras with III archoways on scheting a doke in the water with a crossbowe. Item j clothe of Arras with a gentlewoman harping by j castle in the midst of the clothe." There are a great many more in the inventory from which this is taken, but these will serve as specimens of the woven decorations from the walls of Caistor Castle in the middle of the sixteenth century. One of the finest pieces of tapestry left, by the way, you will find under the minstrels' gallery in the Great Hall at Hampton Court, somewhat in the dark; it is in good preservation, and the colour is very beautiful; the drawing is both refined and vigorous, much resembling in style the piece preserved at Berne which is said to have been designed by Roger van der Weyden. Of about the same period (say 1460) is a piece at South Kensington Museum of the three Fates standing on a prostrate lady. This beautiful piece is a representative of a particularly pleasing kind of decoration, where figures are introduced on a background of conventional flowers; the finest specimen of this, to my knowledge is in one of the smaller rooms at the Hôtel de Cluny at Paris, but unluckily the guardians of that fine museum have nearly hidden it with heavy pieces of furniture. I think we must consider this kind of work as belonging in spirit to the fourteenth century, though it lasted right into the sixteenth.

Well, tapestry went on getting more and more elaborate, and reached its turning point about the first years of the sixteenth century, of which period the South Kensington Museum has now, I am happy to say, some very noble specimens, equal in fact to any of the time. The tapestry of this period, however, though so much more like a picture than that of the earlier period as to be crowded with figures, and to deal freely with all explanatory accessories, houses, chariots, landscapes, and so on, nevertheless is carefully designed on the principles proper to the art. The figures are arranged in planes close up to one another, and the cloth is pretty much filled with them, a manner which gives a peculiar richness to the designs of this period. The opposing fault to this is the arrangement of figures and landscape as in a picture proper, with foreground, middle-distance, and distance; which plan of arrangement, in a woven hanging in which the peculiar qualities of a picture must be lacking, gives a poor unfilled-up look at a far greater expense of labour and ingenuity than went to the production of the more conventional arrangement.

We have now come to the end of the Gothic period of this noble art of picture-weaving. The middle of the sixteenth century saw the above-mentioned change take place, and thenceforward the faults, which accompanied the degradation of all the arts from that time onward, had their influence on tapestry, which, however, died hard, so to say. Up to the first quarter of the seventeenth century tapestries were still made, which, though they had lost all the romance and direct beauty of the Gothic period, had some claims to be considered decorative objects. The following period saw the execution of works at an enormous expense which were a very bad substitute for the yellow-wash of a stable. Up to this time the execution at least of these pictured cloths had been pure and reasonable, had not attempted in any way to imitate the execution of the brush. But from the times of the Grand Monarque and the establishment of that hatching-nest of stupidity, the Gobelins, all that was changed, and tapestry was now no longer a fine art, but an upholsterer's toy.

We will leave it in that mud of degradation to have a few words with its congener, carpet-weaving. Now as tapestry was entirely a western art, so is carpet-weaving altogether an eastern one. 'Tis clearly an art of the peoples who dwell in tents or tent-like houses; of dusky rooms with no furniture save a few beautiful pots and a gleaming brass dish or so; of dry countries where mud is a rare treasure reserved for the sides of wells or tanks, and where people kick off their slippers and walk barefoot when they come into a house.

