In Part 4 of The Story of Cotton Debra focuses on the legacy of Indian textiles in the 19th Century and the influence they had on William Morris.
The 19th Century and the Legacy of Indian Textiles in Britain
During the 19th Century, India was seen as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire. Textiles from India came to be seen as fashionable and highly desirable and were admired for their beauty. In 1851 they had a significant area devoted to them at The Great Exhibition held in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. It was the world’s first manufacturing exhibition, and it highlighted the reputation of Indian artisans through their reliant on hand work and artistry rather than machines. This contrasted with the inferior quality of mass-produced products being made in Britain at this time, some of which were exhibited alongside the Indian textiles.
The industrialisation of design in Britain had been solely intended for a mass market of consumers, including an emerging and rapidly expanding middle class. Textiles were produced as economically and cheaply as possible and were made to satisfy a fashion for excess of decoration and ornamentation in domestic interiors. In the 2nd half of the 19th century the Design Reform Movement was created in response to a plethora of poor-quality design styles evidenced at the Great Exhibition. Those driving the movement sought to influence public taste and, with a more intellectual approach to design, the idea of ‘form following function’ was born. Leading names in this movement were exponents of ‘non-western’ decorative motifs and a vocabulary of ornament which included those from India along with historical European and English sources, notably a revival of a neo-gothic style. Their influence laid the foundation for successive ‘forward thinking’ design movements well into the 20th century.
Throughout the 19th century Indian textiles continued to have a prominent role in trade exhibitions of manufacture and design produced to show Britain’s wealth and power, and India’s prominence as the most important part of the Empire. During the 19th century India was Britain’s most Important export destination for cotton goods; although, at this same time ‘India’s share of manufacturing had fallen dramatically’, due to the competition from cheaper British made textiles and the tariffs imposed on Indian made goods.
British imperialism in India had a devastating impact on traditional Indian textile workers, craft production and trade. The East Indian Company, which had ruled over a large part of the Indian subcontinent between 1785 – 1858, had a system of governing which was constraining and invasive and between 1857 – 1859 there had been widespread revolts against the oppressive regimen of the East Indian Company’s rule: known as the Indian Mutiny and First War of Independence. It was largely due to this that the British state gradually began to bring in acts of parliament to lessen the commercial and administrative ties The East Indian Company had over the Indian subcontinent. In 1858 the ruling of India was taken under formal control by the Crown during the reign of Queen Victoria, who became Empress of India in 1877.
British rule in India led to the socio-political ‘swadeshi’ movement beginning in the 1890s, which was initially a protest due to the partitioning of Bengal. It grew and spread throughout India to become part of an Independence Movement. People were urged to boycott British-made goods and buy Indian-made products instead. This movement became part of a growing development of Indian nationalism leading to later in the early 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who encouraged the adoption of the symbolic and political importance of hand spun and hand-woven cotton fabric (Khadi), which had a heritage in India going back thousands of years. Khadi cloth represented a national Identity and was promoted by Gandhi as a means to provide self-employment and self-reliance to ordinary Indians citizens. Important also was the spinning wheel, (Charkha) which became a central motif on the Flag of India in 1931.
During the latter part of the 19th century, the success of the textile manufacturing industry in this country was enjoying a boom time- particularly in Lancashire and the other side of the Pennines. Textiles from India were a key source of inspiration to textile manufacturing districts, especially those working in the cotton industry. In our collection we have a textile sample catalogue by John Forbes Watson- which he created from Indian fabrics and fabrics from other parts of South Asia that were part of the British Empire.
William Morris: Indian Inspired
In the 19th Century, Indian fabrics were an inspiration to many prominent British designers and manufacturers. One of these was William Morris (1834 – 1896), who embraced traditional craft based and historical artisanal processes in his work. Morris was a radical socialist at heart and had a romanticised revolutionary streak. He despised the mass produced and machine made, along with the social problems that had been created by an industrialised nation. Well known was his love of English medieval art and society; less known was his admiration for the craft and skill that went into creating Indian textiles.
