Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University

Edna Leonhardt: Print Design Pioneer

10.05.2020

∼ by Ann Wilson

Paul J. Gutman Library on our East Falls campus is heaven for the textile enthusiast. Beyond its fabulous collection of books, past the archives of bound journals with titles like Cotton and Wool Situation, there is a vast area called Special Collections. This collection provides a deep dive into materials, memorabilia, personal papers, and other materials that document the development of the textile industry. Within Special Collections is a large body of original, hand-painted textile designs that once belonged to Northampton Textile Company, which has been shuttered for several decades. The designs date from the 1930s through the mid-20th century. They fall into the two main categories of “point papers” (on graph paper) and design croquis (painted sketches), and all have been executed by hand, often with penciled-in notes about weave patterns, pattern repeats, or other instructions.

The job of inventorying and photographing these designs is a huge project, of which I’m lucky to be a part. Of the many designers represented (and sadly, many aren’t credited), there is one whose skill, style, and design sense set her apart. Her name was Edna Leonhardt

Edna was a 1923 textile design graduate from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, known now as Moore College of Art. She spent a year studying in London as the winner of the school’s prestigious Widener European Fellowship. In 1927, she became the first woman in North America to own her own textile design firm, which she first established in Center City in Philadelphia, and later moved to the suburb of Jenkintown. According to the records of her alma mater, she was the first woman to design textiles for automobiles. (image of Edna, c. 1923, Moore Footsteps in Philadelphia, Issue XXXII, Winter 2009)

Her studies in Europe fostered a passion for tapestry. Likely inspired by the popularity of Egyptian motifs during the Art Deco era, Edna developed a “King Tut” tapestry design that became wildly popular and helped save a struggling Philadelphia textile mill. I’d love to find this exact design and the name of that mill. (Note to readers: I’d love to hear from you if you have any leads on this information). Edna also taught textile design at Moore College of Art for several decades.

Having inventoried several thousand designs in the Northampton collection, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing an “Edna” before confirming that it has her “edna f. leonhardt” inscription (her name is always found in all lower-case letters). As in the image below, she often paints in a style in which motif edges are broken up or indistinct. Here you can see that technique horizontally in the floral motifs, with an abstract design on the ground that runs vertically. As with warp-printed or ikat textiles (where yarns are printed or dyed prior to weaving), the design has a soft, impressionistic quality.

Her designs almost always include color-coded weave instructions in the margins. Here’s a close up on one of those keys, including warp and filling (weft) combinations:

She was versatile and prolific in all styles of print: geometric, abstract, conversational, and of course, floral. Her florals would often incorporate abstract or geometric elements in interesting ways. Ribbons, linework motifs (common in mid-century design), and geometric patterns within elements were often featured (see the hexagon pattern within the leaves in the first floral below). The designs are covered with original notes and pencil gridlines that mark out the repeat. Although most of these designs aren’t dated, we have found a few with dates in the late 1930s and the 1940s, and presume that most are from this time period.

She has a series of designs that we call her “fireworks” prints because of their starburst motif:

My fascination with Edna’s work led me to wonder what her designs would look like as textiles. She directly inspired me to study the creative and technical processes of textile print design. Thanks to my coursework with our wonderful Print Design instructor Sylvie Shaffer, I developed the skills to place designs into repeat and have applied that knowledge to a project involving Edna’s designs. I’ll leave the results of those efforts to another post. For now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the work of Edna Leonhardt, a print designer ahead of her time, who helped blaze the trail for women in the field of textile design. Thank you, Edna!

Note: These original designs are not yet available as a digital archive, but we are working on it. For further information about Special Collections at the Paul J. Gutman Library, please click here.

References:

  • Moore Footsteps in Philadelphia, Issue XXXII, Winter 2009, Moore College of Art
  • The Campus History Series: Moore College of Art & Design, by Sharon G. Hoffman with Amanda M. Mott, 2008, Arcadia Publishing.
Floral with vines in a diamond grid layout, Edna F. Leonhardt, c. 1940s

Ann Wilson

Textile & Costume Collection Assistant, The Design Center, Thomas Jefferson University

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Images of objects in our collection are copyrighted by Thomas Jefferson University. For inquiries regarding permissions and use fees, please contact: thedesigncenter@jefferson.edu.