I think it is a doubtful point as to whether carpets proper were made in Europe before the seventeenth century; although some learned men think that the tapisseries sarrace-noises mentioned in the edicts of Louis the Ninth's time were true piled carpet-work, and it must be said that their reasoning seems rather convincing. Anyhow, there is no direct evidence of carpet-making in medieval Europe, where, as a matter of course, foot-carpets would be little used in the rough and very out-of-door life then led; but from the middle of the fifteenth century there is abundant evidence of the importation of eastern carpets into Europe, the most direct and satisfactory of which is given us by the pictures of the period, in which such goods are often figured; these show us carpets, doubtless made in Asia Minor, of geometrical designs always, the prototypes of which were obviously floor-mosaics; both the Flemish painters and the Italian paint these things with much accuracy and enjoyment. But besides these carpets there was undoubtedly another kind of design being carried out at the time, whose headquarters was Ispahan in Persia: this kind of design was elaborate, flowing, and founded on floral forms, very commonly mingled with animals and sometimes with human figures; in short, the geometrically designed carpets above mentioned have a direct analogy with the earlier Byzantine silk stuffs as to design, and this flowing Persian style with the freer designs which were woven in the looms of Palermo. Of these latter flowered carpets I do not pretend to fix the dates with any accuracy, but among the specimens I have seen, I will undertake to say that there are representatives of at least three different styles before the degradation of the art; the first being a pure, flowing style, following closely in detail the forms of the finest oriental architectural work, for instance, the plaster ornament at Cairo; the next affecting much the same detail, but blended with animal forms; the third purely floral, flowing, and very fantastic and ingenious in the construction of its patterns. This last I think brings us in date to about the time of Shah Abbas (the upholder of the greatness of the restored Persian monarchy about the time of our Queen Elizabeth) and his immediate successors, that is, from 1550 to 1650 or so. After that the degradation began, but it took a very different form, as always is the case with eastern art, from what it would have done in Europe, where all degradation of art veils itself in the semblance of an intellectual advance; in the East, on the contrary, haste, clumsiness, rudeness, and the destruction of any intellectual qualities are the signs of degradation; a tendency in fact to mere disintegration. As to this special degradation of the carpet-making art, the thing to note about it is that it has as its subject-matter all the different styles I have mentioned; the Byzantine or floor-mosaic style, the flowing fourteenth-century, the scroll and beasts style, and the floral style. From the disjecta membra of these four are knocked up, so to say, the traditional designs which are found in comparatively modern eastern carpets, which in spite of all degradation are still generally very beautiful things, not altogether lacking in some sense of logical congruity, and generally good in colour.

It would be an endless task to follow all the ramifications of this art in the East; but I must just say that the Mussulman conquerors of India carried it to that peninsula, where it took root and flourished till quite our own days, chiefly using the more floral side of Persian design, but in some places curiously blending with its forms taken from the native art, Buddhist and Brahminical, and in others infected by the eccentric art of modern China. Modern commercialism has laid its poisonous touch upon this useful industry since the days when I was a young man, and to-day it is almost ruined as an art; those importers who have any taste having to exercise great pains and patience in getting fair specimens of it for sale at home.

I have now gone briefly through the tale of woven ornament, but before I say a few words on what may be called the artistic ethics of this art, I must very hurriedly speak to you of the art of dyeing, since upon that is founded all the ornamental character of textile fabrics. In doing so I will for convenience' sake use the present tense, but must ask you to translate it into the past, as this art most of all among the subsidiary ones has been turned into a trade, even to the extent that the public is beginning to be conscious of its loss in this respect, though it is quite helpless to remedy it; also I must ask you to remember that I am speaking as a dyer and not a scientific person.

Blue, red, yellow, and brown are the necessary colours from which a dyer makes all his shades, however numerous; all these colours are furnished by natural substances, which have, however, to be modified by the dyer's, or, if you will, chemist's ingenuity. Of blues there is only one real dye, indigo, to wit; this dye in the ancient classical and the European medieval countries was obtained from woad, the Germanic name for an indigoferous plant, which can be grown in rich soils as far north at least as Lincolnshire; whereas the true indigo can only be grown in tropical or sub-tropical countries. Indigo, as long as it keeps its colour and nature, is insoluble and therefore unfit for dyeing; it has therefore to be turned into white indigo by means of deoxidation, which is effected (I must be brief and not exhaustive here) chiefly by fermentation; the white indigo is then soluble by alkalies. This deoxidation is called by the dyers "setting the blue vat"; and this setting by means of fermentation, the oldest and best way, is a very ticklish job, and the capacity of doing so indicates the past master of dyeing.

