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Furnishing Textiles

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE textiles which are used in the upholstery of furniture, and in making the home comfortable, are varied in materials, and in the manner of their use. Such has ever been the case. The story of the first advance in furnishings of the home carries us back to almost prehistoric times, for there are very early examples of woven materials, and in the graves of people who lived in this country even before civilisation can be said to have existed, have been found spinning whorls. The efforts of the Ancients to spin flax and wool were doubtless directed towards providing them-selves with clothing. Thus the fabrics they wove took the place of primitive grass mats.

The homes of early nations, when some form of furniture—a stool or a table, perchance—had been made, were yet devoid of any textile furnishings ; such draperies were unknown, although possibly the cold nights of this inclement climate would call for the use of skins as coverings, notwithstanding that Britons were hardened by nature to exposure, damp, and cold.

Although it is probable that the inhabitants of these islands, when the British nation was but in the making, scorned upholsteries and textile furnishings, their contemporaries in other countries were even then somewhat advanced in such luxuries. The textiles used in the palaces of eastern monarchs at quite an early date were very luxurious, and from accounts which have come down to us, and from the few early relics which have been pre-served, we can learn something of the skill of those eastern weavers. There are records of a purple Babylonian carpet having been spread upon the tomb of Cyrus, B.C. 529. Herodotus makes mention of textiles, chiefly as clothing, for the invading army of Xerxes. We are told, however, that Iphicrates, the Athenian general, " spread carpets upon the floor," and he lived B.C. 419-348. One of the earliest descriptive records of furniture in furnishing textiles was made by Callixenus, of Rhodes, who wrote about a banquet given by Ptolemy II., when he said, " Underneath two hundred golden couches were strewn purple carpets of the finest wool, with pattern on both sides ; and there were handsomely embroidered rugs very beautifully elaborated with figures." Besides this, thin Persian cloths covered all the centre space where the guests walked, having the most accurate representations of animals embroidered on them.

The Romans understood the use of textiles, and when they conquered this country established a woollen weaving factory at Winchester. Ine, King of the West Saxons, favoured the textile industries and fixed the price of wool. The sheep and its lamb were then valued at one shilling, and a fleece of wool at twopence. Edward the Elder " sette his sonnes to schole and his daughteris he sette to wool worke." Thus that wise monarch in a practical way taught the importance of his womenfolk Iearning to weave.

We know from history that Flemish weavers came over to England with William the Conqueror, that Richard I. regulated the sale of cloths, that in 1258 the export of wool from England was forbidden, and that in 1887 Edward III. passed laws for the benefit of the woollen industries. These, however, related to textiles used as clothing, and for household purposes other than upholstery and hangings. All that time arras and tapestry were being woven side by side with other fabrics.

France was one of the first countries in which carpet weaving became an established industry. It was founded at the Louvre in 1607, but the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which caused such a change in production, transferred the carpet trade to England, French refugees settling in Bristol, Axminster, and other towns in the south-west of England.

Carpet-weaving spread, and in later years took a strong hold in Yorkshire. In America carpet - weaving was founded in Philadelphia, U.S.A., in 1791.

There are records of some very interesting examples of early English carpets in the inventories of household effects. Although no mention is made of the origin of textiles, it is probable that most of the early carpets were imported. In an inventory of Archbishop Parker's effects, made in 1577, mention is made of a black velvet carpet, fringed with silver and gold and lined with taffeta. Chequered matting is mentioned as being in use in England in the fifteenth century, and it appears to have been woven from that time onwards. Several attempts were made to found important tapestry works, one of the most noted being when James I. established a factory at Mortlake, where both tapestry hangings and carpets were made.


The textiles, mostly woven of native wool, were, as it has been stated, used for carpets (see reference in chapter xxix.). These so-called carpets and other textiles were put to several specific uses, which may be summed up as follows ; Floor coverings (broadly defined as carpets and rugs) ; wall coverings (hangings to hide rough walls, and afterwards to ornament rooms and set off the furniture used in them) ; curtains or hangings (used for divisions and for keeping out draughts) ; and textiles to cover and make more comfortable chairs, couches, and other seats—in this last category may be placed bed coverings.

The earlier textiles, rightly included in a work on furniture which embraces the furnishings of the home, and the fuller meaning of the word furniture, must of necessity include those textiles which were wrought for household decoration, comfort, and convenience. The earlier tapestries served as floor coverings, and covered the rough stone walls of monasteries, abbeys, and medieval castles. The developments in the branches of textile art went on side by side. The tapestries covering the walls, originally woven to keep out the cold winds in winter, and perhaps to hide the unsightly walls, became less ponderous, and smaller works, including more minute needlework, were added.

