Follow the Thread

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

The One With The Three Blue Threads

01.18.2024

by Mia Madrid

As a student worker at the Design Center, my familiarity with types of textiles and fashion history is constantly being tested and expanded. It is unusual, however, to come across a piece that offers novel information to our experts: Curator and Adjunct Professor, Jade and Special Collections Technician, Ann. One such textile mystery presented itself when we found a rogue copperplate-printed cotton that was not in the box where it should have been! I was peeved to find the textile after having finished sorting and cataloging what I thought was all of the Toile-de-Jouy-style printed textiles. But when I read the accession file, there were two short sentences – tucked in at the very end of the notes section – that opened up a whole new line of investigation:

Three blue threads found in the selvedges of cotton cloth which indicate a date between 1774-1811 and unmistakably English manufacture. This was intended for export if a drawback or refund of the tax levied on printed cloth was to be claimed.

-accession file notes, T&CC 1981.34.1

The object consists of several pieces that have been seamed together to form a long decorative valance with a scalloped edge. The design itself features revelrous scenes in a pastoral setting including a hayride and various farmyard animals. Here are some scenes from the object:

This exact design is featured in Florence M. Montgomery’s book “Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens 1700-1850,” which shows the full repeat including a dancing scene that is missing from the sample in our collection (Montgomery 263 pl 271).

But what were these three blue threads? And could we confirm that they were in fact indicative of such a specific moment in British textile history?

Upon first glance, there were no such threads woven into either selvedge, but after taking a closer look, we discovered that there did, in fact, seem to be some faded remnants of blue woven along the outermost edges of at least one side of the fabric. Googling variations on “blue threads selvage” was predictably fruitless, but eventually I came across an archived listserv thread called “TEXCONS” between members of several different textile conservation organizations ranging from Pennsylvania to Oregon to Cairo (“Selvages”). I was inspired to see scholars around the world connecting over such a small and seemingly obscure detail, and I have to thank Textile Conservator Virginia Jarvis Whalen from Filaments Conservation Studio in Merion Station, PA for responding so generously to my inquiries, and pointing me towards additional references. This included a copy of the actual Act of Parliament from the House of Lords Records Office.

What I learned was that at the start of the 18th century, King George III (pictured at left) and the British Parliament were under pressure from the silk and woolen industries to place limits on the new, highly fashionable printed cottons that were being imported from India and flooding the market (Montgomery 16). These fabrics, often referred to as calicoes, were more breathable and easier to clean than wool and silk, and were therefore highly sought after (Montgomery 16).

The lobbying domestic textile industries eventually succeeded in their efforts to curb this competition, and in 1701 there was an outright ban placed on imported Indian calicoes (Montgomery 17). However, their popularity persisted and over time the restrictions were loosened and eventually repealed. In order to control this market within the UK, various taxes were levied on the sale and use of printed cottons. Parliament passed United Kingdom Statutes of the Realm Act 1774,14 Geo. III, cap. 72 which decreed that foreign cottons would be heavily taxed upon import into England, but the cloths intended for export to the North American colonies would be marked with three blue threads in each selvedge and said import tax would be refunded (Montgomery 34). The inclusion of these blue threads therefore places the fabrics between 1774, when the bill was passed, and 1811 when it was repealed, and they are considered to be diagnostic of British prints (Sykas 14-15). Specifically, these threads were to be woven in precise positions – the first, third, and fifth warp ends from the edge (Sykas 14-15). Curiously, “For reasons not yet known, the largest number of these textiles are printed on cloth measuring only 28 inches in width, although the [printing] plate itself may have been wider” (Montgomery 34).

This exploration into the history and meaning of the three blue threads was a fulfilling challenge, and at times felt like a treasure hunt through time! I’d like to take this piece to Professor Janet Brady and the Grundy Lab on the Thomas Jefferson University campus and use some of her high resolution cameras and textile technology to take photos of the blue threads. This has added one more piece of information to my repertoire of historical textile facts, and I will always peer closely at the selvages of any printed cottons that I suspect to be from the 18th century.

Works Cited:

Montgomery, Florence M. Printed Textiles: English and American Cottons and Linens 1700-1850. Thames and Hudson, 1970.

“Selvages” TEXCONS Archives Textile Conservator, 7.5.446,TEXCONS@SI-LISTSERV.SI.EDU. Accessed: 13 Nov 2023.  

Sykas, Philip Anthony. Identifying Printed Textiles in Dress 1740-1890. Manchester Metropolitan University, 2007.

United Kingdom Statutes of the Realm Act 1774,14 Geo. III, cap. 72. Available at https://www.loc.gov/item/2004617357/. Accessed: 3 Nov 2023.

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