Textiles - Printed Cotton and Linen
( Originally Published 1930 )
THERE is a story even in chintz, or what we ordinarily call cretonne. It forms a chapter in the great romance of navigation and discovery, and sets one on board of the early cargo ships "floating through the tropics by the palm-green shores," as Masefield dreams.
The first printed cottons in Europe came from the fertile East. One comes at last to feel that every textile and every fundamental design originated in either Near East or Far East. The sagacity of Europe lies in her recognizing the beauty of the Oriental ornament and of commercializing it, to the end that many may share that beauty, and that trade may lead to prosperity of the nations.
Recall then the first adventurous men who dared push their small ships into the unknown, for month after month of suspense, until a passage was found to India; and those later adventurers following the established route who attached portions of Eastern countries to their own by force or craft "in the name of the Crown." Then center the memory on the ambitions of Holland, France and England, all three of which in the Seventeenth Century formed commercial bodies named East India Companies. A generous salt of ad-venture goes with their experiences. Government owned were these new businesses which gave their personnel an official carriage, not conquest in their minds perhaps, not war exactly, but a firm and gentleman-like encroachment for the sake of civilization—meaning landing-places, warehouses and the like, for trade.
Thus it came that England possessed herself of Madras, and France of Pondicherry, both in the province of Coromandel on the Eastern coast of southern India. Of course they came to disagreements born of rivalry, the British East India Company and the French East India Company, and war in 1744 put Madras in the hands of the French. But it was less than thirty years after, that British power over India had so ex-tended that Warren Hastings was named as the first governor-general in 1772.
These are the historic facts, but the lesser ones are of more interest to our study, the journeys of the cargo ships and the goods with which they filled their holds for the return journey and which were sold to merchants in France and England. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries they brought cotton prints.
Behind that simple statement there lie many details. First, the prints they brought were of surpassing beauty. They were not, as now, quickly made factory productions, but were veritable works of art. Women of the Eighteenth Century had the trained taste of those who live in luxurious surroundings. It was a century of beauty in all the arts, and these discriminating women made chintz the fashion.
The painted cloths from India were rich in color, and full of ancient tradition in design. The manner of making them was intricate, requiring not only talent but infinite patience and the employment of several arts. And these charming exotics that were spread before those lovely ladies of Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, are the ancestors of the mountains of chintz that fill our shops today.
Palampores, or bed covers, they called the oblongs from India, and at this time the most favored design for these was the Tree of Life, a straying meander of slender branches all aflower with blooms of many kinds, the tree-trunk small and planted in a pyramid of rocks. But its exquisite tones and shades were impossible to describe, also the symbolism of the border which reaches back to far antiquity.
Of course these cloths were promptly seized and laid upon the mahogany bed of the day as a coverlet, or hung on the wall behind the bed's head and elsewhere. Their price was too high for all the hangings of a bed, so the valance, tester and curtains were often of other material. And what went so well with the new Asiatic chintz as Turkey-red cloth, which also was an imported fabric. The traveler of today who lunches at a certain hotel in Fontainebleau can lounge in a library there decorated with this same combination of India print and red calico and fancy the Eighteenth Century returned.
In those old times the chintz was lined, not left to float unprotected, and strangely enough it was lined with a woolen fabric called moreen which resembles a coarse moire silk. This suggests the state of Europe in regard to cotton. Strange it seems to us that cotton was a rarity, that cotton goods could cost more than silk, linen, or wool.
The ships brought cotton to Europe, but already woven, not as cotton wool. The astonishment was great to find that cotton grew on a plant as a fruit, and was not the plant itself as in the case of hemp or flax—and that it would not grow in France or England.
Wherever the demand is great, commerce and industry busy themselves. The price of a palampore being high, as much as a hundred and fifty dollars for one of great beauty, and the public being clamorous for something cheaper, manufacturers experimented with weaves and dyes, and at last produced a printed cotton cloth in which laborious processes were replaced by simple mechanical expedients.
Thus it came that all France and all England flowered like a June garden, and the cottage interior became as gay as madame's boudoir. All honor to the venturesome little ships that sailed East and brought home a beauty which inspired the development of one of the world's greatest industries. Silk had furnished houses and dressed the persons of the rich for centuries, but home-spun linen and wool had been the apparel of the cottager, tight woven and dark dyed that it might stand all endurance tests. We can imagine then the joy with which a humble class fell upon a gay be-flowered textile, costing little but which enlivened the somber cottage and made of every woman a figure of light.
