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Fabrics of Florence

The history of Florence is intimately bound up with textiles, as it was the cloth trade which powered the medieval city’s economy and so facilitated the construction of some of the most important buildings we see today. First came wool. At the time of the Renaissance a third of the population was involved in the industry and there were over 100 wool shops in the city. The trade was controlled by two major guilds, the Arte di Calimala, which oversaw the importation, dyeing and finishing of wool cloth and the Arte della Lana which imported raw wool and oversaw its weaving – which often took place in a domestic setting. I visited one such old Florentine home which has been reconstructed in the Palazzo Davanzati where I saw looms, spinning wheels and warping machines.

It is said that the Renaissance started in 1400 when the Calimala held a competition for the creation of the doors of the Cathedral’s Baptistery. Brunelleschi took part but the winner was Ghilberti who was only 20 at the time. Then the Arte della Lana took over patronage of the Cathedral’s structure and in 1418 announced a competition for the dome – once again both Brunelleschi and Ghiberti entered but this time Brunelleschi won, his Cupola making the Duomo one of the most iconic buildings in the world. Another trace of the Arte della Lana is to be found in the Palagio dell’Arte della Lana, now the Dante Society’s headquarters in the street of the same name near the Mercato Nuovo.

As the importance of the wool trade in Florence declined, that of the silk industry augmented. In 1419 the guild, Arte della Seta in fact commissioned Brunelleschi to build the orphanage Ospedale degli Innocenti, one of the best examples of early Renaissance architecture.

Silk had started to become valuable to the Florentine economy when the silk workers of Lucca were dispersed due to internal conflicts and brought with them to Florence, and other parts of Italy, their jealously guarded knowledge. The new skills of weaving gold thread with silk to produce sumptuous figured silks attracted buyers from royal courts including that of the Ottoman Sultan.

High quality velvets, often with complex decorative and symbolic patterns, some involving the pomegranate (a symbol in many faiths) were produced, also voided velvets and pile-on-pile velvets. A masterly panel depicting Christ Walking on Water is conserved in the Museo del Bargello. Equally outstanding is the velvet exquisitely depicted by Bronzino in his portrait of Eleonora di Toledo in which black velvet is contrasted by a silver linen background and decorated with gold and silver brocaded bouclé.

That fabrics continued to be of high value is shown in the 1600 inventory taken after the death of Florentine noblewoman Camilla Magalotti which reveals that 929 braccia, some 1770 feet, of various textiles were found in her house and a set of church vestments would have cost far more than the frescos on the walls.

It is heartening to find that magnificent and opulent fabrics are still produced in Florence today, in smaller quantities perhaps, but of equal quality. The Antico Setificio Fiorentino in the Oltrarno district has been weaving silk since the mid 18th century. The charming old building, approached via a leafy courtyard, in no way prepared me for the amazing explosion of colour inside the showroom. Bolts of silk in every hue and type adorned the walls while beyond were the looms where the seven weavers and two apprentices work. These looms, mostly handoperated but some motorised, produce fabric destined for fashion designers and palaces4

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JERSEY GIRL Mary Quant’s Knit revolution

‘Odd gear at the Palace’ declared The Daily Mail in 1966, describing the outfit Mary Quant wore to her O.B.E. ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Breaking with convention, even by today’s standards, Quant went to receive her award from Queen Elizabeth, wearing a cream-coloured, wool jersey mini-dress. It stopped seven inches above the knee and was accessorised with cut-out gloves and a matching beret.

The iconoclastic spirit of the sixties and Mary Quant’s pivotal role in the stylistic experimentation of the period, are often connected with the mini-skirt. But they are less often connected with the commonplace, and seemingly mundane fabric, jersey. Jersey is a stretchy, weft-knitted fabric, which we have grown so accustomed to wearing, that we rarely notice it. But it was not always so. As The Daily Mail headline shows, the use of jersey in womenswear was, at one point, highly conspicuous.

The jersey dress in question, was an adaptation of a dress from Lord and Taylor’s ‘Intimate Apparel’ range, which Quant had bought in New York. She can be seen wearing it – provocatively eyeing up the camera – on the paperback cover of her 1966 autobiography, Quant by Quant. The fact that Quant marketed her adaptations of this jersey dress as ‘underwear as outerwear’, highlights key elements of jersey’s movement into womenswear and the cultural connotations that it brought with it.

