22 October 2011

Between the Wars textile symposium - Part 3

Swatch books, American Textile History Museum.

On October 15, 2011, I was privileged to attend a day-long symposium, formally titled Fabric, Fashions and Quilts: From the Armistice to Pearl Harbor. That is a rather unwieldy header, so I'm using a short title, Between the Wars, from one of the presentations, for my blog posts. The symposium was co-sponsored by the New England Quilt Museum and the American Textile History Museum. Our activities alternated between the NEQM and ATHM facilities. We made quite a sight - dozens of women shuttling between the buildings on a bright yellow school bus.

Material culture expert Madelyn Shaw began the day with an illustrated gallop through the cultural history of the period 1918 to the outbreak of World War II, driven by her tongue-in-cheek "unified-field theory of textiles." It's a humorous spoof of quantum physics, but is grounded in the serious reality that almost every political and cultural movement is in some way tied to the production and consumption of textiles.

For example, before the invention of synthetic fibers, silk was a major Asian export, with Japan controlling about 80% of the world's silk production. Silk was widely used in apparel, particularly stockings, but also in parachutes, and had many other applications. With the development of rayon, silk exports fell precipitously. Japan's trade shortfall made it more difficult to buy imported iron, coal and oil, desperately needed for industry. The economic problems caused by the trade imbalance gave the militarists, the pro-expansion faction of the power elite, an opportunity to influence the civilian government, setting the stage for the invasion of resource-rich neighbor states.

After Ms. Shaw's presentation the seventy or so participants split into three groups, and rotated through three concurrent sessions. One of the sessions took us, on our big yellow school bus, to the American Textile History Museum, for a behind the scenes look at a very special collection, introduced by Diane Fagan Affleck, retired Director of Interpretation for the museum. What the Rosetta Stone is to linguists, fabric swatch books are to textile historians, I imagine. A swatch book is a ledger, usually dated, with fabric samples tipped in (glued down.) Swatch books which fortuitously escaped the landfill provide definitive dating for fabrics, and, when properly stored - dark and dry - a record of the original colorways.

Swatchbook page.

The museum laid out many swatchbooks for us, as well as manufacturing marketing materials featuring fabrics samples and contemporary fashions. As this material is normally not on display, it was exciting to see so many authentic fabrics from the 1920's and 1930's.

Left, swatchbook page.
Right, participant leafs through a swatchbook.
Right, below, apparel marketing materials.

Like many quilters, I've read about period fabrics, and absorbed the conventional wisdom regarding the design and color palette of fabrics printed during the economic downturn. Supposedly, inks and dyes were diluted to stretch the supply, resulting in a pastel palette. In addition, fabrics featured a lot of white, unprinted space, to further reduce usage of pigments. Fabrics printed in one color were popular, as this eliminated the need for registration, or the correct alignment of multiple colors in a pattern. Poorly printed fabric could not have been sold as first-quality goods, so the manufacturers would lose money if a complicated print was imperfect.

Swatchbook, conversational print.

A quick look at these swatchbooks revealed, however, that the situation was a bit more complicated, and only a granular study closely comparing dated swatches from the period would allow truly accurate characterization of the fabrics. I did see plenty of pastels, as expected, but also bright, intense colors, as well as fabrics with very little ground, or white space.


A few of the swatchbooks still show the
effects of
water damage from a
museum fire a while back.

I want this print in every colorway. Someone reproduce it, please.

Apparel manufacturer's marketing materials -
with swatches.

Another session at the museum was a lecture on modernist textiles given by Giles Kotcher, an independent dealer and author. He also brought some textiles for show and tell, including silks by Mallinson and Cheney and a piece of "The Gossips" fabric by Virginia Lee Burton of the Folly Cove art group. His lecture, which included material outside of the symposium's focus, covered a lot of ground in a limited time, so I'm glad Mr. Kotcher distributed lecture notes.

For me, the more hand-outs the better, and participants also received an extensive bibliography of era-specific titles, as well as surveys of fashion and costume which include discussion of the 1918-1941 era.

I enjoyed this jam-packed symposium and hope both museums will collaborate again on a day of learning and fun.

Detail, a 1930's quilt, from the collection of
NEQM Director
Connie Collum Barlow.