Tag Archives: Textiles

Fiddleheads in the Forest

We walked through the Salem Woods on this past Saturday and saw fiddleheads along the trail, the prelude to a carpet of ferns. I am embarrassed to admit that I reached this relatively advanced age without realizing that fiddleheads are in fact only a stage of a plant’s development rather than a completely independent full-grown plant. I know of course that nascent ferns (principally Ostrich and Cinnamon in our region) look like fiddleheads, but I thought that fiddleheads were another plant altogether! This was the weekend’s big revelation. I seem to have false childhood memories about fiddleheads too: my mother loved them and loved to cook them, and I have a hazy memory of bowls of buttered fiddleheads all summer long, but that can’t be true, as there are only a few months (chiefly April and May) when they are available. I’ve never been a big fan of fiddleheads on the table, but I like the motif, and I currently have a subtle fiddlehead pattern on my back-parlor couch—I found several artists who were inspired its signature curved form. For this May Day, fiddleheads seem like a very appropriate plant—or frond—to spotlight.

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Fiddleheads in flesh in the Salem Woods above, and on fabric below, on my couch and on screen-printed silk fabric by Georgina von Etzdorf, 1991, Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Fiddlehead fabric 

Fiddlehead 1991


It began with a Fan

The story of my great-grandparents’ courtship could be more accurately titled “it began in East Boston”, but my point of entry into their relationship is a fan given by Joseph W. McIntyre to Katherine G. Wall in 1896. Their daughter, my grandmother, died a few months ago at age 104 and I came into possession of some of her personal effects, including a box labeled “A. Stowell, 24 Winter Street, Boston” containing a silk and ivory fan with gold accents. Written in the very recognizable script of her sister, my great aunt Margaret (the family historian), is a note indicating that the enclosed was a courtship gift from their father to their mother. I’m sure it was packed away years before Margaret wrote this note, and years afterward. And now here it is in the light of day.

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There’s just one tear in the middle–no telling how that happened–otherwise the fan is in perfect, clean condition. I put it right back in its box after I took these photographs. The cursive script on the box is almost abstract, so at first I thought it read A. Powell, but a little digging revealed that the name of the business was in fact A. Stowell, a prominent jeweler in downtown Boston, which issued a series of trade cards in the shape of a fan advertising its stock of an “elegant variety of fans, constantly on hand and arriving by every steamer from Europe”. every steamer: apparently this was the place to buy a fan in Boston in the 1890s.

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It is not noted by Margaret on which exact day my great-grandfather gave my great-grandmother her fan (Valentine’s Day?) but on October 26, 1896 (the date my grandmother chose for her own wedding) they were married at East Boston’s stately Church of the Most Holy Redeemer. At the time of Joseph’s and Katherine’s marriage, the streets on which they grew up (both named for European ports : Liverpool for her, Bremen for him) were home not only to the predominantly Irish families with whom they were raised but also to more recently-arrived Canadians, Italians and Eastern Europeans. Joseph and Katherine were both born in the United States, but their parents, John McIntyre and Anne Harkins, and John Wall and Margaret Murphy, had all emigrated from Ireland individually and married in East Boston in the 1850s. I like to think of them all hobnobbing with the Eastie great-grandparents of John F. Kennedy, Patrick and Bridget, but I’m sure they were all too busy working (and I’m not sure this image would have pleased my Republican grandmother).

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East Boston in 1838, after it was assimilated into Boston, and before its explosive growth in the later nineteenth century.

While his father John was a “laborer”, Joseph McIntyre was a bookkeeper for a wholesale grocery in Boston at the time of his marriage to Katherine in 1896: within the next decade he would own his own wholesale business. Katherine and he made the move out of the old neighborhood slightly north to the coastal town of Winthrop, where they would raise four children: Margaret (at left), Joseph Jr., Katherine Jr., and my grandmother Anne (the baby): all pictured below in 1914.

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The McIntyre Family of Winthrop, Massachusetts, 1914.