Single wool jersey, or stockinette, made its first move into female outerwear around 90 years earlier, in the 1870s. Before then, it was used only for either male sportswear, and fisherman’s smocks, or for women’s hosiery and undergarments. Its transition into women’s bodices in the late 19th century – of which there is a rare example in the V&A’s collections (T.3981977) – was surrounded by the sexual frisson, and moral anxiety, of women wearing a material associated with menswear and underwear in public.

The material was used increasingly for women’s clothing throughout the first half of the 20th century, most notably by Gabrielle Chanel, Jaeger and Marks and Spencer. A commonly reported problem was, however, its lack of weight and its sag. But this all changed in the 1950s, with the invention of double jersey. Double jersey, (produced by two sets of needles knitting simultaneously), retained all the favourable stretch and crease-resistance of single jersey, while also providing structure and the ability to retain shape. As a result, it became the go-to fabric for the active, fashionable, young woman of the 1960s. As Quant said, she wanted her clothes to be a ‘mix of sporty, chic and sexy’, and jersey garments – with their inheritance from sportswear and underwear – were just that.

It became so popular that the fashion industry underwent what was termed, ‘the double jersey boom’. The fabric’s success was not, however, only dependant on the qualities which it afforded to women. It was also embedded in the economics of its production. In 1971 The Financial Times 4




Carla and Jeremy Bonner


p 54-55






p 74-75

EVENTS dates for your diary 1 & 2 March 2019, Woven Tapestry with Sue Lawty, London, UK 27 February 2019, Text-ile Messaging, Lecture evening, London, UK 9 March 2019, Illustrative Stitch with Sue Stone, London, UK 13 April 2019, Hand Stitch Quilting with Abigail Booth, London, UK 20 April 2019, Painted Calico with Sarah Campbell, London, UK 27 April 2019 Silk Illustrations with Emily Jo Gibbs, London, UK

CHATEAU DUMAS Workshops in the South of France 17-24 August, Lora Avedian, Blooming Marvellous, Two and Three Dimensional Fabric Flowers 17-24 August, Claire Wellesley-Smith, Slow Stitch, Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art 24-31 August, Nicola Cliff of Madder Cutch And Co, Fine Print, Screen Printing with Natural Dyes 24-31 August, Carla and Jeremy Bonner, Bag of Tricks, Contemporary Leatherwork

83 PRIZES THIS ISSUE A Soft Urban throw by Anne Champney worth £270 to give away A Navy Blue lambs wool bobble knit scarf to give away worth £120 An Indigo dyed bedcover worth £465

INFORM the latest news, reviews and exhibition listings

04 BIAS /CONTRIBUTORS A letter from the founder, Polly Leonard and comments from our contributors 07 NEWS Catherine de’ Medici’s Valois Tapestries, at The Cleveland Museum of Art, Laurence Aguerre’s Les Herbes Folles at Salon Aiguille en Fete, Maharam’s darning-inspired design, Short Stack Editions, Little Ladies at Philadelphia Museum

84 READ Fray: Art and Textile Politics, Julia Bryan-Wilson, reviewed by Lydia Caston, Barron & Larcher Textile Designs by Michal Silver & Sarah Burns, reviewed by Jane Audas 87 VIEW Alice Kettle; Thread Bearing Witness, The Whitworth, Manchester, reviewed by Lesley Mitchison, Berlinde De Bruyckere: Stages & Tales, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, reviewed by Grace

Warde-Aldam. Dreams of the Orient, Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris, reviewed by Anne Laure Camilleri, Anni Albers, Tate Modern, London, reviewed by Ptolemy Mann, 95 COMING NEXT The Folk issue: Indigenous Craft 96 SWATCH NO 46 Favourite Fabric: Cloth of Gold by Sarah Jane Downing and Illustrated by Georgie McAusland

SELVEDGE ('selnid3) n. 1. finished differently 2. the non-fraying edge of a length of woven fabric. [: from SELF + EDGE]


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