by Claire Allen-Johnstone and Helen Butler-Watts
A little while ago the V&A was given an exciting group of over 3,500 textiles that were once part of the Design Library of Courtaulds Textiles plc.
We need to look back over the last 300 years or so to understand this company and its Design Library; it was between 1685 and 1700 that the Protestant Courtaulds family escaped religious persecution by leaving France for England. They originally worked as merchants and gold and silver smiths but founded a textiles business in 1816. Like many Huguenots (French Protestants), they worked with silk, producing silk yarn and fabric. The family business thrived throughout most of the nineteenth century, making much of its money from black mourning crêpe, popularised by Queen Victoria’s extended mourning for her husband Prince Albert, who died in 1861. When formal mourning ceased to be so widely practiced towards the end of the century the company suffered, but its decision to buy the exclusive British rights to the production of artificial silk in 1904 proved auspicious despite some initial teething problems. In 1932 Samuel Courtauld founded the Courtauld Institute of Art, now a respected university college with an impressive art gallery, and in the 1960s and 1970s Courtaulds acquired and developed a range of textile and clothing companies. The business also diversified in this period, making industrial products including plastics and specialist chemicals. In the 1980s Courtaulds experienced both problems, connected to the recession and increased international competition, and successes, before forming two separate businesses in 1990: Courtaulds plc and Courtaulds Textiles plc. These companies were acquired by Akzo Nobel and Sara Lee Corporation in 1998 and 2000 respectively.
Sara Lee Corporation had taken on not only a company but also its Design Library. The Courtaulds Design Library principally contained records from Courtaulds factories and a large collection of fabrics that the company took possession of in 1963 when they acquired Morton Sundour Fabrics Ltd., well-known for their use of ‘unfadable’ dyes and their experimental offshoot, Edinburgh Weavers. Many of the textiles in the Courtaulds Design Library were once in Morton Sundour’s own library. The Courtaulds Design Library provided inspiration for Courtaulds designers and was available to customers. The Design Library was generously donated to the V&A, and the hope is that these materials will continue to provide inspiration and food for thought.
In order to make these records and fabrics as publicly accessible as possible the V&A needed to catalogue them. The V&A Archive of Art and Design started to catalogue the paper-based records and historical sample books in the early 2000s, and this project is almost complete (the team still needs to catalogue some fragments of fabric recently transferred from the Furniture, Textiles & Fashion Department and to update Search the Archives). Between 2018 and 2019 a large team of staff and volunteers at the Clothworkers’ Centre photographed, labelled, and recorded information about the Design Library’s collection of over 3,500 textiles, most of which are twentieth-century furnishing fabrics.
This post focuses on the project at the Clothworkers’ Centre. Those of us who worked on the project have been stunned by the variety of the fabrics in this collection. Below we discuss 10 pieces as a means of introducing the collection and what it has to offer. Do check out the rest of the objects on Search the Collections (T.250-2018 to T.3807-2018), and feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would be interested in seeing some for yourself at the Clothworkers’ Centre, situated within Blythe House. For more information about the Centre please see the Clothworkers’ Centre page on the V&A website. There you will also find out about the planned closure of the Centre between 18 December 2020 and Spring/Summer 2023 to facilitate the relocation of the V&A’s collections to the new Collections and Research Centre in Stratford’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
The reference for the materials held by the Museum’s Archive is AAD/2002/7. A summary description can be found online and the full records will appear on Search the Archives soon. This part of the archive is also available for consultation, in the Blythe House Archive & Library Study Room.
The hand loom weaver Alexander Morton founded Alexander Morton & Co., the parent company of Morton Sundour Fabrics, in 1870 in Darvel, Ayrshire. In the late nineteenth century Morton’s son James oversaw collaborations between leading Arts and Crafts designers but set out to show that mechanised production could match the beauty of hand-made textiles. The company acquired a power loom in 1875 and set up a large factory in Darvel, where this textile was produced about fifteen years later. The luxurious silk fabric with Italian-style floral tracery is an example of one of Alexander Morton & Co.’s reversible double cloths.
In 1900 Alexander Morton & Co. expanded to a new headquarters at Dentonhill Works in Carlisle. Here, James Morton began his quest to produce lightfast dyes. The resulting ‘unfadable’ ‘Sundour’ textiles, launched in 1906, proved so profitable that the company changed its name to Morton Sundour Fabrics in 1914. This 1920s Persian-inspired hunting scene is representative of the bright, lush and vivid printed textiles produced by the company at this time. Such textiles attracted discerning clients including Liberty & Co. in London.
