Upper left: printed swatch from our collection. Lower left and right: 1880s dress from the
Victoria & Albert Museum.
by Ann Wilson
When I’m not working at the Design Center, I sometimes help out at the Gutman Library circulation desk. A major perk of that job is being able to browse our wonderful fashion and textile book collection. About a year ago, while checking in some returned books, I came across a Victoria & Albert Museum publication called Nineteeth-Century Fashion in Detail. Of course I had to browse through its beautifully photographed images. That’s when the dress pictured below caught my eye.
This detail photo of the dress fabric called to mind a sample I had seen in our historic swatch collection. Something about the distinctive circle motifs was familiar.
I immediately searched Tapestry, our online database of over 10,000 swatches, and found the exact swatch I’d remembered. Lo and behold, it was the same printed fabric used in the dress, although in a different colorway.
This fabric was produced by Edmund Potter & Company in 1883. At that time, Potter’s calico printing factory in Manchester, England, was the largest of its kind in the world. Edmund was the grandfather of acclaimed children’s author Beatrix Potter.
Curiously, the V&A book did not attribute this fabric to Potter, but simply referred to it as a “printed cotton.” I emailed the curators at the V&A to let them know that their 1880s dress featured a print by the Edmund Potter Company, and that we held a swatch of that very fabric in our collection.
Fast forward to over a year later, when I heard back from an assistant curator at the V&A. She thanked me for making the museum aware of this connection, and informed me that their online record for the object now included the following acknowledgement:
In 2021 the textile with overlapping circular motifs used for this dress was matched with one in the Thomas Jefferson University Textile and Costume Collection (Collection ID 1996.23.306…). The manufacturer was Edmund Potter & Co., Manchester, England. With thanks to Ann Wilson (Special Collections Technician, Paul J. Gutman Library, Textile and Costume Collection, The Design Center, Thomas Jefferson University, East Falls, United States) for making the V&A aware of this connection.
In turn, the V&A made us aware of some research they had done about the circular motifs used in the swatch and the influence of Japanese design in the late Victorian period.
The pattern used on the cotton textile, which was printed in Britain, exemplifies the complex visual references inspiring much European design around this time. The design appears to have been inspired partly by Japanese kamon family crests, which are circular, with stylised natural or geometric shapes inside. Items from Japan displayed at the International Exhibition held in London, England in 1862 hugely impacted late Victorian design, particularly in alternative Aesthetic circles. There are also similarities with sarasa, Indian chintz for the Japanese market on which circles within circles was a recurring theme.
Making this discovery was a thrill for this textile enthusiast, and being mentioned along with the Textile & Costume Collection on the V&A website is like a brush with textile fame.
Johnston L (Lucy A, Kite M, Persson H, Davis R, Davis L. Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. V&A Publications; 2005.