The next colour in importance is red; two kinds of substances produce it. First the powdered root of plants, called in the Germanic tongues madder; of the madder-producing plants there are several kinds, for instance, clavers or goose grass, galium verum (Our Lady's bed-straw) and wood-ruff, but they are all poor in dyeing matter, the true madder having to be carefully cultivated in good soil. Secondly, there are the insect reds; kermes or coccus, the scarlet of the ancients, which lives, or grows rather, on a prickly oak on the Mediterranean shores, the lac insect, chiefly in India, and cochineal in Mexico and South America. Of these, madder dyes a dullish blood-red; kermes, a central red tending towards scarlet; lac, a coarse, violent scarlet; and cochineal (used variously), crimson and scarlet.

Next comes yellow, which is vegetable again, and again of two kinds; one bright yellow from lemon upwards, the other brown yellow; weld is the representative of the first; the other are extracted from wood barks chiefly, and are all more or less astringent. Now these reds and yellows are dyes of a very different quality from indigo; the textile fibres have little or no affinity for them, and have before they are dyed with them to be impregnated with mineral * substances for which the dyes have an affinity; these are principally alumina and tin. So used we call these metals mordants; the widest spread and most ancient mordant is the alum of commerce. The fibres being steeped or boiled in these mordants, the dyeing forms a lake on the surface of the fibre, and the trick is done. The browns are, firstly, vegetable astringents; the extract of walnut root or walnut hulls is the representative of that: and secondly, mineral, from the solution of iron, the oxide of which, that is to say yellow ochre, can be formed on fibre, and is especially useful in cotton and linen dyeing as a brownish, yellow, or buff dye. The other colours are made by mixtures of those above; green, for instance, is first dyed in the blue vat, then mordanted and dyed yellow; purple, blue vat again, mordanted and dyed red; black, blue vat, mordant and red, mordant and yellow, or blue vat and brown. The blue vat has to be continually in use for obtaining all kinds of sub-shades.

One famous and historical dye has been extinct for hundreds of years, the ancient purple, the use of which seems to have died out in the earliest Middle Ages; it was extracted from certain shell-fish, and was a very permanent and beautiful dye, varying in shade from violet to a fine, solid, and somewhat sombre red-purple.

You must be more careful to distinguish this dye from the other famous ancient one than some of the poets have been. This is the Al-kermes or coccus above mentioned, which produces with an ordinary aluminous mordant a central red, true vermilion, and with a good dose of acid a full scarlet, which is the scarlet of the Middle Ages, and was used till about the year 1656, when a Dutch chemist discovered the secret of getting a scarlet from cochineal by the use of tin, and so produced a cheaper, brighter, and uglier scarlet, much to the satisfaction of the civilized world; which has, for the last three hundred years, always greeted with enthusiasm every invention which tends to make its clothes and dwellings uglier and more inconvenient. I regret that I have but a short space to say a very few words about the last textile which I mentioned to you, dye-painted or printed cloth, to wit, and about which I could hardly say anything till I had given the foregoing short account of dyeing, with which art it is intimately connected. I have mentioned the fact that Pliny makes it clear to us that this art was known to the ancient Egyptians; but it most probably had its origin in India, a country of all others fittest for following the art on account of its peculiar climate and its wealth of dyeing materials; whether or not the art was practised in medieval Europe in any form is doubtful, but it does appear at least possible that some of the "stained cloths" which we have oftenest supposed to be merely pigment painting in distemper were dye-painted. In the middle of the sixteenth century the art was firmly established in Persia, whose elegant and beautiful pattern-designing from that time forth has made certain forms of ornament quite familiar to us in the chintzes that were freely imported into England from the end of the seventeenth century onward; for it goes almost without saying that this Persian ornament conquered everything of cotton printing in India, except the cloths which were made for special purposes, figured with the personages and scenes of the Brahmin mythology. It is hardly worth while as an artist going into the history of this art in Europe; since whatever was really fine in it was little more than a literal copy of Indian or Persian originals; of which latter one may say that the peculiarities of the manufacture gave opportunities for special freedom of design and very beautiful colour, founded on the two most important dyeing drugs, madder and indigo.