Perennial Patterns

There were several Christmas gifts that I gave to people that I wanted for myself–all books. It was very frustrating to me that two of these particular books were shrink-wrapped, so I couldn’t even leaf through them before I wrapped them up! One was even in its own impenetrable (without leaving a trace of attempts at opening) box. On Christmas Day, as soon as I saw my brother-in-law open up a beautiful book by Peter Koepke entitled Patterns. Inside the Design Library I knew I had to have one for myself–and now I do.

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This stunning book is an exploration of a small fraction of the vast collection of The Design Library, a collection which includes seven million samples and fragments of pattern design embellishing fabrics, embroideries, yarns and wallpaper, all stored (appropriately) in a converted fabric mill in Wappingers Falls, New York. The book features a representative sampling of patterns and a very interesting concluding section on how design professionals, including designers at such diverse companies as Calvin Klein, Colefax and Fowler,and Pottery Barn, have used the library for inspiration. This is probably just a coffee-table book for my brother-in-law, who has long worked with textiles, but for me, it’s almost like a beautiful textbook, as each pattern is classified according to four main families of design–Floral, Geometric, Ethnic, and Conversational–and myriad subcategories under these categories. I quickly learned that I’m not crazy about abstract, chaos, exotica, jazzy, jungle, kaleidoscope, or modernist patterns (much less “x-rated” or “yummy”), but I LOVE distressed, gothic, and quotidian ones, and REALLY love feathers and insects. This was not a surprise to me, but I love finding classifications for my preferences.

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From Patterns: Inside the Design Library: French hand-painted feather paper, mid- to late-20th century; French hand-painted insect paper, early 20th century; French distressed woodblock-printed wallpaper, 1770 & “gothic” printed fabric, also from France, late 19th century (these look like the characters in a 17th-century witch trial!).

I also like the patterns labelled “Oberkampf”, after the eighteenth-century textile manufacturing company Oberkampt & Cie, which produced fabrics with a revolutionary “rolling block press”. They seem timeless, somehow, as did several of the samples in the book–patterns that looked old, but were in fact quite modern, and that looked modern, but were in fact rather old. Those old sayings that “nothing is every really new” and “everything comes back again” are not always true, but they often are, a point that was really driven home in the last section of the book, “The Creatives”, in which designers reworked Design Library-sourced patterns for products as diverse as Lulemon leggings, Clinique packaging, and the chartreuse velvet coat which Mrs. Obama wore to accompany the President to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

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Eighteenth-century Oberkampf designs from Patterns; the development of  Mrs. Obama’s coat by Francisco Costa, then creative director for Calvin Klein, based on velvets he found in the Design Library. 


Seasonal Spider (webs)

Well, Halloween is less than a week away so I suppose I should post on something seasonal: my October avoidance of downtown Salem has actually made me less aware of this holiday, although yesterday it dawned on me that I was not prepared for trick-or-treating and should start accumulating all of the candy I will need. It seems as if I always run out, no matter how much I buy. In my neighborhood there is a range of Halloween/Fall decorations:  some completely over the top, others more subtle. My favorite seasonal decoration preferences run more to the natural than the macabre: I’ve always thought that bats are wonderful, and I have developed a healthy appreciation for spiders over the last few years. There are quite a few spiders, with webs and without, around Salem these days, but today’s post is really more inspired by interior decoration than exterior embellishment, and specifically by a New York Times article from a few weeks ago about the restoration/redecoration of two historic “literary shrines”: the Connecticut houses of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the parlor of Twain’s house, workers are installing a reproduction 1880s wallpaper with spiderwebs designed by Candace Wheeler, an absolutely amazing artist who, along with her design colleagues in her firm Associated Artists, was primarily responsible for the original decoration of the house. Just one look at the wallpaper started me down both a Candace Wheeler path and a spider/web path–so here’s the latter, beginning with the Mark Twain’s parlor paper and proceeding back and forth through the ages and back to Salem.

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Candace Wheeler wallpaper, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Contemporary spiderweb wallpaper in two tones, Walls Republic; Japanese silk embroidered spiderweb textile, early Meijii era, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; English “Spider Print” Textile Length, 2004, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the best “natural” Halloween vignette ever: Bat and a Spider Web, 1782, Philadelphia Museum of Art; my favorite medieval spider, British Library MS Sloane 4016; a Salem spider.


