04 January 2016

Fashion and Virtue - Printed Textile Pattern Books 1520 - 1620

On view from 20 October 2015 - 10 January 2016.

In December, I enjoyed a day-long workshop at the Met (watch for future blog post).  After gobbling my lunch break salad, I ran to the Lehman Wing of the museum for a gallop through Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution.

If you've ever used a commercially-available cross-stitch, knitting or sewing pattern, you have a direct link to this material, never mind the chronological distance.  When, in the Western world, ornamentation in clothing and middle-class social status became linked, producers of embroidered or printed and woven textiles needed fashionable designs to satisfy market demand. 

Portraits by Mielich, 1545, showcase apparel with luxury embroidery (bulletin).

During the same period, new technology in the book arts made bound books printed on paper much more affordable.  Enterprising book publishers assembled designs in printed pattern books; one of the earliest was produced by Domenico da Sera, in 1532, who referred to his printed patterns as "things of small price" but of "great value." (From the Fashion & Virtues bulletin, see below; images scanned  from the bulletin are so indicated.)

The Met has a wonderful collection of Renaissance textile books, which were best-sellers in the 16th and 17th centuries, and a selection of these books forms the core of this interdisciplinary exhibit.

Fragment of embroidered panel (top); design for a dragon, ca. 1600 (bottom).

In the image above the dragon depicted in a piece of embroidered netting, perhaps stitched by a young girl as an exercise, is derived from a pattern book produced about 1600, which is itself a descendant of designs by Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, active from 1530 - 1573.  At the time the use of such a source wasn't viewed as unoriginal but rather as implementing a timeless motif imbued with history and symbolism.

The museum's Print Department began collecting these books early on, aided and abetted by the members of the Needle and Bobbin club, founded by scholar-collectors Gertrude Whiting and Frances Morris in 1916.  To demonstrate the relationship between the pattern books and Renaissance textiles, club member Marian Hague matched reproductions of pages from the pattern books to fragments of textiles corresponding to those illustrations.  These uniformly mounted and framed  pieces formed the basis of a popular exhibit in 1938, a cross-disciplinary show demonstrating the relationship between printed pattern books and the craftspeople who translated those book images into thread creations for home and wardrobe.

Marian Hague's pattern library.
15th c. Italian cross-stitch fragment and its book image inspiration.

Scrim with designs from a pattern book.

Most of the artifacts on display are small, but, as if to show the flexible nature of the books' designs, the exhibit designers created large printed scrims and partitions featuring the motifs.  The sheer scrims delineate the exhibit area and screen light from the Lehman Wing atrium.  The partitions permit examination of the motifs at a large scale and literally symbolize the fact that the small books had an outsize importance in the history of  design. 
Pattern books and scrim.

Exhibit partition with large-scale ornament designs.

Some of the images from the 16th century also provide us with information on traditional techniques and practices.  For example, the image below, which is the cover of the bulletin, written by curator Femke Speelberg, shows four ways in which patterns can be transferred to cloth. (I imagine the first step would have been to copy the design from the book onto some kind of thin tissue paper, as it seems unlikely anyone would rip apart the book itself.)

Before stitching it was necessary to transfer the paper pattern onto cloth. In the upper left corner, a woman uses candlelight, like an early lightbox, to prepare a design on cloth. To the right, another woman has her frame, with stretched fabric, before a bright window. (No idea how the paper pattern was held in place for tracing - pins?) Below left a woman has pricked holes in the paper and uses pounce - a bag filled with powdered chalk - to mark through the holes, a technique we still use today. Finally, in the lower right, according to the exhibit label, a woman is free-hand copying the design. She may have used a grid technique but this detail is not shown in the wood block print.

Detail of a pattern book illustration, ca. 1532 (bulletin).

Many of the motifs are very recognizable today; we still stitch their descendants.  Interlaced linear motifs seemed to be very popular.  The images below are from books printed in Venice (top) and Strasbourg (bottom).  However, the inspiration for the designs was global - sources include Asia and the Middle East -  and the dissemination of the books was widespread too.

Designs by Giovanni A. Vavassore, ca. 1530 (bulletin).

Hans Hoffman,  1556. (bulletin).

Designs by Matteo Pagano, 16th century (bulletin).

The bottom illustration in the image  above, for a technique called punti in aere or "stitches in the air", is from a book with the wonderful title Glory and Honor of Raised Embroidery and Cutwork. According to the bulletin, the popularity of openwork may have led to a resurgence in another branch of thread work, needle  and bobbin lace.  A stand-out artifact in the exhibit is the rebato (collar) below, which features lace made of gold metallic thread.  A similar collar is painstakingly rendered in Peake's oil painting, below, entitled Princess Elizabeth, later Queen of Bohemia

Rebato, French, early 17th cen.

Robert Peake the Elder, ca. 1606 (bulletin).

The lace pattern books are beautiful in themselves; moreover, this was evidently one area where publishers where not afraid to acknowledge collaboration with women designers.  Designs by Isabella Catanea Parasole  were published in Rome beginning in 1595.  Little is known about her, but perhaps her authorship could be publicly identified as skilled needle-working was regarded as a virtuous activity, indeed a necessity, for women.  This is an ancient theme - Emperor Augustus' wife Livia promoted her image as a good Roman housewife, busy at her loom.  In the Christian era, needlework was connected to the Virgin Mary, one reason that convents became centers of lace-making and other needlework.  Producing ornamental textiles provided an artistic outlet, and also a way for women to earn some extra income while remaining in the domestic sphere.

Luis Borrassa, Altarpiece of the Virgin and St. George (detail) ca. 1390-1400 (bulletin.)  

The bulletin, Vol. 73, number 2, in the Metropolitan's quarterly series, is beautifully illustrated and a bargain at $14.95 (less for Met members).