Imagine opening an unassuming door to a corridor of boxes piled to the ceiling... and inside you find treasure of textiles from the 1890s. Join me on my visit to Bradford's extraordinary textile archive.
You open an unassuming door to a corridor of boxes piled to the ceiling, each marked with labels like "Couture Openings 1954" and "Textile Printing Exam Paper 1908". The smell is of hundred year old textile journals and leather bound books gilded "Wool Record 1921". You're with me on my first research visit to the archive housed in Bradford College, and we've walked into a treasure trove of pattern and fabric.
We've been invited to the archive as part of my contribution to an exhibition organised by curator, Helen Farrar. In January 2015 seventeen artists and designers will present new pieces inspired by the collection. As one of those lucky seventeen, I visited this month to begin the research for my new designs. Read on to discover what I found!
Helen welcomed me into the corridors of brown cardboard boxes, and explained that they held more than one hundred years of stories. Some contained a snap shot - a sample of silk submitted for an examination in 1897 or a record of one year's jacquard weaving. Some a held a life's complete working history like the record books of George Stead, who as the designer for Bradford's Manningham Mills had created work for Liberty's and dressed Madame Tussauds' Queen.
Bradford's archive is so rich as our city and textiles have an inseparable history. Bradford boomed in the Victorian era, turning from a small market town into the "wool capital city of the world". It's giant textile mills, Manningham and Salts, employed 11,000 and 3,000 people. Their industrialist founders invented new technologies, and cutting edge fabric needs cutting edge design.
Well, that's what we take as good business sense today. In reality, pre-industrial design or fashion magazines, the Victorian industrialists were only shocked into 'getting' design by the 1867 Paris Exhibition. It unveiled new French fabrics which made even the most traditional Bradford manufacturer see the need to compete on pattern and form.
So, post-Paris, funds poured in for a state of the art Technical School in Bradford. Its aim was to provide:
"instruction in weaving; the providing of looms for the use of students attending the class; the formation of a higher class in which designing and harmony of colour should be taught".
In 1882 the Technical School began to train the leading weavers and textile designers of the day. They studied at the school's own mill of working looms, dye rooms and finishing floors, graduating through City & Guilds examinations before taking employment in the Silicon Valley of its time.
Now, more than a hundred years on, the Technical School lives on as a part of Bradford College. Those great city mills are closed, but they donated their textile archives to the college, joining the School's own collection of student work from its foundation onwards. It's why, behind an unassuming door in an almost forgotten part of the college, I can discover a collection of national importance.
Helen and I had talked before my visit, and she suggested boxes which might fit with my interests in Arts & Crafts design. Each box I opened lead me down different histories, but as I explored the archive the work that stood out were student pieces that seemed to be before their time. These were strikingly modern patterns which could have been created in the 1950s or later, yet were in Technical School work books from the 1890s. I like to think of these early industrial designers pushing the capabilities of their machinery, and the sensibilities of their college tutors. How thrilling to shock the Victorian establishment with a silk weave in acid green!
I sketched three motifs from the 1897 portfolio of student examination work. Each is a traditional floral motif, but which my chosen student designers worked into surprisingly modern patterns. My plan is to take one motif and make a digital (vector) version, a contemporary iteration for the present day. I can then use the designs with modern manufacturing techniques, like Computer Aided Design (CAD) for my pressed pewter, or vector print for heat transfer foils.
The use of latest technologies feels an exciting next stage for these designs. They were created by young Victorians for their age's most advanced machines. Then presented in the leather bound portfolios I discovered in the archive. Now, more than one hundred years on, I'm designing for our new technologies and you've found my work on the internet, a technology that my 1890's students couldn't have dreamed of. For me this adds another layer to the story of their textile design (and mine).