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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Interiors & Decor » Fancy Fabrics for Early Homes

Fancy Fabrics for Early Homes

Costly finer textiles were coveted and flaunted in 18th-century colonial homes. Here are some of the special finishes that made fancy more affordable. By Rabbit Goody & Jill Maney

    Fancy finishes and complex woven patterns in the textiles help create high style in the Marlboro Room at Winterthur Museum. The window treatments are made with embossed fabric, and chairs are covered in woven wool damask.

    Because textiles were costly, those who could afford them flaunted them; bold displays of brilliantly colored, specially trimmed fabrics on windows, beds, and furniture established the status of the residents. Fancy fabrics were beautiful, too, of course, and a focal point of interior decoration for generations of Americans.

    Although some of these historic fabrics may be familiar, the special finishes applied to fancy furnishings textiles may not be. A person of means in 18th-century New York or Philadelphia would recognize the difference between a watered moreen and an embossed damask, between a worsted that had been ciréed and one finished with gauffrage.

    Silk was the most expensive fiber: The elegant, glossy sheen it gave to draperies and upholstery was the gold standard everyone wanted to imitate. During the 17th century, textile workers experimenting with painstaking applications of wax and proteins managed to produce something like the shine of silk on worsted wool. We know these expensive fabrics were available in America, as they appear in early inventories, including the 1696 probate records of Margrieta van Varick, a settler and fabric merchant in Dutch New York. But the labor-intensive nature of the process meant that only limited amounts of these fabrics were available, and they remained beyond the reach of most Americans.

    Enormous changes in textile production during the 18th century made it possible to create fancy-finish fabrics more economically. The biggest change was a move from hand process to water power at all stages of production, from fiber preparation to weaving to finishing. Great presses, such as those pictured in Diderot’s Encyclopédie, enabled workers to make hundreds of yards of moiré, harateen, and moreen that would decorate the windows, sofas, and beds of America’s grander houses.

    The expansion of technological development continued in the 19th century. Fabrics could now be pulled through huge metal cylinders and heated to specific temperatures under high pressure. Powered first by water, then steam, this process glazed the surface of any fabric, giving linen, worsted wool, and even cotton the shine of silk. Although the initial investment for equipment was large, the huge volumes of fabric that could be finished this way brought down prices and made fabrics available in every community.

    Woven worsted wool, embossed with an 18th-century damask pattern, woven by Thistle Hill Weavers. (Photo: Richard Walker)

    While there’s no question that silk conferred status on those who could afford it, so did fabrics with highly complex patterns, such as brocades and damasks. Wealthy merchants laid their tables with figural table linens, and the governor at Williamsburg decorated his public rooms with woven damasks. These fabrics were status symbols not because of their fiber, but because their complex patterns made them expensive to weave. Only trade weavers with professional equipment and years of training could make them.

    Just as the desire for shiny fabrics drove technological change, the desire for fabrics with complex patterns drove innovation. At first, when engraved metal plates in presses were being used, designs were limited only by the size of the plates, so flowers, butterflies, and foliage could be pressed into fabric, making it look like a fancy woven damask. Making embossed “damask” this way was less costly than weaving it, but this was still a slow hand process, as only about 18″ of fabric could be put through the plates at a time.

    The huge metal cylinders that made it possible to glaze thousands of yards of fabric were also the means of making embossed fabric affordable. If the metal cylinders were smooth, fabric put through them under heat and pressure attained a high shine or glaze; if they were engraved with designs, fabric put through them became embossed. Again, initial costs to the manufacturer were high (and still are—a custom engraved cylinder now runs upwards of $10,000), but because so much fabric could be embossed so quickly—hundreds of yards a day—embossed textiles, or gauffrage, as they were sometimes called, became widely available in 19th-century America.

    At the William Floyd house, ca. 1790, a patterned worsted fabric ‘Thomas Jackson Diamonds’ was ciréed to self-glaze. The counterpane is the same pattern in a different color. (Photo: Rabbit Goody)

    The difference between simply applying heat and pressure and gauffrage or embossing is most evident when we consider moiré. The wavy or “watered” pattern on moiréed fabrics was achieved by applying heat and pressure to multiple layers of fabric. As the fabric moved against itself, a pattern of waves appeared. A version of moiré was also possible with embossing. Although the end effect is much the same, you can sometimes see the difference if the embossing cylinders were narrower than the fabric.

    Homeowners have always loved shiny fabrics with complex patterns. In colonial America, such fabrics were the exclusive province of a wealthy elite. Until recently, reproductions of these fabrics were difficult to find. Only glazed printed cotton—the flowered “chintz” so ubiquitous in Colonial Revival interiors—was mass-produced. Now accurate reproductions of early upholstery and drapery fabrics in original fibers, such as worsted wool, linen, and even silk, are available, giving homeowners wonderful new options for re-creating period interiors.

    Key Terms

    Ciré: From the French cirer, to wax; in modern usage, glazed.
    Calender: A process in which fabric (or paper) is given a smooth, shiny surface by being run through heated, pressurized metal cylinders. In the 18th and 19th centuries, glazed fabric was sometimes referred to as calendered.
    Gauffrage: Embossed fabric or paper, from another French term, gaufré, meaning embossed.
    Moiré: Fabric with a wavy or “watered” pattern produced by putting two or more layers of fabric between two heated metal plates or cylinders under intense pressure.
    Embossed Moiré: A fabric that has been embossed to resemble moiré.

    For sources, see the Products & Services Directory.

    Published in: Early Homes Spring/Summer 2011

    { 1 comment }

    Broillet Hervé September 1, 2014 at 8:41 am

    I am a costumer designer, and i would to know where the green fabrics (Against the armchair louis XIV on this page : come from ? can you give me the name and brand of this fabrics ? thank you for all.
    Hervé Broillet, Switzerland

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