I did not mean from the first to include the pleasing art of embroidery in this discourse on textiles; so here we will end our sketch, and will conclude with very lightly considering the artistic ethics of the subject, as I promised. Don't be alarmed, it is but a word or two as to the general quality of the design of textiles in good periods. You will find that whatever merit there may be in textile ornament flows always from an instinct for the fit use of material amongst men of simple and manly lives; which instinct is so strong in pure times of art, that its effects are most obvious to us when the designer, who in those days was also the weaver, was thinking least of his materials, when he was wrapped up in the invention of his design and the beauty of its hues; it was in second-rate times of design, such as in that period of splendid Florentine velvet-weaving I have told you of, that the material was as much thought of as the design, or it may be more so; when in fact the design was used for the display of splendour of material.

In the times of the degradation of the art, with the history of which I have not thought it worth while to trouble you, people by exaggerating this fault fell into another which seems at first sight almost the opposite one; they gradually forgot that the material had anything to do with the design at all, in fact they often spent time and pains to make, for instance, woven silk look like printed paper and so forth. Moreover in the fine time of art what the designer thought of was always in some way to appeal to the imagination; in other words, to tell some story, however imperfectly; he had not time, therefore, for the petty ingenuities of the later days, he was determined to let us know what he had in his mind, and he, unconsciously maybe, well understood that he was to use fair colour and beautiful form in the simplest and most direct way in order to carry out his purpose. So treated, the design of even a scrap of cloth becomes elevated by human intelligence, and has in its humble way distinct intellectual value; it becomes a thing which no intelligent unprejudiced man has any right to pass by with contempt, as a piece of mere frivolity; and I must say point blank, that unless we can elevate our design into this region of fancy and imagination, we were better to have no ornament at all; for to my mind as a mere commercial necessity, a bit of trade finish, it is unspeakably contemptible. You may easily imagine that I have not time to give you any hints as to the way of elevating our ornament on wares, nor perhaps would this be quite the best place in which to treat the subject, which it seems to me if properly treated would lead us into very serious matters indeed.

One hint, however, I should like to give you; I am myself an ornamentalist, a maker of would-be pretty things. Yet I will not try to press on you the fact that there is nothing like leather; rather, I would say, be cautious of over-ornamenting your houses and your lives with cheap unenduring prettiness; have as few things as you can, for you may be sure that simplicity is the foundation of all worthy art; be sure that whatever ornament you have is proper and reasonable for the sort of life you want to lead, and don't be led by the nose by fashion into having things you don't want. In looking forward towards any utopia of the arts, I do not conceive to myself of there being a very great quantity of art of any kind, certainly not of ornament, apart from the purely intellectual arts; and even those must not swallow up too much of life. As to ornamental art (so called), I can, under our present conditions, looking forward from out of the farrago of rubbish with which we are now surrounded, chiefly see possible negative virtues in the externals of our household goods; can see them never shabby, pretentious, or ungenerous, natural and reasonable always; beautiful also, but more because they are natural and reasonable than because we have set about to make them beautiful. We need not think that this will be an easy matter to bring about, but when it is brought about, I do believe that some sort of genuine art and ornament will accompany it, it may be in rather a Spartan way at first; from that time onward we shall have art enough, and shall have become so decent and reasonable, that every household will have become a quiet, daily, unadvertised Health Exhibition.

* Or sometimes, as in cochineal scarlet dyeing, the mordant is mixed with the dip bath. back

Bibliographical Note


Textile Fabrics


  1. 11th July 1884 at the International Health Exhibition at the South Kensington Museum, London


  1. Published as a pamphlet entitled Textile Fabrics: A Lecture Delivered in the Lecture Room of the Exhibition, London: William Clowes, 1884
  2. Published in two parts by The Architect, on 19th July 1884 (pp.43-5) and 26th July 1884 (pp. 50-53)