ANTIQUE TEXTILES IN WILLIAMSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA
Contributed by: www.Marks4Antiques.com
Textiles, which add so much warmth and color - that is to say, so much life - to a room, have come down from earlier periods in much smaller quantities than other furnishings. Those that have survived the depredations of time, grime, and moth are often fragile and deserve to be carefully preserved as the valuable documents they are.
Antique textiles are used at Williamsburg, for winter curtains and upholstery and for most of the summer curtains as well, in the Palace, the Wythe house, the Brush-Everard house, and the Gaol. In their variety they represent the chief types known to eighteenth-century American homes, and they are used here just as they might
have been used originally, according to engravings and design books of the period.
Most of them came from abroad, imported chiefly from France and England. The materials made of silk, or of silk reinforced with linen, that are used at Willamsburg include taffeta and velvet and stuffs with woven pattern like lampas, brocatelle, and damask; the last is perhaps the most characteristic silk fabric of the period. The 1770 inventory of the furnishings of the Governor's Palace lists "Mahy red damask Elbow chairs covered with checks," which means that these damask-covered chairs were provided with slip covers in "furniture checks," a cotton woven in rather large checks, blue, red, or brown with white, to protect the fine silk. Chairs were also covered in haircloth (the inventory lists “chairs hair bottoms”) and with leather.
Another fabric popular for upholstery and curtains was moreen, a watered (moire) wool stuff which was less expensive than damask and extremely durable. Moreen in a glowing red is used in the Brush-Everard house.
Wool, cotton, and flax were spun and woven into cloth on Virginia plantations and it is safe to assume that at least some part of the woolen, cotton, and linen materials used for window hangings, bed "furniture," and upholstery was home-made. But the printing of cotton and linen in this country before the Revolution was limited to small-patterned dress goods, and most of the printed materials used in furnishings must have been imported.
The beautiful printed cottons of India had been coming into England since the seventeenth century and the importation of "India chints" into the Colonies is recorded as early as 1712. The summer curtains of the Palace ballroom are an exceptionally fine example. Textile printing was banned in England in 1721 but was later permitted to develop in competition with the thriving French industry. In 1758 Franklin wrote home from France about the textiles "printed curiously from copper plates, a new invention," which were replacing the old block-printed fabrics, and the "blew plate cotton furniture" that Washington received in 1759 was undoubtedly one of them.
Countless hours of unstinted labor went to embellish curtains, bed furniture, chair seats, and other useful or decorative objects with needlework. The embroidery stand with a piece of needlework affixed to its frame placed in the northeast bedchamber of the Palace reminds us that any gentlewoman might take pride in her accomplishments along this line. The sprawling naturalistic motifs of the Indian prints were copied on a linen (sometimes cotton) ground in crewel wools - the "Bunches of cruels" mentioned in one of the Palace inventories. Beds in the Palace and the Brush-Everard house and elsewhere that are hung with crewel-embroidered
curtains and valances give an idea of the large repertory of stitches and designs used in this type of work. Kensington or tent stitch and cross-stitch worked in wools on canvas made durable upholstery for chairs, benches, and stools. In finer threads, these stitches were used to embroider pictures (like the one which hangs, framed, in the southwest bedroom of the Wythe house) in which human and animal figures and landscapes were worked out with painstaking angularity.
The "worked fire screen" mentioned in a letter of 1768 as standing in the Palace has been represented by a pole screen with a pastoral scene in Kensington stitch. Hungarian stitch or flame-stitch as it is graphically called was also worked on canvas with wools in such a way as to make zigzag bands of solid color. In Turkey work, rarely found today, strands of wool were pulled through the canvas foundation and tied in knots, and the trailing ends were sheared to make a pile fabric simulating the effect of Eastern carpets. Embroidery in silk floss and sometimes with gold or silver threads, on a silk or linen ground, carried out the most ambitious designs.
Floor coverings, like other textiles, were usually imported. The richly colorful "Turkey carpets" which began coming into Europe from the Near East in the sixteenth century were highly prized and at first were used as table covers rather than rugs. During most of the eighteenth century they were the desired floor covering, and the rugs to be seen on the floors of the Williamsburg buildings show what might have been imported not only by the governor for his Palace but by well-to-do colonists for
the best rooms of their homes. Actually these "Ushaks," "Kubas," "Agras," and other types came not only from Turkey but also from the Caucasus and India. By about 1760 English carpets from the factories at Wilton and Axminister were also available, and large needlework or "tapestry" rugs were sometimes used. For bedrooms, perhaps, as in the Wythe house, and for ordinary homes, home-woven rugs served the purpose - or the floors went bare.
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