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Interior Decorating - Decorative Textiles

( Originally Published 1919 )

THE decorative importance of textiles can scarcely be overestimated because it is largely by their use that effect and colour are gained, and if the opportunity is missed here it is often altogether missed. Excellent furniture is much, but, after all, seating furniture is but a framework and if it be improperly or unattractively covered its value in impression produced is lost; while simple furniture if good in line may be greatly enhanced in effect when accompanied by delightful fabrics. In a word, if the back-grounds are unobtrusive it is largely by textiles, that the room is made or marred. If the effect has already been gained by such means as decorated walls or by painted or lacquered furniture, equal discrimination should be used properly to supplement these by fabrics which will not confuse on the one hand, or themselves sink into mediocrity on the other.

Effect consists in colour, contrast, pattern, material and texture. Appropriateness to period, circumstances and use must also be considered. A moment's thought will show that these qualities are kindly guides, and neither hampering nor bewildering details. Instead of having to choose from the whole range of fabrics of whatever sort, the task of the decorator or home-furnisher is greatly simplified.

A concrete example will make this clear the purchase of fabrics for a certain room is to be made. The colour-scheme has, of course, been settled upon. If we know, then, that we shall require goods in blue, say, or blue in combination, we evidently shall not need to trouble ourselves to look at greens, or violets, or pinks. It is a drawing-room, let us say, which we are considering, and contains mahogany furniture of the late Georgian period—Sheraton and Hepplewhite—with perhaps two or three chairs of the cognate Louis Seize style. As such furniture is of handsome type we may naturally dismiss denims, poplins and other such ordinary materials. We might choose printed linen or cretonne, but it would be much better to employ damask, brocade, or some such goods and do as the British do—use figured chintz covers for summer and informal occasions.

Common-sense, as well as any knowledge of the period, will tell us that for furniture of this refined type we should not use the dark, large-patterned and heavily-textured goods of the Renaissance, made to ac-company weighty and imposing pieces of oak and walnut; nevertheless, the simplicity of the walls advises us that it is in the fabrics we must gain our decorative effect and that we shall need colour or pattern or both. Now what were the fabrics used at that time, Reference to Part I, eighteenth century England, shows us that the textiles used for such refined furniture were brocades, damasks and silks, and that toward the latter part of the century the colours became quieter and more subtle in tone than in the previous more vigorous age and that when they were fairly strong they were so disposed in quantity that their emphasis was appreciably modified. The patterns were as refined as the furniture, and as appropriate in scale, and stripes had great vogue.

At the decorator's shop we state our needs and find some admirable things. There are two or three charming medallion patterns and some small conventional designs of Adam and Directoire character. These are in the solid colours of beautiful old blues, the pattern being in the weave.

We remember the Louis Seize pieces and, with international tendencies in mind, look at a beautiful modern reproduction of a brocade of that period with a flower-basket design surrounded by other floral this being in many colours.

And we do not forget the stripes which were so greatly in vogue in both England and France. There is a striped and figured damask in blue and buff and others in blue and old gold, both simple alternate stripes of plain and satin finish and wide and narrow ones of satin with watered ground. We see, too, one in the same colouring with the addition of white and rose in narrow lines. We especially appreciate the introduction of the other harmonious colours with the blue.

Being well known to the decorator he sends up to the house the large two-yard samples of the several styles we prefer, where we try their effect in the actual conditions under which the fabrics are to be used and there make our choice.

In choosing fabrics it is not obligatory to limit ourselves slavishly to the designs and materials of the particular period, provided there is no incongruity. Sometimes textiles which appeared rather later will answer admirably, and there are good modern designs appropriate for many such uses. If Period furnishing is to live it should be allowed elbow-room. A good test of appropriateness is to ask ourselves whether such and such a fabric would likely have been employed for the particular purpose had it existed in the repertoire of the period.

The choice of materials for any epoch is usually, however, a wide one, for our forebears in most ages were not given to penuriousness, and were as lavish as means allowed in variety and beauty, both of costume and furnishing. For the non-committal or the "Mod-ern" method there is an abundance from which to select, and the result is by no means dependent upon the cost. Some fabrics, by their very nature, are less expensive to manufacture than others and each sort may be thoroughly good of its kind. Sincerity should always be apparent in household decoration, and by sincerity' is meant the avoidance of cheap display and of vulgar and tawdry imitations of expensive materials.

Reference to Part I will afford information as to the various fabrics employed during each of the periods, and the Chapter on Colour (especially the section on Unity and Variety) will give many suggestions as to their use. Curtains and portieres have been discussed in the chapter on Windows and Their Treatment, and the last section of the present chapter will afford hints for the advantageous purchase of goods. Textiles themselves, of all kinds, are for the first time fully treated in Mr. Hunter's interesting volume, which should be consulted by all concerned with household art.


While the "new" decoration is not absolutely confined to the simpler materials, its tendencies are in that direction and the fabrics chosen are usually therefore such as linens, casement-cloth, sunfast, denims, poplins and taffetas, rather than rich damask, brocades and velvet. The main idea is to get the effect desired, whatever the material. Velour is, of course, often used for couch-covers, and special decorations such as Oriental hangings, table-pieces, couch pillows, and the like, may be striking and handsome. Batik is largely employed, and any hand embroidery in strong pattern is very appropriate.

