A Very Speculative But Brief Note On Textiles And Society

Textiles have played a very special role in the history of humanity because of their unique and contradictory dual character: they are at the same time very delicate and vulnerable to the natural elements and human use on the one hand, while on the other hand, they are very rugged, resilient and portable as objects of transport.

This latter characteristic has given textiles a unique place in history, especially silk textiles, in the interwoven history of ornament and the history of trade. The perfect combination of costliness, light weight and durability of silk made it a very profitable object of trade (along with spices, gems and other products which share these physical characteristics), and with this trade, an essential means of communication for motifs, designs, cultural values and ideas, as well as the power behind them. In this sense, the historical "durability" of textiles is very similar to that of architecture, but instead of immutable monumental and heroic remains physically linked to a particular place, we have mobile textile fragments.

Although textiles are often thought of simply in terms of clothing (first for protection from the elements and later, for purposes of adornment), and in terms of interior decoration, it should not be forgotten that they have also been an essential element of housing, in the form of the tent (on which subject there is a remarkably small literature), and for travel itself, in the form of luggage, and especially, for sails for wind-powered water transportation.

The intimate relationship between textiles and society can also be seen in the fundamental role it played in the rise of the capitalist system, as the first large-scale capitalist industry (the production and export of wool in medieval Flanders); in the industrial revolution (the mechanization of cotton spinning and weaving in eighteenth-century England); in architecture, as the object of the first multi-storied iron frame building (Bage's flax mill in Shrewsbury, England in 1796); as the subject of the first working-class history (Henson's history of the framework-knitters in 1831); or as the subject of the first semiotic text (Roland Barthes, La Mode, Paris 1963); not to mention that the French word for loom is the same as the general word for profession or trade ("métier"), and the German word for textiles is the same as the general word for material or matter ("Stoffe"), which is also the case for the Dutch word "stof", as well as in English, with the word "material".

Perhaps it is by chance that Christopher Columbus, like his father, was first a wool weaver and wool merchant, but it is quite logical that the Jacquard loom in early nineteenth-century France was the inspiration for the work of Charles Babbage in England which lead directly to the invention of the computer in the twentieth century.


Notes On The History Of The Literature Of Textiles

Although the recorded history of textiles is generally thought only to have begun in the mid-nineteenth century, its literature goes back at least to the sixteenth century, if not earlier, even though there is no fifteenth-century or sixteenth-century book to be found entitled "The History of Textiles". Such a book doesn't exist because the category of textiles as an object of historical study, as we know it today, did not yet exist.

Until the fifteenth century, in Europe, the printed literature of textiles is almost entirely limited to passing references to the textile fibers, clothing and some woven cloth, as textiles were considered as a sub-category of agriculture, in the incunabula editions of the classical Greek and Roman historians (especially Pliny the Elder, Herodotus and Julius Pollux), the Bible or medieval scholars1, as the textile "literature" was essentially "verbal", so to speak. Professional textile knowledge and experience was a private affair, often a carefully-guarded secret, passed on confidentially from master to apprentice, father to son, mother to daughter. This was not only because the need for printing and the diffusion of information was still in its infancy, but especially because of the stratified, "confidential" nature of medieval life. Nowhere was this clearer than with the guilds, textile and others, who monopolized and controlled the diffusion of all types of knowledge concerning the techniques of fabrication of textiles and the other crafts, that could threaten their livelihood, sometimes upon penalty of death. This domination, whose positive side was the attempt to maintain high standards of quality of materials and workmanship, only began to disappear in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century under pressure of rising industrial capitalism with its need to produce more, more efficiently and more rapidly.

It is only at the very end of the fifteenth century, 1499 to be exact, that textiles were first treated as a distinct historical category in the revolutionary encyclopedic published work of Polydore Vergil on the secular inventions and discoveries of humanity,2 although even here the history of fibers, clothing, spinning, weaving and dyeing are all woven together in a single narrative cloth.


