Shining the Lustre: the characteristics of cotton and silk

Blog post by Frank Fan, student on the University’s Dress & Textile Histories Masters programme.

Having examined the patterns and fabrics in the Stoddard-Templeton Archive, it is also meaningful to look at the textiles used for these fabrics.  By analysing these textile samples, I found most of them were woven with patterns by silks and grounds by cottons.  This raised my interest to look further at their characterics and the development of the industry during the industrial revolution.


Plate 1: Plain-woven fabric with a combination of three brocaded floral wreaths and ribbon.

Plate one is an excellent example, presenting a plain cotton ground combined with the brocaded silk floral wreaths and ribbon.  We can easily notice the variants of lustre and colour saturations between the cotton and silk.  Cotton’s appeal lies in its lightness, washability, and affordable price.  Turning to silk, its qualities had always been highly valued; it was acknowledged for its lustre, delicate drape, and for its warmth, denseness and resilience.  According to their different features, it is reasonable that silk was extensively used for a lustrous texture.  However, due to silk’s high price, cotton was more suitably used for a plain-woven ground, reducing the finished textile’s overall cost.

The industrial revolution had a profound impact on the production of textiles in Britain.  In 1721, Thomas Lombe completed his water-powered throwing mill in Derby, allowing scaling-up from hand production to factory-scale, increasingly mechanised production.  The first silk mill opened in Stockport about 1736, followed by mills in Macclesfield in 1743 and Congleton in 1755.  Whilst the Great Exhibition of 1851 acted as a stimulus to improve the quality of British silk design, the 1860 Cobden-Chevalier trade agreement was disastrous for the industry.  This agreement allowed French woven silks into Britain duty free.  One consequence of this was a move by some established silk producers into the manufacture of artificial silks to ensure survival.

For the cotton industry, the industrial revolution again allowed for the mechanisation of cotton production, and improved weaving, dyeing, and finishing techniques.  The nineteenth century was a period of significant technical innovation and advance, and British producers established worldwide markets for their cottons.  One such example is in India, where British-made brightly coloured cottons featuring patterns reflecting local designs secured a large share of the market.

Whether looking at their patterns, the techniques used to weave them, or the different fabrics used to create them, the samples found in the Stoddard-Templeton Archive offers a variety of ways to examine, discover and understand more fully the development of the British textile industry across the nineteenth century.  Examples of these samples can be found in this Flickr album.

Categories: Archives and Special Collections, Library

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1 reply

  1. Flickr Album link not working – anyone else having this problem?

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