A Rare Emblematic Eagle

It is interesting to trace the adoption of the eternal eagle as a national symbol for the United States in the first fifty years of its existence, and its adaptation in Europe and Asia by entities eager to take advantage of the new American market. The eagle has been used in heraldry since time immemorial, so it took more than baldness to make it American (remember, Benjamin Franklin preferred the turkey for the national symbol, in part (I think!) because eagles were so universal). There’s a very informative essay on “Eagles after the American Revolution” at the Metropolitan Museum’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (a resource I use often) which commences its analysis with Edward Savage’s Liberty, reproduced on reverse-pained glass in China for the American market around 1800. The image shows the former American emblem, a native goddess representing Liberty, passing her torch to the new not-very-bald American eagle.

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Chinese reverse-painted glass depiction of Edward Savage’s 1796 print “Liberty”, c. 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And after that, a veritable explosion of American eagles, appearing in all sorts of poses and forms before standardization occurs. There is a relatively rare eagle emblem from this era that seems so Salem to me: a triumphant seafaring bald eagle rides into a harbor on a shell boat, with shield and flag brazenly displayed. The harbor looks more romantic than federal, but still, the image seems to represent the commercial and maritime foundations of the American enterprise. This past weekend, I almost purchased a saucer bearing one of these “Eagle riding on/in a shell” images, but ultimately decided it was too dear. Manufactured by only one Staffordshire pottery firm, R. Hall & Son, in the 1820s and 1830s, it seems to be one of the few transferware patterns that has held its value over the past decade.

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“Eagle Riding on a Shell” transfer-printed pottery in green, blue, rose and black made by the Ralph Hall Factory, Tunstall, Staffordshire, England, 1822-40, from the Collections of the Winterthur Museum, Skinner and Northeast Auctions–interspersed with some centennial textiles made by the American Print Works in Fall River, Massachusetts in the 1870s (another era of eagle creativity), collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum


Clarissa Lawrence of Salem

The intertwined histories of Salem’s African-American community and Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century are often referenced and represented by the work of two strong women, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), both born into families that were free, prosperous, and ardent advocates of abolition. Charlotte was a Philadelphia girl who came north to receive an integrated education in Salem: she graduated from the Higginson and Salem Normal Schools and became the first African-American to be hired to teach white students in a Salem public school when she accepted an appointment at the Epes School on Aborn Street. While in Salem she lived with the Remonds and became an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and thereafter her continued advocacy for abolition was expressed primarily through her writing and her teaching, especially during her experience as a teacher of formerly enslaved children on the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Sarah Remond was a Salem native who followed in her parents’ and brother Charles’ footsteps in her dedication to the cause of abolition: she gave her first public speech for the cause when she was a teenager and was appointed a traveling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society when she was twenty. In late 1858 she sailed for Britain to expose the horrors of slavery to a country which had close economic ties to the South, and delivered 45 lectures in the next few years, all of which attracted considerable crowds and press coverage–both abroad in the United States. Sarah never returned to Salem: after her citizenship status was questioned by the United States government upon her departure for Paris, she decided, in effect, to renounce it: she remained in Britain for several years, lecturing and taking classes at the Bedford College for Women, and then left for Italy after the Civil War.There she remained for the rest of her life, completing her medical degree, marrying, and entertaining family and friends from home.