An Outline of the Textile Literature: The 16th through 18th Century

The early history of the printed literature of textiles in Europe only begins to develop as a distinct category in the sixteenth century. It is composed of a number of currents all of which can be considered as variant types of practical guides for people working with textiles, either as professionals in a full-time occupation, or, more often, domestically, as a part of daily household tasks, often performed by women. This early literature, which grows and develops through the eighteenth century, can be classified into five main currents.

The first, and most important, current is what today is called "how-to" books, ie practical guides, manuals, handbooks, or, in modern, late twentieth-century computer language, "hands-on" books. From the early sixteenth century, this included:

- Pattern books for lace and embroidery,3 destined for the moral education and amusement of upper class ladies;

- Books of secrets and recipe books (a facet of alchemy and early chemistry; especially important for color and dyeing techniques)4 destined primarily to aid the homemaker in performing practical household tasks;

- Pattern books for weaving, beginning in the late seventeenth century, intended for the domestic weaver; and,

- In the eighteenth century, books of techniques describing production methods for making textiles (as well as for many other products) for purposes of aiding craftsmen and manufacturers to maintain high quality standards.5

Among these "how-to" books were also:

- Commercial and business handbooks,6 explaining such things as local and regional currencies, weights and measures, local trade practices, etc., which were intended for merchants and traders. As textiles were an extremely important part of economic life in Europe as well as elsewhere, it is not surprising that these works often contain many textile references.7

- Books on agricultural techniques for the farmer, for growing and processing textile fibers, for raising sheep for wool, or mulberry trees for silkworms and silk, etc.; and, lastly,

- Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, books on mechanics and chemistry, calling for the application of industrial machinery and chemical techniques to aid in the more efficient manufacture of textiles in the spirit of the industrial revolution.


The second current consists of the edicts, acts, laws, rules and regulations concerning textiles issued by the ruling classes, royalty, municipal and regional governments and the professional guilds. These edicts were invariably designed in one way or another to control some aspect of textile production or consumption, as in the case of sumptuary laws controlling the use of certain types of luxury textiles, often to protect a national textile industry (as well as maintain the "pecking order" at court). Furthermore, there were also laws attempting to regulate the use of certain materials or techniques, maintain high standards of quality, or very often, especially in the eighteenth century, to control the sale, import or export of textiles as a means to collect taxes. Concerning the craftperson and the production process itself, the guild rules and regulations were no less rigorous in their control over work conditions, professional standards, production quality and trade practices.

As part of this second current also can be found the petitions, tracts and pamphlets, often privately published, written to influence governmental policy concerning the role of textiles vis-à-vis the economic interests of a given country, especially import and export policies. This debate was particularly heated in England, first in the middle ages concerning the import and export of raw wool and woolen cloth, and later in the eighteenth century, concerning cotton and the beginnings of industrialization, with a resulting voluminous and important social-economic textile literature.8 This type of political-economic debate also took place in France in the sixteenth century between the silk manufacturers and the silk dealers,9 and later in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, in the very heated arguments concerning the importation of printed calicos from India.


The third current consists of books of descriptions of customs, clothing and habits of foreign and regional peoples, such as Baïf on Greek and Roman clothing,10 as well as books on the professions and trades. Often these works were copiously illustrated. This group includes especially costume books, a huge literature with no less than three major bibliographies,11 but also books of travel and tourism, and descriptions of the work done by different types of craftsmen and professions.12


The fourth, and most general, current is composed of books of an encyclopedic nature, incorporating textile references or descriptions, or brief histories. This included general encyclopedias and dictionaries, such as the pioneering work of Vergil cited earlier; Conrad Gesner, a universal bibliography of human knowledge; Francesco Alunno, a dictionary-thesaurus on the organization of human knowledge; Charles du Fresne du Cange on the middle ages; and later in the eighteenth century, for example, Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, and the English Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as specialized dictionaries, such as Thomasso Garzoni on the professions; Jacques Savary des Bruslons on late seventeenth century commerce, both cited earlier, and Pierre Jaubert and Philippe Macquer on the "arts et métiers".13 The authorities cited in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century books were usually drawn from Biblical, Hebrew, and classical Greek and Roman sources.