Before this happy condition was reached, much water flowed under the mill-wheel. When importations from India became heavy, the crown in England feared for home industries, and tried by taxation to reduce the incoming flood. But the lady of the drawing-room evaded laws or overstepped her income, for the fashion of painted or printed cottons was her obsession. These things suited the furniture of the day which was mostly of mahogany and needed vivifying.
After much experimenting England imported India's raw cotton and wove her own cotton cloth and learned how to print gay designs thereon. Then her production became so great that weavers of silk and wool raised hands of objection to the Government, protesting against the ruining of their business. Odd it seems now, almost absurd, but then a trade tragedy. The plea was regarded as reasonable, and a heavy tax was put on domestic printed cottons.
But even that could not stop the progress though we hear of indignant weavers tearing printed frocks from the shoulders of ladies who ventured into factory districts wearing the proscribed fabric, and of officers of the law even seizing the India hangings of David Garrick's bed.
By gradual improvements supplied by an enthusiast here, a mechanic there, printing by engraved plates was invented and the cylinder method of printing was developed. Until the second half of the Eighteenth Century European printing on textiles was done with wooden blocks, a sort of stamping, involving the labor of lifting and replacing the block many times to print a yard of goods. The newer method had the pattern engraved on a large cylinder which passed over the cloth in endless revolutions, leaving behind its patterned track.
That this mechanical producing compares with the wondrous handmade prints of India, it were absurd to contend. But the ultimate result of this invention is the mass production of our time which fills a need of our day.
The process of making the Indian palampore, or any other dyed and painted cloth brought to Europe in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, is. one so long and technical that a detailed description would be a weariness to read unless the reader is a student of dyeing. Let it suffice to remember but a few points which influenced European makers of printed cloths. The fabric was a fine cotton, cotton being a rare tissue in Europe until the demand for printed stuffs arose. The length of cloth was first treated to a bath of some slightly oily fluid, beaten and stretched. The design was outlined and then various mordants were applied to certain parts, and melted wax to others. When the cloth thus prepared was dipped into a dye of a single color, a variety of colors were developed by con-tact with the various mordants, and spaces covered with wax (resist dye so-called) had no color at all when the wax was removed. After this the brush was used, dipped in reliable pigments, and the design was thus completed. But this slight explanation gives no account of the number of times the cloth is dipped and dried, nor of the painstaking task of painting finest details, nor of the skilled preparation of the colors, nor of the months of close application to the work required for the making of a hanging or a coverlet.
Only in the Orient are such works of steady patience possible. Other countries than India have similar processes. Old records speak of "Java Belts" which probably mean the same batiks that Java has made for centuries, but is like to stop making if Manchester continues the work of factory-made copies. The Java process is very like the Indian, a long painstaking system, women sitting three or four months over a single cloth for ten or twelve hours a day. Siamese cloths also are mentioned among old importations. It will be remembered that Louis XIV threw a hand to the Orient and plucked from Ayuthia in Siam a strange ambassador to France, and his company it was that brought the native printed or painted cloth decorated with stripes and squares, still worn by Siamese.
In France as in England the first imported cottons from India arrived in the second half of the Seventeenth Century and awakened at once the desire for possession in the breast of every person of wealth or social consequence. The more they bought, the more the returning ships brought to them. And the greater the consumption of this artistic novelty, the less was the demand for French silks and woolens.
It became therefore the pleasure and duty of domes-tic print weavers to protest, and of the State to pass laws of prohibition. Between 1686 and 175o no less than thirty decrees were issued in France in restraint of the use of printed cottons. But prohibition fails to exclude. There is a naughtiness in human nature, a half-humorous rebellion that makes us snatch at things denied. All the well planned restrictions of France failed to abolish the use of printed cottons.
Indian prints were ever very high in price. All who appreciated could not afford them. Thus it came that French textile workers set about making an imitation to sell at low cost.
Their first efforts employed the wood-block, dipped in color, placed on the goods, given a stroke of the hammer, the block removed and the process repeated. Slow and inadequate the method was, and results when compared with the Indian palampore were pitiably poor. Relief comes when labor is too great. In France as in England two new processes were invented, printing from copper plates on which designs of great beauty and delicacy could be engraved, and printing from cylinders which rolled the pattern in endless repeating while the goods passed between. Home production was at last in position to supply all demands, and even to export to other countries. Then the weavers of silk, wool, and linen wept afresh, for these prolific factories seemed a menace to their market.
Another reason this for laws and prohibitions, an-other reason then for fashionables laughingly to flout the law. Fancy the glee with which La Pompadour must have arranged a suite of rooms in "Bellevue" one of her many country houses. She hung the walls, she curtained the windows, she draped the bed, and covered the chairs, with as many yards of printed stuff as could be employed. And this was probably as much from mechancete as from appreciation of the fashionable new fabric, for the very Crown which paid her bills was the same that signed prohibitory decrees making unlawful her pretty indulgence.
