Hampshire Museums Service

Dress and Textile collection

How designs date the silk

Designs in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) can be used to date the pattern on the silk of the gown in the collection of Hampshire County Council Museums and Archives Service (HCCMAS).

The pattern on the silk of the gown consists of a pattern unit of a hillock with a tree behind which are small buildings. There is a giant gooseberry growing from one hillock and an outsize flower and leaf on the stem of which perches a squirrel. The motifs (decorative features) of outsize and smaller flowers, and gooseberries are brocaded.

The weft, or transverse threads of a textile, is supplementary in brocading. This weft is thus only taken across the width of the pattern unit on a ground weft. Brocading is thus a localised use of discontinuous wefts on a ground weft. In contrast, the ground weft continues from edge to edge of the textile. The brocaded motifs are in different colours in each alternating repeat. For example, the outsize flower is brocaded in two different colours. The length of the repeat is 33 cms and its width is 26 cms.

The repeat is a comber repeat or 'single comber' with only one repeat horizontally across the width of the silk. The edges, known as selvedges in a length of woven textile, of each width of silk are joined together side-by-side to form the skirt of the gown. The asymmetrical formula of the comber repeat was used as the most suitable framework for compositions of natural-looking flowers in the 18th century. The differently coloured brocades give variety and thus the impression that the silk is more complex than it is.

There is a similar silk that is also a brocaded tissue in the V&A with the motif of a hillock, tree, building, and gooseberries (right) Accession noT.26-1966. It was made in the Spitalfields weaving industrial area in the City of London about 1734. There is another silk at the V&A (right) Accession no T138-1969 which has a similar motif of a tree and building alternating with another motif of stags and currants hanging down. Again it is a brocaded tissue, dating to about 1734.

One of the most important sources of information on Spitalfields silk at this date is a remarkable collection of about 874 designs by Anna Maria Garthwaite, (1690-1763) also in the collection of the V&A. She was a freelance silk designer working for the Spitalfields silk weaving industry.

There is a design by her which depicts a building, a large tree, and berries. It is dated '1734' (below left) Accession no 5971.24. The only design of the 1730s by Garthwaite in the V&A to depict animal life is a design with a butterfly of 1735-1738 (below centre) Accession no 5971.28. Another design by Garthwaite with a motif of a large tree, a flower cluster, and a flower hanging down is also dated '1734' Accession no 5971.31 (below far right).

Three silk fabrics

An important influence on these designs is thought to have been the nursery gardens of experimental horticulturists which are known to have existed near or in the heart of Spitalfields in the eighteenth century. The motifs of gooseberries and currants which occur in the silk of the gown, V&A silks, and a design by Garthwaite would seem to be related to soft fruit which could have been grown in a nursery garden. That fruit was a resource for designers is also proved by the anonymous author who stated about designing for silks in G. Smith, The Laboratory or School of Arts, published in 1756, that

The Autumn changes the scene, and exhibits to our view…a vast variety of charming and delicious fruit, as enables the manufacturer to oblige the ladies with an imitation in their silks, and make it a fashion for that season.

A feature of the silk of the gown is the green pattern formed by a pattern weft which created the leaves, and the pattern unit of a hillock with a tree and buildings. This green pattern is a feature of a group of English silks of the 1720s and 1730s in which dark green is used for the main sections of the pattern. There are, then, similar designs and silks with the same type of motifs as the silk of the gown and the silks are all tissues (a specific type of textile) with a dominant green pattern. Two of these designs by Garthwaite are dated '1734', in her hand, and it is because of these characteristics that the silk of the gown could probably be dated to about 1734. The designs and the silk, which is most like the one of the gown, were made in Spitalfields. Therefore the silk of the gown is likely to have been made in Spitalfields. The silk of the gown in the collection of HCCMAS can be dated to about 1734 and identified as a Spitalfields manufacture on the evidence of its design and weave construction.

 
Squirrel design on fabirc Silk fabric
Accession noT.26-1966 Silk fabric
Accession no T138-1969 V&A silk fabric
Accession no 5971.22