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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Nineteenth-Century European Textile Production

The Industrial Revolution played a major role in transforming the production and consumption of textiles in nineteenth-century Europe. The importance of the textile industries to the development of the factory system cannot be overestimated. Many of the major inventions of this period applied directly or indirectly to the textile industries, from the spinning jenny (invented by James Hargreaves in 1764), which automated the preparation of weft threads for the loom, to the steam engine (perfected by James Watt in 1775), which was applied to the power loom. The end result was that both plain and patterned textiles could be produced more quickly and cheaply, making mass-produced fabrics for dress and furnishings available to a large portion of society. While consumers benefited from a greater variety of goods at lower costs, textile workers often suffered as the factories replaced many skilled weavers with unskilled workers at lower wages. France continued to be the leading source for luxury dress and furnishing silks during the nineteenth century, as it had been throughout the eighteenth century, while England’s technical prowess enabled the country to excel at mass production for the middle-market consumer.

Technical Advances of the Early Nineteenth Century
In 1785, an English clergyman named Edmund Cartwright patented the first power loom. It would be several decades before power looms were used in large numbers, but by the 1830s two people could operate four looms simultaneously. Although initially power looms were capable of weaving only plain, unpatterned textiles, power was eventually applied to the manufacture of all types of fabrics.

Roller printing was first developed in England in the 1780s and was in general use by the first decade of the nineteenth century. Roller printing was based on copperplate printing technology, and employed a revolving engraved metal cylinder to print cloth continuously, greatly speeding production capacity. One roller printing machine could print as much yardage as twenty hand-block printers (26.238.9a–f; 29.88). The early machines could print only one color, but designs were often enhanced with additional colors added by block printing. By 1860, roller printing machines could print up to eight colors simultaneously and toward the end of the nineteenth century textiles with more than twenty colors were produced.

Woodblock printing was the earliest form of textile printing and continued well into the nineteenth century, despite the fact that copper-roller printing was faster. This was due to the fact that the rollers were limited as to the size of pattern they could produce, therefore high-quality hand-block and copperplate prints still had the advantage of being able to provide a large-scale design of the type preferable for household furnishing textiles. Block printing was not completely replaced by the roller until the second half of the century (16.28).

A French inventor, Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752–1834), introduced a mechanism for aiding the creation of woven patterned textiles in 1801. The so-called Jacquard mechanism eventually replaced the drawloom system of pattern control, which involved a lengthy set-up every time a new pattern was woven; it increased the speed with which woven designs could be set up on a loom, and allowed the creation of complex weave structures previously impractical with the drawloom. This enabled the creation of technical masterpieces in the form of pictures resembling prints on paper (31.124). The Jacquard mechanism also eliminated the need for the drawboy, the weaver’s assistant who pulled the pattern cords in a conventional drawloom, therefore effectively cutting in half the workforce required for weaving complex patterned textiles. The eventual application of power to the loom in the weaving of both plain and patterned textiles accelerated production, but each innovation increased pressure on the workers who processed the raw materials into thread. French weavers in the silk-producing center of Lyon, as well as elsewhere in Europe, were forced to take repeated wage cuts and experienced a reduction in social status by the end of the century.

The Jacquard mechanism was adapted to lacemaking machines as well, making possible the creation of pictorial patterned machine laces, where previously only simple nets could be made. Handmade lace continued to be produced in small quantities and at great expense to cater to the luxury market and specialist collectors, but machine lace dominated the market during the nineteenth century (43.37.1; 64.229.2).

Impact of the International Exhibitions
London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, often referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition after the glass and iron structure in which it was housed, was the first in a succession of international trade exhibitions that provided manufacturers with venues to display tour-de-force technical and artistic achievements to the public. Textile designers took full advantage of these opportunities to display new designs and techniques (65.91.2). The innovations of the Industrial Revolution created the means to produce more goods than were required by consumers, therefore new markets were eagerly sought and new consumers seduced into believing that they needed mass-produced decorative items. Conspicuous consumption was soon no longer the sole province of the upper classes. Continuing technical improvements, combined with the popularity of historical revival styles in home furnishings, produced some spectacular textiles for both dress and furnishings. This applied to all types of textiles, from inexpensive printed cottons to finely woven silks (36.90.816; 2001.174).

