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HOW BIRD IN THE HAND REVIVED THE TEXTILES OF JAMAICA
They say you can’t go back, that the past is a foreign country but Laura Hamilton ignored conventional wisdom and set out to revisit memories of her childhood in Jamaica. And what began as nostalgia became a fresh direction and a new company.
When Laura thought of her early island life it was the colours and textures of the place that came to mind. She grew up in a home decorated with “Textiles of Jamaica”, bold printed fabrics that captured the essence of the vibrant Carribean country. Her mother bought her cloth direct from a factory near the small town of May Pen and made all her curtains and furnishings, even Laura’s party dresses from it. Finding out more about the cloth was one of the things that drew Laura back home but “Textiles of Jamaica” proved to be an enigmatic entity.
The company was set up in 1966 by Jamaican William Wilkerson and American Bernard Futterman. They screen printed fabrics, first on heavy cotton drill then on muslins and cottons, in a rural factory using a pool of local artists. This much can be relied on; then history descends into conjecture. By 1967 it was said that prestigious New York stores such as Lord and Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman stocked the cloth. The flourishing company was sold to Bob Lightbourne who oversaw further expansion. The giddy heights of speculation peak in unconfirmed reports of a European order worth millions reported by the Jamaican Gleaner Newspaper in 1986. The sober reality is that during that decade a fire destroyed the factory which was abandoned to rain, theft and encroaching wildlife. In 1986 the company was declared bankrupt.
These were the pieces of the story that Laura managed to patch together after her mother’s death in 2001. But it wasn’t just information that had to be reconstructed, when Laura decided to re-issue the colourful fabrics that had been so central to her childhood, under the new company name of Bird in the Hand, she discovered the only way to recreate certain patterns was to unpick clothes made from the last pieces and tape the cloth back together to find the repeat. “I tracked down my mother’s friends – some no longer in Jamaica but in Canada, Spain and the UK. From them came cushions, scraps from sewing cupboards, curtains still hanging, and tablecloths still in use. They also sent their memories, “everyone remembered it fondly”, she smiles.
Back in England, Laura met Jane George daughter of Eleanor Woodford, one of the original Textiles of Jamaica artists. Jane recalled sneaking back into the burnt down factory to help her mother rescue her paintings. Jane gave the surviving portfolio of delicate gouaches of leaves and flowers to Laura who has breathed new life into them. Redrawn and repainted, the designs have the freshness of the originals and have been printed by hand on the finest Belgian linen and cotton. This summer Bird in the Hand is launching the first in a proposed line of bags – a large summer ‘Breadfruit’ bag.
Route 41 ROAD TRIP ESSENTIALS
1st row: Skincare products, from £7.40, Neal's Yard Remedies, T: (0)84 5262 3145, www.nealsyardremdies.com, Worksmock coat, £545 made to order, Universal Utility, T: 0207 249 5295, Pin striped trousers, £450, Universal Utility, as above, Péro gingham dress, £315, Selvedge T: +44 (0)20 8341 9721, www.selvedge.org, Khadi & Co dress, £340, Egg, T: +44 (0)20 7235 9315, www.eggtrading.eu, Dosa dress, £500, Egg as above, Peasant shirt £395 Universal Utiility as above, www.loupcharmant.com 2nd row: Luisa Cevese Riedizioni washbag, £50, Selvedge as above, Péro shirt dress, £240, Few and Far, T: +44 (0)20 7225 7070, www.fewandfar.net, Fabric notebooks, from £4.95, Few and Far as above, Telephone purse £18 Terisa Green T: +44 (0)1509261691, www.teresagreen.co.uk, Throw, £200, Egg as above, Skirt, €610, Daniela Gregis, T: +39 (0)35 236 833, www.danielagregis.com, 3rd row: Ghaggo shirt dress, £250, Few and Far as above, Luisa Cevese Riedizioni travel bag, £300, Selvedge as above, Selvedge Magazine, £10, Selvedge as above, Côté Bastide towels, from £7.50, Selvedge as above Dobby spot pyjamas, £39, Toast, T: +44 (0)84 4557 5200, www.toast.co.uk, Dosa tunic, £240, trousers, £140, Egg as above, Love Bengaluru book, £17.99, Selvedge as above, 4th row: Swimsuit, £62, Red or Dead, T: +44 (0)19 2380 4458, www.redordead.com, Striped socks, from £28.50, Daniela Gregis, Selvedge as above, Polka-dot scarf, £18, Bonpoint, T: +44 (0)20 7235 1441, www.bonpoint.com,Trousers €295, Daniela Gregis as above, Oktomat Camera, £35, Lomography, T: +1 21 259 4353, www.lomography.com, Péro scarf, £249, Selvedge as above, Bracelets, from 50p from a market in India 5th row: Voil pirate shirt, £425, Universal Utility as above, Underwear, from £20, Hanro, T: +43 (0)55 23 5050, www.hanro.com Crop top, £34.50, Hanro as above Crop top, £40, Hanro as above, Darby twisted seagrass hat, £220, Egg as above, Travel Journals, £9.75, Suki, T: +44 (0)12 7354 2600, www.suki.co.uk, Casey Vidalenc coat £680, Egg as above, 6th row: Bensimon canvas lace ups, £27.95, Bohemia, T: +44 (0)13 1447 2630, www.bohemiadesign.co.uk, Mixed fruit travel sweets (200g), £2, Smith Kendon, T: +44 (0)12 0685 5547, www.sweetstall.com, Cashmere scarf, £125, Khadi & Co, Selvedge as above, Clogs, £30, Torpatoffeln, T: +46 4727 0683, www.torpatoffeln.se, British passport, £77.50, Passport Office, T: +44 (0)84 5722 3344, www.postoffice.co.uk, Gingham bag, €295, Daniela Gregis as above Péro gingham dress, £280, Selvedge as above.
