Sunday, June 28, 2015

Paisley- The Tear-drop of India

Paisley – The Motif

An easily recognized motif, Paisley, is one of many variations.  The name “Paisley” is associated with the Scottish city where woven Paisley shawls were manufactured to replace the costly Indian cashmere shawls, which were imported for the very wealthy European market.  However, the motif originated in India as “Butah “ (Buteh) the Hindu word, meaning flower.

The French called the design “palmette”, the English knew it as “flame and spearhead pine”.

The motif, whether an elaborate teardrop design or a plant form with leaves and stem or a pinecone and medallion form, has been adapted for centuries for use in art and textiles. The design is marked by an absence of dimension and can be found as a simple , singular form or as an allover, elaborate design depending upon the requirement of the finished textile.

Costumes, Textiles and Fabric Swatch Books, Sothebey's, London
Auction catalog, Lots 1-254, Thursday 24 September 1988

               Paisley Textile Patterns -18thCentury Europe,
                         Kyoto Shoin Co.Ltd, 1998

A related design element is known as a “Buti” which is Hindu for “small flower”.  It is a small motif, which may be abstracted, and is used as a filler pattern, small in scale and repetitive. An example of Buti patterns can be found in delicate Foulard textiles.  Originally woven in silk for men’s ties and fine handkerchiefs, they now can be found in acetate and manufactured fabrics.

Of course, the most common association of the paisley pattern and textiles is the historic fashion accessory, the Paisley Shawl, which we shall explore in an upcoming blog.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Magic Blue


What aesthetic elements are essential in the creation of fabulous textiles?  Pattern, Texture, Color.  Without these elements cloth would be merely utilitarian.

In my blog “The Red That Colored the World”, June 7, 2015 I told of an exhibition currently at the Museum of International Folk Art featuring textiles dyed with cochineal.  Today, the topic is indigo and an exhibition at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, entitled “Blue on Blue: Indigo and Cobalt in New Spain”.

                              Japanese indigo-dyed fabric

The earliest records of indigo dyeing (more that 4,000 years ago) came from India, hence the word “indicum” which is Latin for India.  The main constituent of indigo is indigotin, which is prepared from the leaves of various species of Indigofera.  For thousands of years the secret of indigo dyeing remained within India and the far east.  In the 13th and 14th C Italian merchants procured indigo from Muslim lands around the Mediterranean.  It was Venice that first promoted the use of this dye-stuff.  However, France and Germany relied on woad, which was produced by their farmers.  Calling indigo the “Devil’s dye” or Devil’s drug they banned the use of indigo by official decrees.  Since woad was not produced in England and Holland the dyers of these countries embraced the dye.  The attributes of indigo, (non-fugative , and 30 times more potent than woad) far outweighed the problems encountered with its production.

100 pounds of plant material is required to produce a 4 ounce cake of indigotin.  The dye cake does not dissolve in water but must be prepared in an alkaline bath.  At this stage the bath has very little blue color and the fabric dyed in this bath is a pale yellow-green.  It is only when the fabric is exposed to air that the indigotin is oxidized.

Natural indigo is still used for dyeing traditional textiles in Japan, Africa and other countries and is experiencing a resurgance in popularity among dyers using traditional, natural dye ingredients and techniques.  More than 20,000,000 pounds of synthetic indigo are produced annually throughout the world.  

The exhibition at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art came as a result of excavations made at the Cathedral of St. Francis in the 1950s.  The sarcophagus containing the bones of two Franciscan friars was uncovered, and when opened revealed not only the skeletons of the friars but their blue robes.  This was an important find as the habits of Franciscan friars were brown or the natural gray of the woven wool.  They were actually called “gray-robed friars”.  This example of the use of indigo ( brought up the Camino Real from Mexico and Central America) to dye fabric in the colonial period of New Mexico led to the  further study of the use of indigo in textiles, pottery, paintings and sculpture.  

The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art is located on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, NM.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Off-The-Rack Meets Custom-Made

Off the Rack or Custom Tailored?

Originally, all clothing was “custom” made.  Made in the household, altered to be passed down from child to child.  Centuries later, clothing was still custom made by professional dressmakers and tailors.  Today, custom clothing can still be made by tailors and dressmakers for special occasions.  Suits for gentlemen can be fitted is a couple of days, especially for travelers in foreign countries.  Normally, these garments are priced higher than suits and dresses purchased in shops and department stores, that is clothing “off the rack”. 

When the industrial revolution introduced machinery and the factory system the clothing trade was changed forever.  While custom made clothing remained  for those who could afford it, the  working classes could purchase clothing adapted and styled to be made by the thousands of garments shipped to catalog houses and department stores.  Standardized sizes replaced exact body measurements and if one could not find garments in a favorite color or style, one only had to wait a season, and, sure enough, blue was in every store window and hem-lines shifted.  Designers offered two lines: couture and off the rack.

Fine tailoring shops can be found in nearly every large city.  When seeing the sights in Vienna this past spring I encountered a small shop selling tailored made shirts.  What caught my eye was their window display of a shirt pattern and an assortment of optional collars. Within the shop were shelves of beautiful fabrics in pinstripes, checks and pastel solids. The price seemed a bit steep, over 300 Euros.

                   Shop window display of a custom shirt pattern.
                           (forgive the window glare)

                         Shop display of optional collars.

Then when I returned home I found an article in one of my favorite fashion sources, The Wall Street Journal.  In the Style and Fashion section, Saturday/Sunday, May 30-31, 2015 I read an article, ”The Shirt of the Summer ” featuring collarless dress shirts. The prices for these mass produced shirts ranged from $195 - $425.  I see now that off- the- rack is approaching the league of custom-made.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Red That Colored the World


Many think natural dyes are only from vegetable sources.  However, in the red family of dyes there is murex purple from a mollusk, cochineal, kermes and lac from insects.

When the Spanish came to the New World they discovered natives dying their weavings a brilliant red.  The dye was obtained from outer exoskeleton of a member of the coccidae family: Dactylopius.  These small insects (2-4 mm in length) live on 2 types of cacti: Opuntia, which produces over 200 types of cochineal and Nopalea, which produces 8 –10 types.
When the backs of the females are filled with eggs the insects are harvested and dried in the heat of the sun for up to 2 weeks.  Some females are spared for future production

The solution of cochineal alone produces a purple hue and requires the addition of a solution of tin to produce the vibrant red color as discovered by the Dutch chemist, Cornelius Drebbel in the 1600’s.  While he maintained his secret for a period of time it was inevitable that dyers in England and Europe learned of his technique and soon were producing the dye in great quantities. 

Early trials of producing insects bred in Spain were not successful and cochineal was exported out of Mexico.  Between 1758 and 1858 more than 27,000 tons was shipped to Spain from Mexican plantations, which farmed nearly 50,000 cacti each. 

By the 1830’s Spain began breeding on the Canary Islands.  Since many prefer to use natural dyestuffs there is still a market for cochineal from Central America and the Canaries. 

In The Red Dyes, Swedish author, Gosta Sandberg explores the three most famous of natural red dyes, Cochineal, Madder and Murex Purple.

                  The Red Dyes: Cochineal,Madder and Murex Purple, 
                   Gosta Sandberg,Lark Books, , Asheville N.C.,1994

The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe is sponsoring a “groundbreaking 130 object exhibition’ , The Red That Colored the World . The companion publication is entitled A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World.

For further information contact