Post-war textiles

The late 1940s to the 1970s was a remarkably creative era in British textile design. Aided by post-war confidence and growth, a new wave of designs was produced, influenced by art and design from around the world. Designers created markedly contemporary, buoyant styles that elevated textile design to new heights, lifted public spirits and transformed the home, despite ongoing austerity and restrained colour palettes.

During the war, in 1941, the British government introduced the Utility Scheme – a regulatory scheme which aimed to ensure the general population would still have some access to consumer goods, despite cutbacks. At the end of the war, ongoing austerity and material shortages meant that textile design remained limited to simple woven and printed patterns which were cheap to produce. One of the chief practitioners of the day, Enid Marx designed abstract geometric pieces with small scale repeating patterns such as Spot and Stripe, Honeycomb, Ring and Chevron, which the manufacturer Morton Sundour Fabrics trialled. Once approved by the Board of Trade Design Panel, these designs went into production.

Left to right: Spot and Stripe, furnishing fabric, designed by Enid Marx, for Morton Sundour, 1946, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.221K-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Chevron, furnishing fabric, designed by Enid Marx for Morton Sundour, 1946, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.203-1949. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Some designs were made in a dark brown, which was later dropped from the final palette of rust, green, and blue and cream. Marx was critical of the eventual colourways, condemning rust as "most deplorable and responsible for much of today's low standards of public taste".

The Festival of Britain

In 1951, the Festival of Britain provided new opportunities for textile design and subsequent manufacture. The summer-long event intended to provide a 'tonic' for the nation by highlighting advances in British science, technology and industrial design. One distinctive design type that emerged used magnified representations of atomic structures to create patterns for ceramics, fabrics, wallpapers and other products. Scientists had used X-ray crystallography (the study of crystal structure) extensively from 1915, and in 1946 Dr Helen Megaw suggested that the repetitive symmetry and natural beauty of these crystal patterns could provide inspiration for wallpaper and fabric designers.

Her idea was taken up and 26 manufacturers formed the Festival Pattern Group, led by Mark Hartland Thomas, Chief Industrial Officer at the Council of Industrial Design. Substances like boric acid, insulin, aluminium hydroxide, haemoglobin and afwillite were used to produce intricate designs based on diagrams of the arrangement of their atoms. The patterns were one of the Festival's successes.

Left to right: Boric Acid, wallpaper, designed by William J. Odell for John Line & Sons, 1951, Britain. Museum no. E.886-1978. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Afwillite 8.45, dress fabric, designed by S. M. Slade for British Celanese, 1951, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.75A-1968. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Contemporary style

Other developments in textile design sprang from new ways of using more traditional sources of inspiration, such as botanical form. The 'Contemporary' style often used organic material as inspiration for its bold abstract patterns. Designers like Jacqueline Groag and Lucienne Day created imaginative and original patterns with new energy. Textile manufacturers were initially sceptical of these experimental designs, but they became hugely popular with the public. Increasing demand was met by a supply of fabrics at a wide range of prices, including new textiles such as rayon. Rayon is a semi-synthetic fibre and cheaper than natural fibres like cotton or silk.

Lucienne Day's famous Calyx which debuted at the Festival of Britain and became one of her most successful designs – was a bold, non-representational botanical pattern, unlike many of the traditional flower prints of the day. Similarly, Perpetua (1953) comprised various plant forms, linked by thin stem-like lines that spread across the fabric as if growing spontaneously.

Left to right: Calyx, furnishing fabric, designed by Lucienne Day for Heal’s, 1951, Britain. Museum no. T.161-1995. © Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation/Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Perpetua, furnishing fabric, designed by Lucienne Day for Heal's, 1953, England. Museum no. CIRC.385-1953. © Robin and Lucienne Day Foundation/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Day's winning designs helped build the reputation of Heal Fabrics (launched by Heal's department store during wartime), while other British manufacturers benefitted from design talent arriving from Europe. Marian Mahler and Jacqueline Groag, both graduates of Vienna's industrial arts school (or Kunstgewerbeschule), contributed to the quality of the output of the UK textile company David Whitehead. Like Lucienne Day, Groag was extremely versatile in her work. Both designers, although known for their textiles, produced pattern for other media including plastic laminated surfaces – a popular product of the time. The bright and joyful designs of these innovators were gradually embraced by the established UK textile industry as they responded to consumer interest, raising the standard of British textile design.