A deeper interest clings to the French product called toile de Jouy than to any other European decorative prints. There is reason in this interest for the tale of the factory and its master includes great persons and great political movements. And quite apart from these the Jouy prints themselves are of a beauty that ever appeals, the artistic expression of the Eighteenth Century. Their designs suggest a world of insouciance in which we can live in day-dreams, groups of person-ages dancing in gipsy scenes, or picnicking al fresco, couples alone on scrappy little islands where none may observe the subtleties of their love game, pagodas lightly floating on a ragged bit of earth attached to heaven by scrolls and flower-chains. These and a thousand more delicious fancies charm us as they charmed the people of long ago. Well for us of these hasty unreflecting days if we have about us some of these provocative prints to set us dreaming. The Jouy prints best represent the printed work of France. Although they seemed to us to have sprung into being without a gradual process of perfecting, much labor went before, and much conflict between trade and fashion.
It was in 1759 that the manufacturing at Jouy was established. This statement might lead one to think of large buildings of a great industry. The start was modest enough. Its housing was in a small cottage, where its founder worked alone. His first length of printed goods was delivered in 176o, and for this work he had himself been designer, engraver and printer.
Christophe Philippe Oberkampf's history is the history of toile de Jouy. He was a little boy in his native duchy of Wurttemberg when he was apprenticed to a dyer. He was but twenty when he founded the factory at Jouy, the village near Versailles through which many of us pass unaware in these days of motor tours.
This was officially in 1759 although he had been at work in other places making successful indiennes as the prints were then called. A petty official of the State, the Guardian of Financial Archives, having learned ahead of time that at last all legal restrictions on printed cloths were to be removed in 1759, thought to make a little business advantage for himself. He hastily set up a factory, and knowing of Oberkampf's ability offered to him the entire management of this factory. From this small beginning grew the great works which supplied a French public avid for the artistic prints and which were exported to other countries as well.
A change in the process of printing with engraved copper-plates made in 1770 was the cause of the production of prints all in one color, the soft colors of mauve, puce, blue, red, which nowadays it is such a pleasure to find. The look of the old Indian fabrics disappeared and French designs took their place, largely they were scenes, fanciful scenes of joyous living, whether among fashionable folk or among rustics. To complete the pattern these scenes were connected by a scheme of filling spaces with pure decoration.
Oberkampf himself will never be forgotten in the industrial annals of France. His relations with his workers were ideal. He lived in a house at the gate of the factory enclosure and made of himself a just master and friend to all. The bell with which the employees were called to work and released as well, was rung by his own hands, and this little item of his history is lovingly preserved.
The Revolution came. With reluctance Oberkampf saw his laborers disappear, but it was not for long. He prepared for a revival by buying all the imported cotton cloth that was available to print when peace should be restored. Money, the paper bills of those troubled times, depreciated day by day, but the cotton goods held their value. Thus he argued. He was printing large designs when the upheaval came, designs for the royal chateaux. Groups of personages both real and allegorical spoke loyalty to kings and nobles. Oberkampf by clever juggling with the plates gave them a twist toward the newer trend of public thought and made them signify the triumph of the Republic. A lettered ribbon, a descriptive title, altered many a drawing that otherwise would have brought disaster to the Jouy factory.
In 1806, the Emperor and Empress, Napoleon and Josephine, one day surprised Oberkampf with a visit to the factory, nor did Napoleon fail to ask a thousand questions after his usual manner. So pleased was the Emperor that he made of Oberkampf a member of the Legion of Honor, supplying him with the decoration which he detached from his own coat. Napoleon came again—this time with the new Empress, Marie Louise.
Artists for designs at the end of the century, were the same as those able draughtsmen who worked for silk factories. But one can fancy them designing with far greater enthusiasm for the Jouy factory. There are technical difficulties in relation to woven representations, but almost none to printing, especially after the introduction of copper plates and cylinder printing. Exactly as a man drew his scenes they might be etched on the copper. Thus came such beautiful cloths as those which show the designs of Jean Baptiste Huet.
Huet's talent belonged entirely to the art of the diminutive, an art that rejoiced in detail, or rather in the portrayal of an infinite number of persons and animals small in scale. He had the gift of infusing these with a vitality that even the classic drawings missed. His invention was without limit and fancies flowed easily from his delicate brush.
