Printed Textiles in Eighteenth-Century America

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It's Textile Month here on The Fashion Historian! Each week this month we'll be bringing you a textile themed post. This week, learn about printed textiles in eighteenth-century America!

Printed cotton celebrating American Independence, ca. 1785. Designed by Henry Gardiner and made in Southeast England. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 46.106.1

Printed textiles were extremely popular for both clothing and home furnishing throughout the eighteenth century. The most commonly used fabric for printed patterns was cotton, although linen and silk could be printed as well. Printed textiles were first imported to Europe from India in the early seventeenth century and quickly became an important luxury item. By the eighteenth century, printed textiles were accessible to all classes of society. In America, printed cottons were especially popular because the cotton fabric was well suited for the warmer climate and could withstand multiple washings, making it ideal for the working classes.

Printed cotton ensemble, c. 1770s-1780s. Mode Museum, Antwerp.

North America, in particular the British colonies, was an extremely important market for the printed textile trade. Cotton was a major crop in the American south and the exportation and production of cotton materials became an important factor of in the growth and development of American industry and the economy. Fashionable printed cottons were also readily available to Americans because of European politics. Due to their popularity printed cottons were seen as a threat to the domestic textile industries of France and England. From 1686-1759, the production and wearing of cotton was banned in France to promote the silk industry. And from 1721-1774 the importation and domestic production of printed cottons was banned in England to promote the wool industry. However, exportation of printed cottons in England was not banned, and so the British continued to produce printed cottons to send to America.

Un atelier de couturières en Arles, by Antoine Raspal, c. 1785. Musée Réattu. Note that each seamstress is wearing an outfit made of printed cotton.

An enormous variety of patterns were available for purchase, from simple shapes such as stripes or scallops to detailed renderings of scenes from the latest opera. The earliest printed textiles, used for home furnishing, featured colorful and stylized renderings of exotic flora and fauna. These floral motifs fed into the Western craze for Orientalism, a fascination with the cultures of the East which influenced popular culture and the decorative arts. As printed cottons became big business, designers in India adapted traditional Eastern motifs to be appealing to European tastes. European designers similarly adapted Eastern motifs in their own designs, creating a global exchange of aesthetic ideas. As the eighteenth century progressed these floral printed cottons were often used for fashionable informal dress. As pictured in the images above, women often mixed and matched differently patterned bodices, skirts, and fichus (shawls) to create a vibrant outfit.

Les Travaux de la Manufacture (The Factory in Operation), 1783-84. Printed cotton designed by Jean Baptiste Huet and manufactured at the Oberkampf Manufactory in Jouy, France. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1953.306. This is a printed cotton depicting the manufacture of printed cottons!

Figural patterns, often with a topical subject matter, rose to prominence in the second half of the eighteenth century and were often used for home furnishing. These large textiles often featured multiple vignettes on one piece, all corresponding to one overarching theme. The inspiration for figural printed textiles came from a wide variety of subject matter. Ancient mythology, pastoral fantasies, politics, and contemporary popular culture such as operas and novels all inspired printed textiles. The wide range of prints allowed the consumer to express their cultural and political acumen, as well as their personal tastes and interests. Prints depicting important political figures and events demonstrated allegiance to specific political ideals or governments. Prints depicting scenes from the newest opera demonstrated the consumer’s taste and engagement in high culture. Prints also reflected the different aesthetics of the age. Scenes of contemporary life were popular mid-century at the height of the rococo, while classical themes became very popular at the end of the century with the rise of neoclassicism.

Quilt Center, ca. 1790. Printed cotton, designed by John Hewson and made in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.284.

One of the most famous American printed cotton designers was John Hewson (1744-1821). Hewson was born in England and worked for Talwin and Foster, a leading English textile print works. In 1774 he immigrated to America and opened a printed textile factory in Pennsylvania near the Delaware River. His work became celebrated throughout the new country and the quality rivaled textiles produced in Europe. On July 4, 1788 a parade was held in Philadelphia to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the procession was a large carriage celebrating the American textile industry, with Hewson and his family representing printed cottons. A newspaper reported: 

“Behind the looms, was fixed the apparatus of Mr. Hewson, printing muslins of an elegant chintz pattern, and Mr. Lang designing and cutting prints for shawls; on the right were seated Mrs. Hewson and her four daughters, penciling a piece of very neat sprigg’d chintz of Mr. Hewson’s printing; all dressed in cottons of their own manufacture; on the back part of the carriage, on a lofty staff, was displayed the calico printers’ flag; in the centre, thirteen stars in a blue field, and thirteen red stripes in a white field; round the edges of the flag were printed thirty-seven different prints of various colours (one of them a very elegant bed furniture chintz of six colours) as specimens of printing done at Philadelphia.”

As you can see, printed textiles are much more than simple fabric. They are an important symbol of global trade and cultural exchange in the early modern period and they are intimately connected to the politics in Europe and America. Thus they make a perfect lens through which to view the eighteenth-century Western world.

For more information on printed textiles in America, keep an eye out for Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, available in November. I penned the entry on printed textiles in Volume 1 (17th and 18th centuries)!

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