From the large wall tapestries evolved the smaller pictures, and instead of the larger looms, hand frames of a more portable nature were employed, and the ladies of the household filled up their spare time in working those delicate fabrics ; fragments only of many have been preserved. The finer threads, the more delicate material, and the colourings and added ornament of somewhat later times were naturally more perishable ; and in our museums, which have even richer and better preserved examples, are some of the earlier tapestries of the more decorative fabrics, which added ornament to Tudor dwellings and Elizabethan homes. Carpets and rugs gave the idea to those who wished to improve upon the crude, uncomfortable, and perhaps unsightly wood-work of the older furniture, and tapestry coverings for furniture and other purposes evolved from the coarser floor coverings.

Among the early seats of tapestry-weaving may be mentioned the Abbey of Saint Florent, of Saumur, where the monks covered their tapestry with flowers and animal designs, pursuing a style of decoration, briefly described as red on a white ground, an Eastern idea which seems to have come to Europe at the commencement of the Renaissance period. One of the earliest French factories where tapestries and carpets were made was at Poitiers, where as early as the beginning of the eleventh century textiles were executed for Italian prelates. The support given to these weavers by ecclesiastics may have had something to do with the introduction of religious subjects into tapestry-weaving, for from that date onward historical and religious designs seem to have taken the place of simple floral and animal pictures with little, if any, meaning.

The Flemish factories came into notoriety towards the close of the twelfth century, and the weavers used low-warp as well as high-warp looms.

Among the early tapestry weavers whose names have come down to us, just the same as painters of pictures have transmitted their names to posterity on the pictures they painted, may be mentioned Amaury de Goire, who in 1348 executed a piece of tapestry for the Duke of Normandy ; Colin Bataille, who in 1391 worked a tapestry for the Duke of Touraine, on which was pictured the history of Theseus ; and Jehan de Joudoigne, who, among other works, wrought a tapestry for the Duke of Orleans on which was a representation of the Fountain of Youth, and another piece, for the Duke of Aquitaine, on which was a representation of the twelve Apostles, twelve prophets, and the Coronation of the Virgin. Andre Denisot and Guillaume Mesnagier, of Tours, wove a remarkable piece of silk tapestry for Charles VIII., upon it being a representation of the history of Moses. It was Francis I. who founded the tapestry-weaving shed at Fontainebleau, and the French King seems to have encouraged the development of textile art.


European, political, and religious conflicts have had considerable influence on the destinies of commerce. The trade of England has often been deviated by European warfare, and also by the protection which Britain has afforded to foreigners who were suffering from bigotry and wrongly-advised sovereigns and ecclesiastics. One of the most notable instances of the way in which those influences worked was the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which caused wholesale emigration of the Huguenots of France, who sought asylum from the persecution of the Church. That occurred in 1685, when upwards of forty thousand families of weavers and textile workers came over to this country. Great Britain became their abode, and it is due to the clever craftsmanship of those textile workers that such a change passed over all industries in which textiles were used. Silks and velvets were woven, and the beauty of the designs of the exquisite fabrics produced by the refugees was appreciated by wealthy patrons in this country. The materials were forthwith adopted for all kinds of upholstery, and, incidentally, considerable impetus was given to the furniture trade.

Many of the beautiful antiques home connoisseurs possess today bear testimony to the skill of the weavers who in Spitalfields and other parts of England wove such delightful fabrics. Englishmen ordered new furniture that they might upholster their chairs and settees in accord with the curtains and hangings with which they were adorning their rooms. The matter, however, did not rest there, for the French refugees gladly taught the art of weaving silks and velvets to English craftsmen, and the manufacture of those goods became incorporated as a British industry, practised and followed down to the present time in many of the districts where the French refugees settled. Indeed, in some localities the silk weavers are the actual descendants of Huguenot settlers.

It must not be supposed from the foregoing paragraph that England was altogether without textile weavers before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, for at least fifteen years previous to that date French textile weavers had been gradually settling in England, a large number having taken out letters of naturalisation. The Government fostered the new industry in 1709, voting £24,000 as a subsidy. The chief fabrics in which furniture makers were interested were the so-called Genoese or Genoa velvets, and so strong was the hold they obtained in English society that the older coverings were either stripped off or covered over, although in many instances, when the velvet upholstery of what are now antiques is taken off, untouched specimens of ancient needlework in quite good condition are found underneath. Needlework, however, gained much popularity in the days of Queen Anne, when every one was working needlework such as had been introduced by the industrious Queen of William III., whose energy in re-furnishing state rooms and providing needlework for her new furniture at Hampton Court has been referred to in a previous chapter.

It is interesting to trace the proper sequence of needle-work in upholstery. The bold flowing designs so popular in the reign of William III. and Mary were followed by small trellis or diaper pattern in the early years of the Georgian period.

When Queen Anne came to the throne there was a decided movement in favour of English-made textiles, and British manufacturers set out to imitate the foreign silks and velvets which were used in upholstery. They were very successful in the counterparts they produced, and as may be judged from the beautiful upholstered furniture which has come down to us untouched and unimpaired from the days of Queen Anne and George I., they successfully reproduced the velvets which had formerly been made only in Genoa and Venice.

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