Lastly, it should be also be noted that there were already some scattered attempts at a history of fibers and silk as early as the beginning of the eighteenth century, including monographs by [Peter?] Busch in 1711, Gianfrancesco Giorgetti in 1752, John Reynolds Forster in 1776, and Adamo Fabbroni in 1782.14 There were even two publications in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on tapestries, but both of them had more to do with their subject matter than with the art of tapestry.15 Nevertheless, in spite of these few works, our knowledge of the literature of textiles from this early period is still very fragmentary, and is in need of much systematic research.



An Outline of the Textile Literature: The 19th and Early 20th Century

It is only in the early nineteenth century that a literature begins to arise directly concerning the history and study of decorative textiles as we understand it today, moving from a practical, "how-to", descriptive type of literature oriented towards practical matters and production, to that of a "scientific", historical and analytical literature, oriented towards study and appreciation, contemplation and, most important, collecting.

Not surprisingly, these early histories were completely dominated by and linked to the history of liturgical vestments, as many —if not most— of the important surviving medieval and renaissance textiles were to be found in church treasuries, not to mention that many of the early textile researchers themselves were educated within the church, such as Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin, Charles de Linas, Franz Bock, Daniel Rock, Joseph Braun and Eugène Chartraire.

Firstly, there were the works on the history of textiles which attempted to trace the development of textiles, usually based on Biblical, Greek and Roman sources, such as the books of George Porter, James Yates, Clinton Gilroy, and [Jean-Marie?] Pardessus, culminating with Ernest Pariset in 1862-1865, the first full-scale history of silk.16 At the same time, the first history directly concerning the working class was written by Gravenor Henson in 1831 on the framework knitters.17

Secondly, there was the beginning of a systematic attempt to locate, catalogue, study and identify old textiles found in church treasuries, and royal collections and inventories. This research was first especially active in France in the late 1840s, with the work of Charles Cahier and Arthur Martin, Charles de Linas, and the scholarly history of medieval luxury textiles of Francisque-Michel.18 Slightly later in Germany, there was Franz Bock, Freidrich Fischbach, Julius Lessing, Emil Kumsch, Paul Schulze, Theodor Hampe and Otto von Falke;19 in England there was Daniel Rock, Alan Cole and then Alfred Kendrick;20 in Austria there was Josef von Karabacek, Alois Riegl, and then, Moriz Dreger;21 Isabelle Errera in Belgium;22 Raymond Cox and Gaston Migeon in France,23 and Francisco Miguel y Badia in Spain.24

With the discovery of more types of textiles and their technical and stylistic differentiation during the nineteenth century, the field of textile studies became larger and more complex. Slowly, the literature began to branch off into specialized areas, such as Joseph P. A. Rey on shawls, Achille Jubinal on tapestries, Countess of Wilton (Mary Margaret (Stanley) Egerton) on embroidery, Mrs Bury Palliser (Fanny Marryat) on lace, and later, Julius Lessing on oriental carpets, and Louis de Farcy on fine embroidery, among other subjects. 25

At the same time as this growing scholarly interest came the photographic publication of textiles in public museum and private collections. This interest in publishing, also stimulated by the excitement and discovery of photography, color printing and lithography, was part of an general, "unspoken" attempt to make a public "inventory" of all known textile specimens —and other types of craft products— so as to compare them and scientifically study them, at least in terms of their visual content.

But these pictorial publications were not just visual "inventories", they were also intended as a practical means to inspire the designers of textiles and the other decorative arts. These arts were in the process of decay due to the large-scale standardization of the crafts linked to capitalist mass production which were overpowering small-scale craft production, because hand-crafted production was becoming too costly, moving from a "necessity" to a luxury. Many of these textile "color plate" publications —often in large-format portfolios, expensive and beautifully produced— clearly stated on the title page that they were meant to be used by the practicing designer or craftsperson, although in fact they were often purchased by the wealthy collector as well.

