Courtaulds Textile Design Archive Rehoused

The Archive of Art and Design has just finished moving the Courtaulds archive to a new storage facility in Blythe House. This is great cause for cheer as the new storage makes the collection much easier to access, something that we really want to encourage: it is a truly spectacular resource for anybody studying the development of commercial textiles from the 18th to the 20th centuries and I hope that researchers will get a great deal of use out of it.

Courtaulds textile design volumes in their new store at Blythe House

The collection consists of the records of Courtaulds Plc, a major textile manufacturer in the 19th and 20th centuries, and contains hundreds of textile design books.

Courtaulds has a rich history and played a highly significant role in British textile manufacturing. The company was created by George Courtauld in 1793 as a silk, crepe and textile business at Pebshire in Essex. It later passed to his son Samuel, who acquired a mill in Bocking in 1816 and later in Halstead in 1825. The factories were primarily concerned with the manufacture of silk. The company proved itself at the forefront of technological development within the textile industry when it pioneered the manufacture of rayon through the viscose process. By the 1930s the company owned factories in Flint, Coventry, Nuneaton, Leigh, Halifax, Droylesden, Trafford Park and Wolverhampton. In 1939 it began the production of nylon yarn and by 1940 was one of the world’s largest textile concerns. It still survives as a textile company, though greatly reduced from its heyday.

The archive has many textile design books from the Courtaulds factories that primarily date to the 20th century. It also has records from subsidiary companies, such as Sundour Fabrics and Edinburgh Weavers. The photograph below is of one such volume: a sample of the fabric is included as well as extensive technical information about the manufacture of the textile, sometimes even including problems encountered during the weaving process.

Textile samples, 1927-1928, from a Halifax mill sample book

One particularly impressive record series is the Oberkampf collection, which was purchased by Sir James Morton, of Morton Sundour Fabric Ltd, around 1930 and acquired by Courtaulds in 1963 when it took over the company. This series consists of over 300 volumes and these contain some spectacular fabric designs. The earliest volumes consist of French paper impressions for printed textiles, dating from around 1770 to the early 1800s. It has many more volumes covering the entirety of the 19th century and a variety of different types of textile, including silk, cotton and wool.

Paper impressions for French printed textiles

The Courtaulds archive came into the care of the Archive of Art and Design in 2002 and was stored (on account of its size) in an area now occupied by the Clothworkers’ Centre for the Study and Conservation of Textiles and Fashion. While renovation work took place, the archive was housed temporarily in lockable cabinets stretching the length of one of the long ‘link’ corridors in Blythe House.

 The new move has consolidated the Courtaulds collection into one location and the rolling racking makes it much easier to retrieve volumes. In addition, the cabinets previously used to store the collection can be reused, enabling us to expand our collections.

One of the previous storage areas for the Courtaulds collection at Blythe House

There is still work left to do on the Courtaulds archive; it is only partially catalogued and requires conservation work. This new move, however, has proved to be a significant milestone in the processing of this collection and, therefore, in increasing its accessibility.

The Blythe House Study Room, which serves the Archive of Art and Design, the V&A Archive, the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections and the Beatrix Potter Collections, is open Tuesdays to Fridays, from 10.00 to 16.30, by appointment. Further details of how to make enquiries and access the archives can be found on our homepage.

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