Originals And Copies Of Draperies
( Originally Published 1930 )
WHEREVER hangs a drapery, there hangs a tale. But it is not even considered until one cares enough about the mute thing to examine into its past, into the reasons why it is of that particular weave, color and design.
And not knowing these things, the assemblage of draperies needed to soften the aspect of our rooms sometimes fails in taste and in that intelligent selection which produces harmony. Decorative textiles plead for proper associates, but their language is not audible. The velvets of Genoa in the Fourteenth Century beg to be relieved from their place as coverlet to a Louis XVI chaise-longue; the fabrics of modernist art shriek a pro-test when displayed amid Grinling Gibbons' wood carvings; and these cries should be understood.
It is to prevent such ill-planned mating that this book is offered. By their stories are the textiles known, and by these same tales do we know instinctively where and how to place them. The stories are so numerous as to suggest the thousand and one tales of Scheherazade, but we will shorten them to a more convenient length to suit the times. Like those famous stories of beguilement they carry us first into the East, for weaving is a prehistoric art, and the cradle of mankind who invented it was rocked in the valley of the Euphrates or thereabouts. Had that same menschenkind been willing to limit his living to hot countries, possibly weaving would have had no reason for supplanting fig-leaves as dress and palms as upholstery. But man was, and is, prone to wander, and wandering he shivered, and so came woven cloth.
The tale of looms leads back to the time of shadows; maybe it suggests unpleasant things like cave-dwellers and the Neanderthal Man, so for pride's and comfort's sake let those who are interested start with the loom of Penelope's web and those other more productive looms of her time, for here we have old Greek vases to instruct us with their drawings.
Books and books are written upon looms, and these explain with scientific care the machinery that has grown so complicated. But it is not necessary to know them, or to accomplish the understanding of every play of warp and weft or woof, if you like that word bet-ter. That we leave in the hands of the weaver. But it is of interest to us to know that all looms were operated by hand until the Eighteenth Century, a process so slow and painful that the wonder ever grows how the weavers could supply the enormous amount of fabrics demanded by the increase in luxury after the Middle Ages.
The great fact of interest is that when the weaving became most complicated one there was who came to the fore with a gift to the world in his hand. It was Joseph Marie Jacquard, who in 1801 to 18o4 perfected the wonderful loom which produced complicated pat-terns by means of perforated cards. Three other men had contributed their share to this invention, Bouchon, Falcon, Vaucanson.
It happened about 1801 that a certain loom belonging to the State was seriously out of repair. Jacquard, who was known as an able mechanician, was called to make it operative. While at work he applied improvements of his own invention and of others', and the resulting loom was called after him. It did not spring at once into perfection, but was the effect of combining inventions which had appeared throughout preceding years. At about this time the power loom was taking the place of the hand loom.
Fortunately it is not necessary for our use of textiles to know how the shuttle which carries the weft is thrown, nor how the warp threads are separated, nor how two weaves are carried on at the same time on two warps, the two fabrics commingling at the dictates of the pattern.
It is enough that we know the names and aspects of the materials oftenest in hand, the primary ones of which are tapestry, taffeta, sarcenet, satin, velvet, dam-ask, brocade. And practically every one knows those; every woman is forced to or she cannot go a-shopping, and every man knows them because of his interest in woman. He may not in these days—more's the pity—wear satin knee breeches with coat of rich brocade, but he finds his thrill is watching his lady, satin-clad, reclining on rich damask—and thus he learns his textile lesson and develops fondness for the fabrics.
We of the beauty-loving eye are ready to pass quickly over the mechanical processes that we may reach the completed product. It is there we find the diversion of romance. The completed fabric alone shows us the design, the ornament, and in that ornament lies all the history of the alluring East, of Europe and even of our new America.
Our chief pleasure will be in reviewing the ornament, for that way lies romance and history. There also lies our way to a logical taste in using the materials in hand, for they all speak of the time and place of their origin.
The reason for designs, too, is a part of the pleasure hidden in them. Why do the early Persian silks bear figures of horsemen shooting at deer or at lions, as their horses gallop madly? Why are Spanish fabrics haunted with suggestions of the Orient? Why have French textiles of the Eighteenth Century so strong a taste of an exotic Chinese element?
All ornament is symbol, and what is symbol but a compressed tablet of history or experience? This means that a story lies in each design; it may be the story of a religion, as in arabesques; or of a beautiful superstition, as the tree-of-life; or of history, as in Napoleon's bee. To discover these symbols in our surroundings is to enrich the life of everyday. I know no greater pleasure than a moment spent in intimacy with the textiles of one's own apartments if one possess the key to the origin of each. When once the eyes are opened to what they mean, designs are living evidence of a vital past, and must often seize a de-lighted attention.