Left to right: Furnishing fabric, designed by Jacqueline Groag for David Whitehead, 1951, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.282-1951. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Furnishing fabric, designed by Jacqueline Groag for David Whitehead, 1952, England. Museum no. CIRC.12 to B-1953. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Groag was influenced by her love of the Viennese Secessionists, an art movement formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists, including Josef Hoffmann and Gustav Klimt. Contemporary developments in fine art were incorporated into the new textile patterns – a result of both designers' artistic literacy and manufacturers' drive to reinvigorate the industry. Designers drew on the work of favoured artists for inspiration: the spirit of the hanging mobiles of American artist Alexander Calder is evident in many memorable 1950s patterns.

Companies such as Edinburgh Weavers, Ascher and the US based Fuller Fabrics, invited artists of international standing to try their hand at textile design, harnessing the style and reputation of prominent painters and sculptors such as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. These designs were transferred to fabric for dress and furnishings, most commonly using a printing process. At the higher end of the market, Alastair Morton of Edinburgh Weavers produced more complex renditions of such designs by using different types of weave to differentiate each element.

Left to right: Furnishing fabric, designed by Henry Moore for David Whitehouse & Sons,1954, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.510B-1954. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; The Blue Vase, dress fabric, designed by Pablo Picasso for Fuller Fabrics, 1956, US. Museum no. CIRC.430-1956. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Designer Althea McNish entered this vibrant artistic industry in the late 1950s, from a childhood in Trinidad, bringing with her an originality of style which pushed British textile design in new directions inspired by plant forms and colours of the Caribbean. By consciously making a design feature of the spontaneous brush marks and pigment variations of her original artwork, she treated the cloth as canvas and opened up another design idiom for pattern which was much copied.

Tropic, dress fabric, designed by Althea McNish for Ascher, 1959, Britain. Museum no. T.192-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These new approaches to design in the 1950s indicated a change in attitude that signalled the direction textile design would take in the next decade. In the late 1960s, social change and a new generation of designers replaced the delicacy and scale of the 1950s patterns with larger scale designs using still bolder colours. Both Pop and Op art movements influenced design, resulting in futuristic patterns stimulating and disorientating the eye. In this context, Barbara Brown was a particularly prolific designer and supplied Heal Fabrics with many notable designs.

Frequency, furnishing fabric, designed by Barbara Brown for Heal's, 1969, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.34-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While such designs reflected a growing interest in science fiction and modernity, there was also a trend from the mid-1960s for reworking traditional patterns. The use of florals, both as all-over design or stylised historical motifs, evidently satisfied consumer nostalgia for previous traditions. By the mid-1970s, the surge of design confidence ignited in the post-war years, which had been nurtured by a buoyant industry, finally began to run out of steam. The new realities of a financial downturn and political uncertainty had a huge effect on manufacturers who became less willing to take risks with new designs. This uncertainty was reflected in the many diverging patterns in this decade: nostalgic florals, psychedelia and re-worked classical motifs all co-existed, and at times were combined into one design. As always, the concerns and aspirations of society were mirrored in the creation of and marketplace for design.

Left: Broderie, furnishing fabric, Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd., 1960 – 70. Museum no. T.2218-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Sara Lee Courtaulds. Right: Coranto, furnishing fabric, Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd., 1960 – 70. Museum no. T.2226-2018. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Sara Lee Courtaulds.

Textile manufacturers

The 1950s to 1970s marked a high point in UK textile production, the result of several vital factors converging: a market eager for new design, a workforce of designers capable of delivering it and manufacturers willing to innovate and embrace the shift. The success and activity of the industry created opportunity for both small and large businesses to thrive. Below is a selection of these textile producers found in the V&A textile collection, whose fabrics epitomise the period.