This need to inspire the nineteenth-century designer and craftsperson was also a major stimulus in the formation of public collections and museums, itself linked to the growing need to develop and expand public education. Most of the European museum textile collections, general decorative art collections, and specialized textile museums were begun in the second half of the nineteenth century as part of this process.26 Even today, most textile collections are still "study" collections, available by appointment. However, today this is due more to the fact that it is now known that textiles cannot be exposed to light for extended periods without damage and thus most of the time must be keep in dark storage, whereas in the nineteenth century it was probably more related to the fact that the great mass of textiles could be most easily and economically stored in drawers or portfolios.

Although many important textiles came directly from royal, aristocratic or church sources into public collections, at the same time textiles also became an object of private collections as well. Although it is not clear who was the very "first" serious textile collector, the name of Franz Bock, the curator of the church treasury in Aachen is certainly very high on the list, as he figures prominently in the formation of many important museum collections beginning in the 1860s, including the South Kensington Museum in London, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst in Vienna, the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyon, and the Simeonstift in Trier. It is also very likely that he was an active dealer as well.27

But Bock was not alone; there were other important private collections formed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries throughout Europe, which over time eventually became the basis for most of the textile museums. Among these collectors were Fredéric Spitzer, A. Dupont-Auberville, Carrand, Albert Jean Gayet, Dikran Kelekian, and Besselièvre in France; Robert Forrer, Julie Spengel, Marczell von Nemes, Albert Figdor (1843 - 1927), Alexander Schnütgen (1843 - 1918), and later Otto and Konrad Bernheimer in Germany and Austria; Walter Fol, Leopold, Fritz and Ernest Iklé and Werner Abegg (1903 - 1984) in Switzerland; Franchetti, Salvadori, Giorgio Sangiorgi, Guggenheim, Bertini and Adolfo Loewi in Italy; Francisco Miquel y Badia, Celestin Dupont, Biosca, Torres, Francisco Torrella Niubó, and Ricardo Viñas Geis in Spain; Isabella Errera in Belgium; George H. Myers and the Textile Museum in the USA; and more recently Edmund de Unger of the Keir Collection in England.28

But the stimulus behind the founding of the specialized textile museums in many cases were motivated by other, more "practical" business concerns, one of which was the support and promotion of a local or regional textile industry. This was the case towards the middle of the nineteenth century with the founding of the Musée de l'Impression sur l'Étoffes de Mulhouse, begun in 1857, closed in 1870 and re-opened in 1873, the Krefeld Textile Museum in 1880, the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyons, after numerous attempts dating from the early nineteenth century, finally begun in 1891, and the textile museums in St. Gallen in Switzerland, in Tarrassa (near Barcelona) founded in 1946, the Museo del Tessuto in Prato (near Florence), the Abegg-Stiftung in Riggisberg (near Bern) founded in 1961, and very recently, in 1995, the textile manufacturer Ratti in Como, Italy with its sponsorship of the Metropolitan Museum of Art textile collection in New York.29

Along with the publication of textile designs, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, there was also the research and publication of royal and church inventories, the oldest records describing, or in most cases, simply listing, the names, types, prices, costs and uses of the textiles owned and used by the ruling classes and the church.30 These dated, written documents, along with the visual information contained in dated paintings and drawings, have become a primarily reference source in trying to establish a history of textiles.

The search for this type of corroborative contemporary historical documentation has since become a very important aspect of the study of textiles in the twentieth century, along with the use of scientific techniques to analyze fibers and weaving structures, the chemical analysis of dyes, and especially, Carbon-14 dating techniques.


On the Character of the Contemporary Textile Literature

The current, mid-late twentieth-century literature, with the exception of the highly technical and commercial publications linked to mass industrial textile and clothing production and marketing, is overwhelmingly dominated by "how-to", practical books on sewing, needlework and lace, the modern-day successors to the noble pattern books of the sixteenth century. These are still so popular that practically every country has at least one publisher specialized in only these types of books.

The other most widely-published type of textile books are basically picture books, sometimes the expensive "coffee table" variety: visual surveys of costume, oriental rugs, and very occasionally, historic textiles, often presented in the context of collection catalogues and surveys. These popularizations seem to have no end, especially costume and oriental rug surveys; the vast majority usually containing "standard" images and attributions, some dating from the early part of the twentieth century.

