Back to the main Quilters' Guild website

Part 37. Wearable Fabrics 1760-1860

Looking at printed fabric 1760-1860

This review is mostly taken up with a splendid new (and expensive) book called “Wearable Prints, 1760-1860, History, Materials, and Mechanics”, by Susan W. Greene. Her aim is to “examine the methods of manufacture of European and American printed dress fabrics-not furnishing fabrics from 1760-1860, before aniline dyes changed everything.” (p viii). So I shall list the chapter headings with a brief summary of their contents to try and show the vast scale of this nearly six hundred page book; beautifully illustrated by 1600 full colour images, mostly of fabrics plus many helpful diagrams of e.g. printing machines.

The book has a Contents page, a three-page Preface with her plan for the book, five pages of Acknowledgements and a seventeen-page Introduction explaining where to find textiles of this era. This sets the tone of writing for the whole volume: she has aimed to write in “plain language accessible to even the most casual reader” (jacket blurb). Dr Sykas recommended this book at the last BSQG seminar, adding she is not a chemist, if it sometimes that shows it can only be a very minor flaw in an otherwise superb volume.

The book proper starts with Part I, Overview where Susan gives the larger picture and history of printed cloth in the two chapters: 1: From Indian Chintz to American Prints (fifty-two pages) and 2: From Thread to Bolt, (forty three pages). As already said, this book is lavishly and sensibly  illustrated, and has copious-sometimes in three figures- end notes to each chapter.

Part II, Colours may be considered the heart of this  book, it is a brilliant and lucid account of the dyes and pigments  used for  fabrics, 1760-1860.Chapter 3:Dyed Colours (ninety pages) covers madder, Turkey Red , brown etc, Chapter 4:Raised Mineral Colours (over one hundred pages) includes Chrome yellow, Iron buff, Prussian blue etc, Chapter 5:Direct Colours:(thirty two pages) covers steam colours and pigment printing, Chapter 6:Coloured Grounds(one hundred pages) tells their development and production-resist and discharge including lapis prints.

Part III: Mechanics hasthe technical explanations, Chapter 7 Blocks and Rollers (sixty pages), Chapter 8: Plates and Cylinders (thirty pages), Chapter 9: Engraving Techniques (sixty pages) while the final chapter 10, Making Distinctions (twenty pages) is a summing up; looking at fabrics and evaluating prints - “you can't tell a dye by its colour” (p 502).

The book then has eleven Appendices, a Timeline, Alizarin Timeline, British and French Prohibitions, Price Comparisons, Print Characteristics, Blue and Green Definitions, Chrome-Copper Greens and Blacks plus Basic Resist-Discharge Methods, mostly one-page reference tables. There is a good ten-page Glossary, excellent eleven-page Bibliography, divided into Archival and Secondary Sources and finally an eight -page Index.

If this has seemed a long and detailed review, it is because I think this unique book deserves it, I could liken it to Philip Sykas talking: knowledgeable and comprehensive but here we have it written down and illustrated, to return to and reread at leisure, it will be my “go-to “book for many years. It is expensive but worth every penny-especially at a cut price.

And finally, two other books you may care to look at alongside Susan Greene: Philip Sykas's wonderful The Secret Life of Textiles, Six Pattern Books in North West England (2005) and the Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Collection: Design for Printed Textiles in England From 1750 to 1850. (1992, reprinted.)

Philip Sykas's book has a different time scale, till 1960s but there are enough sample books discussed concomitant with Susan Greene's book to be an interesting complement.It wasreviewed in Culcita 22, Pattern Books.

Wendy Heffer's V and A book which is basically a full colour picture book with a very brief introductory essay, includes of course, many furnishing fabrics but again it has enough English dress fabrics to be an interesting adjunct to the Greene book.


Wearable Prints, 1760-1860, History, Materials and Mechanics by Susan W. Greene is published by Kent State University Press, Ohio, U.S.A. ISBN 978-1-60635-124-6(hardback) in 2014. Amazon has a published price of £90.95 but I bought mine from the cheapest “other” listing - Books2anywhereUS for £45.57 plus the usual £2.80 for p&p even though it came from America and is a very heavy book, it arrived promptly and shrink-wrapped.

Victoria and Albert Museum's Textile Collection:Design for Printed Textiles in England From 1750 to 1850 by Wendy Hefford (V & A publications, England, 1992, reprinted.) is out-of-print but Amazon have used copies from £35.00

The Secret Life of Textiles, Six Pattern Books in North West England (2005) by Philip Sykas published by Bolton Museums, Art Gallery and Aquarium is again out-of-print and ridiculously priced second-hand. However Dr Sykas mentioned that the Museum had found a supply so it might be worth getting in touch with them direct.

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2015

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price.