He is perhaps most loved for his portrayal of animals. Whatever the subject of his plate might be he never failed to introduce into it a few active little creatures, and usually those of a homely nature like ducks or doves, goats or lambs, and his ever present dog. Scarce a Huet print from which this eager long-eared dog is excluded, but with such conviction is this animal given that the artist must have owned and loved him. So small is each figure of Huet's designs that to find a special object one must hunt over a field of many scattered groups. It is often said of Huet that he seemed to visualize the world in miniature, as through the wrong end of an opera glass.
The wave of classic revival which dominated art after the Revolution and during Napoleon's ascendency gave his pen new motives. As readily as he had drawn gay country fetes and had scattered little floating islands over the open spaces, just as joyously now he recreated gods and symbols, medallions and geometric lozenges, yet contrived to banish cold formality by the animation of human figures and animals.
Huet came to the Jouy print factory in 1783 and was made its art director. He was with the factory through its richest period, through the difficult days after the Revolution and during the rise of the Empire. He died in 1811 which was not long before the great print works finished their mission in the world. France so values the work of this talented decorative painter, the work that he executed for the Jouy factory, that a collection of his cartoons is preserved in Paris, in the Musee de L'Union Central des Arts Decoratifs.
The print factory at Jouy was so much more important than others that we take its history as an elucidation of the entire industry in Europe. Other factories in France for printing cotton and linen were at Angers, Avignon, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Lyons, etc. They too suffered from the edicts of prohibition and rejoiced in the recalling of all restrictions. They too imported all their cotton calico from the East, when none was made in Europe, and afterwards imported only the cotton wool for their own machines which were constantly improving. And all came to prosperity through the invention of cylinder printing. In the end, that is before 183o, all submitted to a decadence forced by the times.
America's contribution to early textile printing has more value in the world of patriotic sentiment than in the world of the applied arts. For those who are keen to learn of our early endeavors there is much gratifying material and a few textiles in the nature of "documents." Our paucity of examples is of course due to non-production, and that had origin in the early restrictions of England concerning her colonists. Wishing to retain her transplanted people as consumers, she declared through Lord Sheffield that the colonists of North America had no right to manufacture, not even a nail nor a horseshoe.
We have not touched on the printing of silk, nor on archeology. They seem to be wide apart, but re-cent explorations of archeologists in Chinese Turkestan have revealed bits of printed silk made in an early century, possibly the Eighth. Silk printing had no such vogue as cotton printing in the great century of the industry. It is the modern product of the perfected machine in constant and daily use, and although we are affected by its beauty it tells us no story other than that of present-day prosperity and quick production.
We can take toiles de Jouy as the aristocrats among printed cottons and linens, their artists being the most talented, their factory being the most productive of bon wins, as honestly dyed goods were called. Yet in comparison with the print industry of today all the factories of Europe in the Eighteenth Century must seem like small producers.
Jouy fell into decadence through the loss of Oberkampf and of the artist Huet. But printed cloths for decoration could not be suppressed. Today we have them not as a sudden fashion as in the Eighteenth Century but as a steady friend. They are proof against fickle fashion which suddenly rejects what she has passionately loved, because we draw upon such a talented past for historic designs and tints, and have at the same time a fountain ever flowing of new ornament and color.
The place of chintz and cretonne is a definite one nowadays. It is the pleasantest material for the country house of summer use, it is the gayest for bedrooms in either winter or summer, town or country, for in the wide range of quality, design and color almost any furniture can be suited—in curtaining at least.
Chairs and sofas are not entirely satisfactory when covered with cretonne tightly stretched and treated like other upholstery material. The original manner is far more eloquent, the removable cover, preferably with flounces for cushioned pieces. There is about this an informality appropriate to the stuff and suggestive of the time when all the world were making their houses gay and informal.
Climate regulates largely the present use of cretonnes. When weather is hot we long for them. The ideal for the home-lover is a set of chintz or cretonne covers for all seats and couches, which are slipped on in late spring, and which make of the home a new and more charming place. In England where the climate is made of fog and mist for many a winter day, the inclination is to use the bright slip-covers all through the round year, in summer to keep pace with nature, in winter to induce gaiety. Perhaps a pleasure added is the memory of the Georgian times, when Dolly Varden tripped about in her gown of chintz, when Dorothy Vernon wore hers with aristocratic elegance, when the gay ladies of Bath were as beflowered as were the drapings of their houses.
Words seem at times to need a definition, even though they be often on the tongue. Chintz is a word that has a special meaning in England which is not meant here. There it designates a printed cotton which is finished with a stiff glaze by a process of calendering. Here it is used interchangeably with cretonne.
The origin of chintz is a Hindu word which signified colored or flowered—chint. In the time of Samuel Pepys it was so spelled ("bought a chint for my wife"), and only later was an s added which time changed to z.