Conran Fabrics

Terence Conran was influential in many areas of design including textiles which he studied at art school as a student of Eduardo Paolozzi. In the early 1950s, working on a freelance basis, he sold his textile designs to outlets such as Liberty and Gerald Holtom Ltd. In 1955 he set up Conran Fabrics. The fabrics included bright cheerful checks and stripes by Juliet Glynn Smith and exuberant, colourful pattern by Natalie Gibson. Conran went on to open Habitat, continuing the sale of textiles and bringing many previously unavailable, design-conscious products, at an affordable price, to London's high streets.

Heal Fabrics

The British department store Heal's was founded in 1810. As the 20th century progressed, alongside the Arts and Crafts and modernist furniture on offer, textiles became an increasingly successful part of the business. In 1941 a subsidiary company, Heal's Wholesale and Export, was created to support this trade, using producers such as Thomas Wardle in Staffordshire to supply the textiles. In 1946 Heal's started producing their own textiles and in 1958, as the commercial success continued, Heal's Wholesale and Export became Heal Fabrics. Tom Worthington, their design consultant, was especially talented at selecting new designs from freelance artists and recent art school graduates, sometimes taking on patterns that were ahead of mass-market taste and unlikely to sell in large quantity, but would eventually become more popular. The wide range of designs offered by Heal's in the 1960s exemplified the changing moods of the decade, developing from sober colours and geometric shapes, through Pop and Op Art-inspired motifs, to flower power and revival patterns. The V&A holds over 400 examples from the 1940s through to the 1980s.

Hull Traders

Although relatively short-lived as a company (1957 – 80), Hull Traders made a notable contribution to the British textile scene. Originally formed as a group for promoting the work of artists, designers and makers, the company evolved to be a textile producer and is best known for the distinctive designs produced during Shirley Craven's artistic direction (1959 – 80). Craven designed many patterns herself and selected others from freelancers such as Doreen Dyall and Althea McNish. As an independent company, Hull Traders specialised in small runs of screen-printed textiles and were able to re-print any of their back catalogue on demand. Their radical, modern designs were sold in their showroom off Oxford Street in London.

Edinburgh Weavers

Edinburgh Weavers was set up in 1928 as an experimental offshoot of the textile firm Morton Sundour. Under the direction of Alaistair Morton, the company produced high quality textiles whose designs were closely aligned with the aesthetics of contemporary fine art. Designs were provided by those at the forefront of modernism in the UK and were expertly rendered by a jacquard weave process that differentiated elements of the design through different weave and thread types. The resulting textiles were particularly suited for use in the modernist buildings that were beginning to appear in the UK.

Warner & Sons

Warner & Sons (as this wholesale firm was known between 1891 and 1986), produced fabric in both new and historic styles, the latter including specially commissioned silks and velvets for royal events and institutional buildings. Designers connected with the company during the 20th century included the Silver Studio, Marion Dorn, Alec Hunter and Theo Moorman, whose designs contributed to the creation of modernist styles. On Hunter's death in 1958, woven fabrics continued to be designed by Marianne Straub and Frank Davies. Weaving was carried out at Braintree in Essex until 1970. A print studio largely created designs to be printed elsewhere for Warners; from 1963 it included Eddie Squires, who was to rise to Design Director in 1984. He was interested in all aspects of modern art and design, from pop art and space travel to visualisations of electronic equipment. The V&A holds over 5,000 items representing the company's production – among them a series of Squires' scrapbooks in which he collected material that inspired him visually, including packaging, postcards and photographs.

Lunar Rocket, furnishing fabric, designed by Eddie Squires, manufactured by Warner and Sons, 1969, Britain. Museum no. CIRC.45-1970 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: Frequency, furnishing fabric, Barbara Brown for Heal Fabrics Ltd.,1969, UK. Museum no. CIRC.34-1969. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London