In any style of decoration table strips are usually better than table covers. For circular or oval tables a good plan is to cut the table-cover respectively square or rectangular and ornament the overhanging corners with a heavy tassel.

For upholstery purposes solid colours, stripes and striking designs are all effectively used. If there is a sufficiency of plain surface to balance them, either of the latter two may be employed. In a large room the usual chairs may be covered with a solid colour or not too insistent stripe, and large wing or wicker chairs be done in a strong design.

In any room and with any style of decoration cutting up with too much pattern should be avoided.


To anyone looking through the illustrations of this volume the decorative value of wall-hangings must be apparent. Tapestries and rich brocades, needlework and embroidered silks and velvets, Oriental and Batik hangings—all are of the greatest use under appropriate conditions. Hangings were employed in all periods down to the revival of Classicism in the latter half of the eighteenth century. In England, where panelling was the accepted wall treatment, they were hung over the panels as in Plate 80 B.

Those are indeed fortunate who can afford the purchase of antique tapestries and embroideries, but many of the former have been really well reproduced. In the use of either originals or reproductions care should, of course, be taken to have them appropriate in period, colour and scale. Reproductions which are evidently "cheap" should be avoided.

Handsome brocades in modern weaves and period :character are always available at a not too prohibitive price, and frequently these may be given a border of tapestry or velvet for enrichment or contrast.

A hanging over a console or table with a mirror hung upon it makes an interesting grouping, as is shown in Plate 80 A, while in Plate 99 will be seen a fine Italian mirror disposed in a similar manner.

Oriental hangings might be more largely employed than they are. Japanese draperies usually are of free and flowing design and would be appropriate with the "Modern" method. The Chinese are more conventional and controlled in pattern and so are much better for most purposes. Persian, East Indian and Javanese textiles and embroideries and Portuguese prints are often very beautiful but are not largely in the market. One of the writers owns a small but effective Egyptian applique, brought from Cairo, which invariably commands the attention of visitors.

Those who are always observant and on the watch for good and unusual things are pretty sure soon or late to be rewarded. It is probably the lack of such individuality and observation that has been responsible for the bringing home of merely conventional things —which might easily have been purchased in any large American city—on the part of those who have extensively travelled. Apart from richer examples, Peasant draperies might often have been obtained which would have given life and interest to halls and bedrooms or to living- or sitting-rooms in "Modern" or informal vein.

Once again reference must be made to the subject of scale, for nowhere is it more important than in decorative fabrics. The design or stripe chosen must not only be of appropriate character but in due relation as to size with the furniture, other surfaces and objects, and the room itself. While, as has been said, the master designers of the Renaissance and other periods proved to us the possibility of ornamenting every surface without producing confusion, in all but very elaborate modern decoration we shall not have such problems to deal with and the ornamented surfaces will likely be few. By trying draperies in actual position, as suggested in a following section, it will not be found difficult to decide upon a satisfying result in respect of scale. It need only be observed that contrast and texture have much effect--a large pattern may be permissible or advisable when blended with the background, whereas it would be intolerable if it stood boldly apart from it.

Frequently the purchase of new upholstery may be made to solve already existing difficulties. Such an instance would be where the design of a wall-hanging were felt to overpower a small and neat-patterned rug or carpet ; the introduction of an upholstery design of medium size and strength might be found to unite them into a satisfying combination.


Design may be balanced and static or it may have movement; i.e., its lines of construction may be so strong in a certain direction that the vision is pulled along their course. If the repose of a room is so great as to be somnolent it is plain that such movement will give life and vigour: if the room is unduly low and heavy an upward spring of design will impart height and lightness; while a strongly mounting movement in the covering of a high-backed chair would as unduly accentuate its apparent height.

The same principle, of course, applies horizontally, and lateral movement is therefore often of use in disproportionately lofty interiors where it tends apparently to reduce height.

Designs consisting of well-balanced, flowing curves do not lead the vision from point to point with rapidity: they therefore create interest without unrest.

Those which pull the eye diagonally, and hence at variance with the perpendiculars and horizontals of the room, are distracting; while zigzag lines can only be maddening. On the floor of an old Virginia mansion the writers recall a rug with such lines which all the well-known repose of the Colonial interior was in-sufficient to subdue.


Texture is the arrangement or disposition of the material composing a substance and results in that substance having such qualities as heaviness and lightness, smoothness or roughness, fineness or coarseness, opacity or transparence, stiffness or flexibility. The subject is one of great interest to the decorator and as regards textiles is fully gone into in Mr. Hunter's book: here a few hints of practical application will be sufficient.