There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more has been said, about both Charlette Forten Grimké and Sarah Parker Remond, but I’m interested in another African-American woman from Salem today: older, much lesser-known, but also an educator and an abolitionist: Clarissa Lawrence, also known as Chloe Minns, or “Mrs. Minns”. Her origins are obscure: we hear of her only in the Reverend William Bentley’s chatty diary when she is hired to run Salem’s first black public school in 1807. A “mulattoe” woman who could read but not write at the time of her appointment, Bentley is increasingly impressed with her as time goes by: every time he visits the “African School” on “Roast Meat Hill” he notes its “good order”. After he and Salem’s treasurer conducted a tour of all of Salem’s public schools in 1809 he observed that “In south Salem we found 40 children not provided with the best instruction. The African School by Mrs. Minns, 30 blacks, was better kept & several blacks repeated their hymns with great ease and propriety.” After the Reverend officiated at Mrs. Minns’ marriage to Schuyler Lawrence (her third, his second) in 1817 he commented that she “has acquitted herself with great honour, as to her manners & as to her instructions” and opined that the Lawrences were “the first grade of Africans in all our New England towns”. They settled on High Street, 8 High Street to be precise, where his seemingly-successful chimney-sweeping business was also located. She continued to teach (until 1823) and also held leadership positions in both the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. She cast off “Chloe Minns” (a name given to her in slavery?) and became Clarissa Lawrence, or Mrs. Lawrence. Like Charlotte Forten, she combined the causes of free education for blacks and abolition into an engaging appeal, and (two years after Forten was born in Philadelphia) traveled to that city to address the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, asking her mostly white audience to “place yourselves, dear friends, in our stead”, and observing that “We meet the monster prejudice everywhere….We cannot elevate ourselves….We want light; we ask it, and it is denied us, Why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause.”

And that’s all I know about Clarissa Lawrence, which is just not enough. Compared to the well-charted lives of Forten and Remond, hers is relatively marker-less, especially her early life. The divergent circumstances of birth, wealth, and family created different paths for these three women, but the existence of slavery led them to a common place. I am writing about Clarissa today because I unexpectedly came upon a fruit of her labors yesterday, a beautiful sampler produced by one of her students in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Sarrah Ann Pollard’s sampler, produced at the “Clarrisa Lawrence School” in 1818, bears the inscription: virtue the [the] chief beauty of the ornament mind the nob/lest virtue of the female kind beauty without virtu[e] is [no value]. And now I’m wondering if I’ve even spelled “Clarissa” Lawrence’s name correctly, the way she would have wanted it.

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Clarrisa Lawrence School Sampler detail CWC

High StreetFramed Sampler by Sarrah [Sarah] Ann Pollard, 1818, Salem, Massachusetts. Collections of Colonial Williamsburg. 8 High Street, Salem: the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler Lawrence.


Tumbling Blocks

It’s an old, old pattern, utilized in ancient Greece and Rome and maybe before, revived in the Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian eras. Actually “tumbling blocks”, also known as rhombille tiling, reverse cubes, or cubework, probably never went away. It’s got to be one of the most popular–and most effective–optical illusions used in tile and textile design–both in the past and the present. I’ve always loved this pattern, and after I saw it on some chairs in one of the bedrooms in the newly-restored Joshua Ward House, soon to open as The Merchant, I started thinking about it and looking for it and it was suddenly everywhere. I always knew it was ancient, but my first introduction to tumbling blocks came via an amazing and influential eighteenth-century pattern book,  John Carwitham’s Floor-decorations of Various Kinds, Both in Plano & Perspective: Adapted to the Ornamenting of Halls, Rooms, Summerhouses (1739). Carwitham’s 24 plates, including several three-dimensional patterns “compos’d of three different kinds of marble, as white, black and dove-coloured, which are so disposed of, that in the dark of an Evening they both appear as if they consisted of a number of long cubes, lying with angles upward, forming of ridges, like the roofs of houses…..”, were apparently very influential on both sides of the Atlantic. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joshua Ward’s beautiful Mansion House, built less than 50 years later, did not feature some surface in the tumbling blocks pattern, so it seemed very appropriate to see it reappear on a pair of modern slipper chairs in 2015.

Tumbling Blocks Pompeii House of the Faun

Tumbling Blocks Carwitham 1739

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Tumbling Blacks Quilt crop NMAH

Tumbling Blocks Tunbridge Ware Box

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Tumbling Blocks Bowl Jayson

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Tumbling Blocks:  House of the Faun at Pompeii; plate for John Carwitham’s Floor-Decorations of Various Kinds (1739); Victorian firescreen, c. 1865-1875, Victoria and Albert Museum Collections; Connecticut Child’s Quilt, c. 1860-1880, National Museum of American History; Tunbridge Ware Tea Caddy, c. 1860, available here; floor of the Getty Villa; bowl at Jason Home; Anthropologie Diamond Interlockrugs; guest room corner at The Merchant, Salem.


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