That we cannot clothe our persons nor dress our houses and theaters in textiles woven in the time of their first production, drives us to reproductions of the old designs, but that need trouble us not at all. The most thrilling in design of all textiles, the Coptic wools, the Sassanian and Sicilian silks—what remains of them but tired bits resting in museums? And the glowing velvets that crept from the Mohammedan Empire into awakened Italy, and the fabrics of Italy's Renaissance? If we have them it is solely as bibelots.
Only in their recent copies are they of real service as coverings and hangings. The small lengths that Time has allowed to pass his destroying fingers are venerable aristocrats which we adore but from which we expect no service. We line them to spare their weak fabric, we edge them with a protecting galloon and place them about on tables or walls as an evidence of a cultivated taste in luxuries, and for the esthetic thrills received in studying them. Therefore we bless the able silk mills of today which keep alive for us the old ornament so full of beauty and tradition. These mills all have their private museums of old textiles, and are constantly acquiring old bits over which an expert pores as over a volume of ancient lore, picking and plucking at threads to divine the secrets of the weave, and setting artists to work to copy the design in the technique of the weaver.
Just one thing is allowed to mar the beauty of the copy—the effort to cheapen the cost of the reproduction. If a new-made fabric loses beauty by reason of a design mal-copied or a double weft avoided, it is that the manufacturer may save that way. But in-sofar as the old model is carefully followed, the old symbolism preserved, the result is fit for our fastidious use.
The Eighteenth Century has left us much of its damask and velvet which were used as hangings in cathedrals. Shrewd buyers of antique stuffs for the great market of America made the discovery that the lesser among the clergy and the greater among the servitors could be won into giving up the old and disused silks of churches hard-pressed for money. It is these which provided wall hangings for many a collector's home. But now even these have been absorbed and it is doubtful if in these days any one is offered a hanging of one or two hundred yards of rich rose velvet or red damask.
But here again is a little knowledge of old textiles useful, for equipped with that one can choose from among the new a weave that bears some of the charm imparted by the older weavers. In damask it is found in purity of design and beauty of color. In velvets it is found in the pile, when it is deep and delicately irregular as in the Sixteenth Century and not close and short as in our own time. Apropos des bottes as the French expression says, old fabrics of Europe are always narrow, the double width being unknown on the hand-loom.
This is the reason for not insisting on the antique fabrics: that they are almost impossible to obtain; and this is the reason for upholding new manufacture: that the looms are giving out textiles which satisfy a cultivated taste and which enable us to renew the draperies of the period room—the room en style when time has caused the original ones to perish.
The fashion in draperies follows the fashion of dress, a woman's dress, in recent centuries. It is an amusing thought; follow it out and see how human it makes the window and furniture draperies of the recognized periods and styles of decoration. In the times of "the Louis' " when women's dresses were bouffant, were looped in festoons, trimmed with yards and yards of frills and fringes, were not windows, couches and beds similarly shaded with voluminous folds and garnitures? And when Napoleonic styles succeeded, did not a sort of self-conscious moral rectitude express itself in straight lines and lessened yardage for both women and windows?
And there are our own amazing times, when much that is superfluous is eliminated. Curtains and frocks not only hang straight and clear the floor, but the old-time underfurnishings are left off—in both cases. Time was when a taffeta curtain was lined and interlined with canton flannel, with cotton cloth, with Shantung silk, for layer upon layer was the upholsterer's delight.
Time was, too, when the flannel petticoat was as much a part of a lady's person as her fingernails.
As for beds, they not only took upon themselves all suggestions that skirts had to offer, but they actually added hats! Look at the tufts of ostrich plumes nod-ding from the canopy of a monarch's bed in Louis XV's time. Now that our hats go untrimmed, the bed-post thrusts its pineapple top freely into the purer air, or there are no posts at all.
And so it goes, woman's fancy in dress is reflected in her surroundings. This may come from man's de-sire to please the capricious creature, for men are, after all, the most creative of the decorators. It has always been, it will always be, that decorations are primarily composed for women. And as men invent the great styles, it is not too much to say that they can be looked on as a gift of devotion, an act of homage. We speak now of the time since Louis XIV. The Sun King was too obsessed with his own importance to think of furnishings beyond his own, which were a glorification of his exalted position in the world. Fancying himself at times a reincarnation of the Roman emperor, Alexander the Great, the ornament of his time took on the flavor of conquest, and of a magnificent government.
Not much in this was feminine. Important women of the time were bound to be serious and intellectual; they studied philosophy under Montaigne and Saint Evremond, and wit under Moliere, and formed salons like that of Madame de Rambouillet, where intellects met and virtue was magnified.
But in the next reign the monarch and his State management were less conspicuous than when Louis the Great ruled. ;The women of the time were glorified, and their tastes were exploited. La Pompadour and Du Barry were the inspiration, and from their time on the decorator has kept woman in mind when practising his art.
Even the new type of woman that our own time has produced is very evidently the inspiration for the new art decorations and the odd fabrics it employs.