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Why the merchant side of the huge Manchester fabric trade has had almost no recognition is a mystery. Without merchants, who came to Manchester from all over the world to buy fabric for their home markets, there would not have been seven million miles of fabric exported from Manchester in 1913. And mill owners could never have stated: “We make for England before breakfast and for the rest of the world after.”
In fact, in the 1880s up to 85% of all cotton fabric bought in the world came from Manchester. And while factory workers are the subject of plentiful research, merchants are often dismissed as greedy capitalists – certainly, when I showed the trademarks and labels to Manchester City Art Gallery, I was told they had no merit as they were “commercial art”. But manufacturing and sales cannot exist without each other.
So why did trademarks become so important to textile merchants? There are descriptions of cloth being wrapped in paper with an image of a “gaudy elephant” on it by the Royal African Company in the late 1600s. Fabric trademarks are described in a book from the 1600s titled “Tillot Blocks” which it is said is the technical term for these blocks – although no research I made or merchants I met ever used this term.
A large amount of fabric was white, plain dyed or of a pattern that could not be attributed to a particular manufacturer. These were the days when the fabric industry was still learning its craft. Some weaves of fustian mixes of cotton and linen would shrink, natural dyes were not fast, and printing could be crude to say the least. On top of that, fabric was sold in pieces which could be shorter than described or be inferior copies of good quality designs.
Merchants created trademarks that were printed on the front of each fabric piece sold so buyers could be loyal to a trusted brand.
The ink used was water soluble, so it could be removed without losing any fabric length and there would be a small bolt or “truth” stamp printed on the back to show the length was as described. Later, paper labels called “shipper's tickets” would be stuck on the fabric but they were a more decorative device that supplemented the printed trademark.
Trademarks had to be recognisable and appealing to the potential customer and once a design became well known and trusted by buyers, it was, according to one writer, “a very important feature of the shipping trade, and often a curious artistic production, jealously guarded in its copyright".
After the expiration of the charter trade monopolies held by the East India, Royal African and Levant companies, immigrant merchants flocked to Manchester to make their fortune in the only free trade market in the world. Other countries such as France and Switzerland strictly banned the sale of all cloth except their own but Manchester took the opposite view and became the clearing house for fabric made anywhere and sold everywhere. Add to this the defeat of Napoleon which enabled British merchant ships to sail without naval protection, plus the technological advantage of the English factory system and it was obvious that the early 19th century was a perfect time to be a Manchester fabric merchant.
John Mortimer, who wrote an excellent account of “Mercantile Manchester” in Henry Bannerman & Sons’ diary of 1896, has left us with an interesting report of the various businesses operating from a typical Manchester packing house: “In one case they are interested in the Baghdad and Persian trade, and that at their desks are busy clerks brought hither because of their knowledge of Arabic. Here again you have a firm engaged in transactions with India and China, another deals with Mexico, Central America, Venezuela, the West Indies and Australia. Then, in a further case, the sphere of operations includes the Levant, Constantinople, the north coast of Africa and Malta.” While Mr Mortimer mentions just four companies, the ‘Shipping Guide’ for the port of Manchester states, that: “In the city there are 800 merchants engaged in negotiating shipments of merchandise to and from all parts of the world.”
Inevitably, with so many merchants and such a large market, creating an original and memorable trademark would become incredibly difficult. The closer that illustration would relate to the culture of the target market, the better the chance of a sale, so trademarks could depict Indian deities, Chinese mythology or African proverbs. Export Trade images were almost completely figurative in design by necessity rather than as decoration, as many customers were illiterate and could only order their favoured cloth by describing a trade mark rather than giving a brand name.