In the spirit of William Morris, who revived traditional hand-made textile arts in the nineteenth century, James Morton established a group of craft workshops in 1920 under the name Scottish Folk Fabrics. The workshops, situated in the village of Corstorphine, indulged James Morton’s artistic sensibilities, in contrast to his industrial work at Morton Sundour. The collection now held by the V&A contains beautiful examples of appliquéd bedspreads, embroidered cushions, needlework and hand-woven tapestries such as this panel, designed by the head of the project Ronald Simpson. Morton’s creative impulse towards craftmanship and good design was also the catalyst for Edinburgh Weavers, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Morton empire (Jackson, 2012, p.9). Through this offshoot, founded in 1928, Morton sought to produce textiles of high artistic and technical merit, collaborating with leading twentieth-century artists to create some of the finest textiles of the period.
This is one of many batik or imitation batik pieces in the Design Library. The batik technique developed in Asia hundreds of years ago, and is particularly strongly associated with Java, an Indonesian island. The process involves using wax to protect areas of cloth from dye. Batik has also been popular in Europe, particularly notably in the 1920s, when centres of production sprang up in countries including Holland, which had a long connection with Asia through trade. The technique has been imitated as well as replicated, and Morton Sundour was among those who made faux batiks, such as T.2700-2018. No doubt their designers were inspired by real batiks in the company’s Design Library, such as the textile shown above. Likely made in Java, but with a European interpretation of an Asian design, this piece highlights the cross-cultural nature of many batiks and imitation batiks.
Fruit, flowers, penguins, elephants and peacocks burst from this swatch book, which collects together 26 Morton Sundour patterns. These chintz (glazed printed calico, in this case semi-glazed) fabrics show James Morton’s association with renowned designers Sidney Mawson and C. F. A. Voysey. Voysey’s well-known Alice in Wonderland pattern appears in the book in multiple colours. We were particularly interested in the brunette Alice – something we’ve never seen before.
James Morton’s collection of historic textiles and fabrics from contemporary manufacturers formed an important resource for the designers at Morton Sundour. One of the biggest groups in the collection transferred to the V&A is a set of damasks, brocades and velvets from the Italian manufacturer Pastori & Cassanova, bought at auction around 1940. Our favourite is this cloud-pattern damask. A damask is a figured fabric with a reversible pattern formed using one warp yarn and one weft yarn. In this case it was woven on a jacquard loom.
Courtaulds became involved in textile manufacture for car interiors in 1978. Their Design Library contains an example of a carpet for a Cadillac, made by the American firm Collins & Aikman. Courtaulds Automotive Products was sold to Collins & Aikman in 1997.
Alexander Morton & Co. became strongly associated with bright colours following the release of their ‘Sundour’ fabrics, a reference to the sun and possibly the fastness of the company’s dyes, as the word dour implies unyieldingness amongst other qualities. This textile is a particularly striking example of the firm’s use of bold colours. The shades and psychedelic pattern suggest that it was designed in the Swinging Sixties. The name ‘Makula’ remains a mystery as the family of successful Polish aviators with this surname had not risen to prominence by this date.
Flame stitch, the embroidery technique which inspired this fabric, is also known as Irish stitch, Hungarian stitch, Florentine stitch and Bargello stitch. As these names suggest, its precise origins remain unknown. The technique was used on early pieces such as eighteenth-century maniple CIRC.661-1925. T.2168-2018 is a modern take on this traditional technique in the sense that it is not embroidered and was probably made by running a machine similar to those used for tufting over a thick woven ground. The effect is very convincing.
A box of miscellaneous items that we worked on at the end of our cataloguing project presented us with something more unexpected – four pieces of underwear with the Marks & Spencer ‘St Michael’ logo. This branding is nostalgic for some generations, having been used by Marks & Spencer between 1927 and 2000. Courtaulds was a major supplier to Marks & Spencer, predominately for lingerie ranges. Sticky notes reading ‘Courtaulds lingerie’ attached to floral fabrics throughout the collection now housed at the Clothworkers’ Centre suggest that designers would search through the Courtaulds Design Library sourcing patterns for clothing.
Jackson, Lesley. Twentieth-Century Pattern Design: Textile and Wallpaper Pioneers. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2002.
Jackson, Lesley. Alastair Morton and Edinburgh Weavers: Visionary Textiles and Modern Art. London: V&A Publishing, 2012.
Parry, Linda, et al., British Textiles: 1700 to the Present. London: V&A Publishing, 2010.