The more serious, scholarly works on textiles form a very small, but very important, part of the textile literature, as most of this material is published in the form of small-circulation exhibition catalogues, or usually, specialized articles in specialized journals, often museum bulletins, with an occasional conference proceeding or "festschrift" anthology.


The General Attitude About Historic Textiles. Today, historic textiles are not very highly appreciated as the object of serious creativity. One possible reason is that its very nature as a labor-intensive, collective and often anonymous product, is at odds with dominant values of "high art" creativity oriented towards individual "fine art" creative "genius". This underlying attitude is further reinforced by the delicate nature of textile materials themselves, as the fibers and dyes are "used up" as part of their natural historical existence, making them by their very nature less valuable.

The prevailing attitude towards textiles was quite different until the late nineteenth century, when they were still thought of as a handcrafted product. Even though they may have been products of large-scale manufacture and commerce —the Italian or French textile industries were as important to the sixteenth- or eighteenth-century European economy as the automobile industry was to the 1930s or the electronic industry is to the late twentieth century— they still were very much appreciated as objects of beauty and value to be carefully used and preserved.

However, the minor status of textiles is also subject to contemporary, pressures and its position in the hierarchy of the arts is slowly changing, although perhaps for the wrong reasons. Firstly, as part of the constant search for new "collectibles", to use a USA expression, new types of objects to be bought and sold, historic textiles still represent a relatively new, unspeculated-upon family of objects. Secondly, and perhaps even worse, old textiles are slowly being re-valued and "up-graded" from a so-called "minor" craft into the "higher" realm of the "fine arts" with its related higher prices, especially by its presentation as a precious isolated design-object framed under glass and hung on the wall, to be viewed as if it were a distant, untouchable drawing or painting.


On the Ideology of the Literature of Textiles

In many respects the dominant literature of decorative historic textiles tends to be a very biased, compartmentalized and prejudiced literature, uncritically subjected to many of the ruling ideas of society. The literature of historic textiles can be classified in three broad categories: "silk" textiles, "archaeological" textiles, and "ethnographic", anthropological" or "folk" textiles, each with their underlying cultural codes and assumptions. In general, silk textiles are the products of the important dominant civilizations who write history; archaeological textiles are fragmentary remains of textiles from once dominant (or sometimes, unknown) civilizations, while "ethnographic" or "folk" textiles are textiles made by "underdeveloped", "primitive" and poor peoples or countries who do not write history (and often still are a living and productive culture). Thus, there are no "ethnographic" textiles produced by the Lyon silk industry, medieval Italian velvet trade or Roman wool industry, for example.

The literature of silk textiles is particularly biased because it is based, for the most part, on the types of textiles which have been best preserved, best conserved, best inventoried, etc., over the centuries, which quite "naturally" turn out to be those very same textiles used —or, more exactly, barely used— by the upper classes, royalty and the religious officials, for ceremonial purposes, such as evening wear, gowns, and especially by the church or temple for religious purposes (vestments, reliquaries, banners, hangings), and burial purposes. Thus the literature of decorative woven textiles in general has become virtually synonymous with the artistic history of the weaving of silk, the most expensive and delicate of textile materials, often further embellished with gold and silver, which then, in turn, has become framed by the history of liturgical vestments via the church treasury. In many respects it would be as if the history of the automobile was based exclusively on the remains of Rolls-Royce car parts. To this silk history is added earlier "archaeological" textiles, usually from late antiquity or early medieval periods, especially early Christian-Coptic textiles from Egypt, as well as Peruvian textiles, and more recently, Chinese and central Asian silk textiles, many of which have survived in great abundance, especially Coptic or Peruvian textiles, because of the favorable dry climate or sealed burial conditions.

Because textiles are objects of "use value" par excellence, it is not surprising that they should be used, re-used and eventually disappear more in the case of the poorer classes who use them until threadbare, than with the rich classes who can use them more sparingly and give them more care. Nevertheless it is still surprising that there have been so few attempts to re-construct another "alternative" history of the non-silk decorative textiles, or, at least, a history which attempts to put these two "classes" of textiles into relation with one another.