Warning is usually and rightly given against the employment in close proximity of substances which war in their texture, and this must always be considered not only in respect to textiles but in the whole field of decoration—a rough-cast wall, for instance, would make a poor background for delicate satinwood furniture and airy draperies scarcely accompany pieces of Jacobean oak. It will, however, render clearer to the reader the importance of, and the reason for, this avoidance if we lay emphasis upon the handsomeness or unhandsomeness of such substances resulting either alone or cornbinedly from material and texture. Crash is rough and so is cut-velvet, but it is the commonness of the one which unfits it for the use of the other rather than the roughness. A considerable diversity of texture is not only allowable, and really necessary by reason of the uses of various furnishings, but advisable for the avoidance of monotony: rugs are usually of heavy wool ; with them silk damask furniture coverings may be employed ; while the Chinese lamp may be of the finest porcelain; and yet we do not feel a discrepancy at their use in one room, though each, is different both in material and texture, providing all be similarly handsome. But—if we put down an evidently cheap cot-ton rug, or a wollen one so rugged as to put it in a lower degree of elegance, we immediately feel the in-appropriateness. The unhandsomeness of the one is caused by inferiority of material and that of the other by great divergence of texture.

A practical effect of decided texture is the appearance it gives of weight--a smooth, unpatterned silk stretched over a large sofa might look thin and flimsy, whereas a brocade of really no greater heaviness might give a perfectly satisfactory appearance of weight and richness.

Local colour is greatly modified by texture: the colour-effect of a strongly textured piece of goods viewed at the usual distance may be quite different from what a close inspection shows the actual colour to be. This is due to refraction of light, and various angles often give different colour-effects.


A covering being needed for a new screen and it naturally being of importance in the decoration of the room the man of the house stopped in the decorator's shop at which he dealt and out of a large stock selected ten or a dozen of the two-yard samples and had them sent home. When he arrived in the late afternoon his wife had already tried them on the screen and said: "They are all beautiful, but there is just one of them for this screen and for this room. See if you agree with me." He, too, tried them and unhesitatingly picked out the same one.

This small experience illustrates several points well worth notice.

I. Each room has its own lighting, colouring, and individuality, and to select just the right thing for that room under other conditions is well nigh impossible. Goods should practically be bought in loco; i.e., the actual selection should be made on the spot where they are required.

II. Apart from any other consideration it is always well to experiment. In the case mentioned the pat-tern was not one which either the man or his wife would have bought at the shop : it needed the situation and the isolation for its beauty to be appreciated.

III. The goods selected were not the most expensive : Some other pieces were nearly double in price but did not look nearly so well for the particular purpose and place.

IV. If one deals at a decorator's he will usually find interest and appreciation of the effort to secure a good effect. He will also find willingness to send such samples when the purchaser is a regular customer or well recommended. One meets with intelligence and courtesy and secures goods that are not in all the department-stores.

V. It may have been noted that it was the man who made the first general selection : does it often occur, outside of artistic circles, that a man takes the interest he should in the beauty of his house? Yet, if he has taste and knowledge, why not? And if these are lacking it would be well for him to realise that these are part of the equipment of a gentleman and should be cultivated. The Honourable Andrew Hamilton, one of the most celebrated jurists of the Colonial period, de-signed the State House in Philadelphia; Thomas Jefferson designed, built and furnished Monticello; and George Washington twice enlarged Mount Vernon and ordered his furniture.

The successful decorator or home-furnisher is one who is at all times observing and who studies and makes mental notes of attractive things he sees that may appeal to him as applicable for future use. The study of authoritative books is of great use and such magazines as House and Garden, The House Beautiful, Good Furniture and Country Life are full of good things. Other journals, such as Town and Country, Vogue, The Spur and Vanity Fair, frequently picture interiors of historic houses here and abroad and mod-ern dwellings and club-houses. The decorative articles which appear in daily and Sunday papers and some journals should be considered with discrimination be-fore being followed—some are written by competent authorities, and others by those who in this particular direction seem to know less than. their readers and who, in their probably well-meaning attempt to introduce the newcomer, through their own ignorance clumsily block the gate of the bazaar.

The decorators' shops in large cities afford many a hint as to materials, furniture, schemes of colour and decorative possibilities; and one great storehouse of knowledge—the Museum—should be much more utilised than it is.

In trying effects in the home the conditions should be those which usually obtain—do not, for example, throw the shades up to the top of the windows. As night effects are quite as important as those of daytime, goods should also be tried under artificial light : quite extraordinary variations are often found, not only because of the differing qualities of the lights themselves but because they are from different directions and differently concentrated.

Such precautions may seem to entail some trouble, but they will often save one from the alternative of dwelling with nightmares or doing over what might rightly have been done at first. We should also consider the pleasure and positive mental and physical benefit of feeling each time the home is entered that, though perhaps very simple, it speaks of beauty and of rest. Neither should we forget our social relations

rooms with high, glaring lights, bad forms and faulty harmonies are impossible for companionship, while others are immediately suggestive of fellowship and cheer. A rather elderly woman in humble circumstances (I reverently lift my hat and call her lady) said to the occupant of an attractive apartment: "Some things have happened, and I felt very sad when I got up, and then I remembered that I was to come down and clean for you to-day, and it's all so beautiful, and peaceful, and quiet here that it's helped me to forget." Few would soon forget those words .so simple and sincere.

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