Morris adapted Indian patterns he had seen on original Indian chintz fabrics within his design work; many design features of Indian patterns became part of his signature style for fabrics and wallpaper. He also strived to create textiles which used natural dyes as vibrant and beautiful as those he had seen on Indian textiles and utilised traditional wooden blocks for printing. He experimented with very technical processes using Indigo dye with mordants and indigo discharge printing processes. These can be seen on many of his popular designs, such as Strawberry Thief.
We have several fabric designs in our collection by Morris which illustrate an Indian influence from the 1870s. These were a collaboration with silk dyer Thomas Wardle (1831 – 1909) who was an expert on Indian wild ‘tussah’ silks and traditional methods of dyeing, as well as a leading figure in the Art and crafts movement alongside Morris. He had a textile factory in Leek, Staffordshire, inherited from his father Joshua Wardle. In 1872 he set up a factory for hand block printing and it was there that Morris worked with Wardle between 1875 –1877, experimenting with vegetable dyes and indigo dyeing. In total they produced 14 designs during this period for Morris and Company.
Morris had turned to Wardle because he had the expertise and reputation to produce the high-quality results he had struggled to obtain on his own, when converting his design ideas onto fabric. The examples we have in our collection are all hand block printed with natural dyes and were produced in small batches on cotton and linen.
They spent some time together testing out and experimenting different methods to get the colours as Morris wanted, which proved quite a challenge. But the skill and attention to detail from both men created textiles of exceptional quality in comparison to other British produced textiles of that time. Morris’s influence also led to Thomas Wardle’s company designing and producing hand block printed fabrics for high- end brands such as Liberty and co.
In our collection we also have an extensive collection of Thomas Wardle sample books and block records; showing amongst others; samples of William Morris block trials as well as other Indian Inspired designs. The examples of these can all be viewed here.
Connecting crewel embroidery and Chintz
From the 16th Century onwards, the globalisation of trade between Europe and Asia had fuelled the hybridisation and aesthetics of textile designs over many hundreds of years. If we go back 200 years to the 17th century and look at English crewel embroidery, there is compelling evidence that the decorative forms of bold floral patterns with twisting and coiling stems developed because of the influx of Indian cottons (which themselves adopted some Persian influences) which were imported into this country and used as furnishings. This was also alongside inspiration coming from the import of Chinese porcelain and new exotic botanical plants.
A hybrid of influences also could have occurred because designs were sent to India to be copied for the chintz textiles for the European market and vice versa. So a complex merging of influences and styles from one country to another was created because the textile designs imitated each other.
A piece from our collection, pictured below, has a design often seen on Indian Chintz Palampores, (wall hangings, bed and table coverings). It features a flowering tree design or ‘tree of life’ with ‘exotic’ style flora.
We now go back to William Morris and his textiles attributed to inspiration from the Jacobean era. It is interesting to look at them with a different eye and be aware of a complex mixing of sources and styles for his designs, due to the hybrid nature of textile designs over centuries of trade.
The legacy of Indian textiles is also a strong part of our textile lexicon with words such as calico, dungarees, gingham, pyjama, sash, seersucker and shawl all Indian inspired.
Indian textiles continue to have a major influence globally on trends and tastes in fashion, art, and interiors. India has continued to have a reputation for exceptional quality in its textiles. At the Whitworth we have been adding to our historical collection by acquiring contemporary South Asian textiles and work by designers and artists with links to the Indian Subcontinent which highlight traditional processes and reflect a diverse heritage of techniques in print, weave and embroidery.
Here we have examples of contemporary hand block and resist dyed printed cottons from Gujarat produced in the 1990’s.
Sarah Fee, Cloth that changed the World: The Art and Fashion of Indian Chintz (Yale University Press, 2020).
Shailaja Tripathi, ‘Weaving Connections: British Designer William Morris’s Colonial Inspirations‘, The Hindu Business Line, Updated August 11th 2021.
The Wardle Heritage: http://wardleheritage.org.uk/?page_id=19
Audlem and District History Society: https://www.audlem.org/news/thomas-wardle-polymath-and-silk-manufacturer-of-leek.html