To be successful in distant markets a merchant had to use an image which would be positive, memorable and familiar to the customer. It was vital not to offend so the merchant would draw ideas from associates and customers in his chosen market and also amass ethnographic maps of the region, keep A
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Golden girl ERICA TANOV IS LIVING THE DREAM
It’s reassuring when a designer practises what they preach. A minimalist designer shouldn’t live surrounded by clutter and conversely we wouldn’t expect an interior guru who extols the virtues of vintage and country house charm to retreat to a bare loft conversion at the end of the day. So it feels like ‘all’s right with the world’ when we discover that Erica Tanov really does live the All-American dream that her relaxed collections so clearly convey.
While Erica’s designs are all-american it’s not a static stereotype. A Californian girl who studied in New York but returned to the San Francisco Bay to set up her business, Erica draws on her neighbourhood for inspiration but constantly shifts her point of view, moving through time so that one collection will feature tousled ‘Huckleberry Finn’ girls that would be at home in a Mark Twain novel, while another references cool Hitchcock heroines that could have stepped from the set of Vertigo.
What unites the collections is the prints and a love of cloth – Erica designs her patterns, oversees printing and the transformation of cloth to clothing. She explains, “textures, colours and patterns are what excite me most. Creating my prints – whether from my own drawings and paintings or reworking vintage finds finds (scraps of paper, fabric, a dish s e l v e d g e . o r g
A true original THE NEW ORLEANS HOME OF MARY COOPER
Mary Cooper's style is one of obligation and appreciation. Not only did she restore her 1830s New Orleans home to near-original condition, but she has filled it with pieces that pay homage to its history and others that are adored for what they are.
The house dictated what it should have, Cooper says. The plainness of floor plan and architecture compelled Cooper to decorate appropriately, sparsely. Curtains made from linen sheets hang on cast iron rods shaped from an original Cooper found in a trash pile in the French
Quarter. The light linens billow with the breeze and act as a casual mosquito net.
Towels with a delicate fringe and detailed dishes aren't reserved for guests but used everyday. “I buy things that I like and try not to think about what they're worth,” Cooper says. One of her most valuable possessions is a red colander she bought at a market in Paris and carried with her all day while travelling the city. Sundries are kept in glass jars on open shelving instead of buried in cupboards. Pots, pans and cooking utensils hang on the walls. “I forget what I have if I don't see it,”
iTara Sgro ley and rad
Sara Essex B
Cooper says. “If it's not out, I wouldn't use it.”
The Creole people who built the house lived simply, a way of life Cooper aspires to follow. The house was built without central air or heat and does not have those amenities today. The home relies on breezes through open windows to cool down and sunshine and kitchen heat to warm up.
The open-air room at the rear of the house is where Cooper relaxes, entertains and works. She's a well-known chair caner in New Orleans and Louisiana, who got her start by chance. While visiting California 36 years ago, she attended a
60 Bent into shape American baskets can hold their own. We look at the history of four classic basketsfromthefourcornersofthestates
ATTIRE critical reporting of fashion trends
38 COVER STORY Golden girl San Francisco based fashion designer Erica Tanov is living the dream. PhotographedbyEricaShires 56 COVER STORY Life’s rich tapestry Join Magnolia Pearl’s caravan of love. BethSmithisseducedby the Texancharmofthisromanticfashionandinteriorcompany
COHABIT stunning interiors beautifully photographed
44 COVER STORY A true original The New Orlean’s home of chair caner Mary Cooper. Photographer TaraSgroidiscoveredMaryCooper’shomeonafashionshootforPeruvianConnection.
GLOBAL travel destinations and ethnographic textiles
22 COVER STORY Cotton on... A history of this world-changing fibre, from field to factory. Anedited extractfromTheHistoryofCottonbytheSouthCarolinaCottonMuseumwithimagesfromtheCliff Smithpostcardcollection
INFORM the latest news, reviews and exhibition listings 03 bias /contributors A letter from the editor-in-chief and comments from contributors 09 news essential textile news: Made by Tender Co, Merci, Khadi & Co, Men of Cloth, Warp and Weft, Betsy Ross, stamps, maps and European patchwork 80 subscription offers A Lotta Jansdotter sewing kit for new subscribers and renewals
81 SUBSCRIBE TO SELVEDGE 86 international listings Exhibitions, fairs and events 84 read High Style Fashion from the Brooklyn Museum, Exquisite Fabrics: Chinese Weaving and Embroidery Patterns, 88 view American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, Art by the Yard: Women Design in Mid-Century Britain, Jerwood Contemporary makers
91 preview Museumakers: Unlocking the creative potential of museum collections – Eleanor Pritchard, Susie MacMurray and Timorous Beasties 92 resources Websites and reading lists for those who want to know more about the Independence Issue 95 coming next The Legacy Issue: Looking back or leaping forward
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SELVEDGE ('selnid3 ) n. 1. finished di fferently 2. the non-fraying edge of a length of woven fabric. [: from SELF + EDGE]