One striking aspect, for example, is medieval wool cloth, particularly from Flanders, which according to inventories and contemporary medieval literature, was as highly valued, ie expensive, as silk (or fur, the other luxury non-woven garment material). For some reason, this type of textile is rarely treated in the context of decorative textiles. Is this because there is no remaining physical evidence left for museums to collect or write about? Or because it is not decorative enough?


A Small and Fragmentary Literature. The literature of history of handwoven decorative textiles is "relatively" small, being given its social and material importance throughout the centuries. Furthermore, its literature is fragmented into many segregated specialties. If it is compared to the specialized literature on the other crafts, especially the more permanent crafts — the less "minor" arts?— especially furniture and ceramics, but even metalwork and glass, for example, all these subjects seem to have a generated proportionately a much greater literature, as can be seen by consulting any general bibliography on the applied arts. Nevertheless, while we believe that the literature is "relatively" small, if one takes into account all world languages, it still involves many tens of thousands of books and articles, and perhaps could include as many as one hundred thousand works.

This "relatively" small literature and lack of interest is probably a reflection of the status of textiles as the most "minor" of the so-called "minor arts", as mentioned earlier. This underprivileged condition can be seen as much in the budget of museum textile departments —the few that exist—, as in the prices of old textiles in the antique or auction market, or the quantity of new textile books published and listed in Books in Print. With the exception of tapestries, because of their figurative, painterly character and attachment to the world of "fine art" (via the famous artist creators of the cartoons) and direct documented royal workshops and patronage, and oriental (ie Islamic) carpets, because of their particular place in the history of east-west relations, and the fact that the "western" world does not have seem to have had any widespread indigenous floor covering tradition, textiles today are barely taken very seriously except by a relatively small, but committed, community of specialists.

Furthermore, within the broad areas of the textile literature, there are important differences between the types of literature in the sub-sectors. For example, the oriental rug literature, more than any other, has been dominated by the marketplace, especially today in the search for and promotion of "new" types of "third world" tribal weavings to buy cheap, promote and sell dear, with a resulting literature, even when it is very serious, is never very far from this promotional aspect. But this search for "new" material can have its positive aspects as well, as this type of rug literature better reflects the global diversity and richness of rug production, especially when one thinks that until 1945, the serious collector's literature —as opposed to the buyer of floor coverings for the home— was mostly centered on fine court rugs produced in Iran and Turkey.


A Formalist and Conservative Literature. The literature of textiles tends towards a formalism and a conservatism —not only in the sense of "textile conservation"— and is very oriented toward the collecting of objects. It is not surprising that the production of the nineteenth and twentieth century textile literature has been closely linked to museum acquisitions and collections, and the sponsorship of archaeological expeditions. There seems to be a clear aversion to developing a social history of fine textiles; generally its often unstated "problematic" is concerned with the formalism of the "where, when and how" of textiles, locating and dating things, and how their motifs evolved, rather than the "why and what", the social-cultural-economic aspects. While histories of fine decorative textiles may often have the obligatory citation of Francisque-Michel, Otto von Falke, Julius Lessing, Moriz Dreger, Isabella Errera, et al —admittedly early landmarks in the study of fine textiles— we have rarely, if ever, seen a reference, for example to Alfred Franklin, Florence Edler du Roover, Gustave Fagniez, H.A. Manandian, Adolf Schaube or the Kress catalogues, which would contribute to re-orienting the study of decorative textiles within a broader social and economic context.

Although a more socially-conscious literature has developed recently, particularly concerning the study of contemporary traditional textile production, often called "ethnographic textiles" in the "third world" areas of Asia, South America, Africa, and the United States (especially, native Americans), but it still seems that much work needs to be done to root historic textiles within the fabric of social and daily life.

Another very important development in this area has been the growing literature on the valorization of women's work in connection to textile creativity, especially the creative history of various forms of domestic embroidery and weaving. There are certainly many other textile areas which would benefit from a more critical social consciousness.

Lastly, the literature is relatively uncritical, or even unconscious, about its own history, about the history of the study of textiles, as there are many areas which remain unexplored or in need of systematic research, as we have tried to point out throughout this introduction.