Textile dyeing technology changed dramatically with the discovery of aniline dyes—the first completely synthetic dyes—by Englishman W. H. Perkin, in 1856. Prior to Perkin’s discovery, all textile dyes were derived from natural sources—plants, insects, and minerals. The first aniline dye was a manmade re-creation of the coloring agent in madder root, which produced numerous shades of red. A variety of aniline dye–colored fabrics were shown at the 1862 London International Exhibition—the textiles were displayed next to the sticky black coal tar waste from which the dyes were derived.

Competition between French and English textile manufacturers and designers was fueled by the international exhibitions. France responded to the success of the 1851 exhibition by organizing its own in 1855. It remained the leader in costume and interior fashions, while the English sought to capture a larger share of the luxury goods market. French textile designers were traditionally better trained and earned more money than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe; French studios existed which specialized in designs for export. The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded in 1852 as a repository for art objects intended to serve as inspiration to the design community in addition to serving the public at large. Three French museums, the Musée Historique des Tissus in Lyon, Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffes in Mulhouse (in the cotton-printing center of Alsace) were all founded between 1856 and 1863 with goals similar to those of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Reform Movements of the Nineteenth Century
Each international exhibition brought an unprecedented number of products together in one venue, and many critics found the results less than pleasing. Design quality was perceived to have suffered in the translation from concept to mass production. One positive effect was that many English architects concerned with the reform of design became interested in the decorative arts in general, textile design included. The use of architectural forms and motifs previously found only in furniture was characteristic of textiles designed in the various revival styles of the nineteenth century. This borrowing of motifs was one of the most frequently criticized characteristics of mid-nineteenth-century textile design. Nevertheless, many high-quality revival-style textiles were produced, and were extremely popular with consumers in Europe and the United States. The Neo-Renaissance style was most popular in France, while the Gothic Revival found its strongest expression in England (48.55.4; 63.55.2). Design reformers found fault with the application of three-dimensional forms to a two-dimensional medium. Versatile English designers such as Owen Jones (1809–1874), who was trained as an architect, and Christopher Dresser (1834–1904), who originally trained as a botanist, advocated geometrically based, repeating patterns for flat textiles (2000.46; 1984.469).

In 1861, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was founded by William Morris (1834–1896) and seven other colleagues, all artists and designers dedicated to the Gothic Revival style. (The company was reorganized as Morris & Company in 1875.) The original group included Ford Madox Brown (1820–1893) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), leading painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Partially in response to the emphasis on technical prowess displayed by the wares exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, artists of the English Arts and Crafts movement attempted to turn back the clock to a time when artists and craftspeople were more intimately involved in the production of decorative wares. The textiles of Morris & Company represent some of the best-known products of the Arts and Crafts period. Morris himself was particularly interested in historic textiles, and he often consulted the collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum. He also became dedicated to reviving the craft of using naturally derived fabric dyes. The new aniline dyes had quickly replaced natural dyes, as mechanical printing had replaced hand-block and copperplate printing, and Morris attempted to reverse this trend. He revived the art of block printing and refined discharge printing (23.163.5; 23.163.10), along with creating pictorial tapestries that had fallen out of fashion. The company began producing their own printed textile designs in 1868 and woven textiles in 1876. Many of Morris & Company’s most popular designs were produced over many decades, some until the firm closed in 1940 (23.163.15).

Printing was the technique favored by late nineteenth-century textile artists due to the ease of translating a concept to a finished product. As mechanical printing techniques continued to improve, the range of fabrics that could be successfully printed increased, and textured fabrics such as cotton velveteen became popular furnishing fabric in the later decades of the century (1990.155). The work of William Morris and other English designers of the Arts and Crafts era was particularly important to the development of the Art Nouveau style, which spanned the passage of the nineteenth century to the twentieth (2000.48).