|A beautiful printed cotton gown, 1785-95. The Met.|
A beautiful cotton printed with flowers is one of the most beloved and recognizable aesthetics of the 18th century. It’s during this century when the imported Indian fabric blows up the Georgian fashion industry. These fabrics are so popular that they come in and out of fashion even today. While this popularity of printed floral cottons can be a blessing, when pursuing an accurate 18th century look, it can be a murky swamp of confusion.
|Cotton with a woven stripe and overprint - 1796 - The Met.|
Trying to create guidelines and rules for period correct printed cottons is tricky. The study of printed cottons, their design, manufacture and appearance, is complex, and as with most things historical, there are always oddities and exceptions to “the rules.” While we strongly recommend that you go down the textile rabbit hole yourself, here is a rough guide to get you started.
Today, we are so used to cotton being a cheap utilitarian fabric that it’s difficult to understand just how expensive an 18th century printed cotton could be. The more colors in a printed cotton, the more expensive it would have been. Each dye/color required a different mordant and a special application that ended with the customer shelling out serious cash for enough yardage for a gown. Keep in mind that it was not uncommon for a multicolored printed cotton to cost more than a medium-grade silk taffeta. In today’s costuming world, just because it’s cotton doesn’t mean it’s “cheap” by 18th century standards!
|Examples of expensive vs. cheap printed cotton.|
The available technology, or lack thereof, had a strong effect on printed cotton designs in the 18th century. Floral printed cottons originated in India in the 17th century and quickly became some of the most popular clothing fabrics. To create the designs, artisans would use carved wooden blocks brushed with mordant to make the dye adhere to the fabric, stamp the design on the fabric, dye the whole piece of fabric, rinsing it to reveal the stamped design, and repeat this process as needed to create their beautiful fabrics. Dyes were natural in the 18th century, primarily coming from vegetables and plants. Different dyestuffs need different mordants to fix the color onto the fabric, and so this printing method could be repeated a number of times to achieve the desired outcome.
|A carved wooden block for fabric printing.|
Copper plate printing, which is the method used to create the “toile” prints we are familiar with today, was developed in Ireland in the early 1750s. Though you could get incredibly detailed designs, you were restricted on single color printing with the plates, which could be hand painted in later with different colors. Roller printing was invented even later in England, in the 1790s. As an improvement on the copperplate method, roller printing helps bring the cost of printed cottons way down at the end of the 18th and early 19th century.
|A copper roller printing press in Le Musee de l'Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse, France.|
|When looking at dress inspiration, be mindful of what the fabric actually is. Is the design brocaded silk, hand-painted silk, embroidery, printed cotton? Look closely and read the descriptions on museum listings. All of these are from The Met.|
Printed cottons were manufactured with their use in mind. The scale and density of the print played a role, with larger, sometimes denser prints often used in furnishings or surviving from earlier in the 18th century.
First, let’s talk about bed curtains or furnishing prints used for gown fabrics. Yes, gowns made out of old bed curtains do exist in museums today, but ask yourself, “is that actually commonplace and something I should do?” If your goal is to be fashionably dressed for the 1780s, the answer is probably no. Bed curtains were a luxury item unto themselves, the scale and density of the print quite larger to balance the print in correlation to the size of the bed. For most gowns the scale and density of a bed hanging is just too visually overwhelming for a body to carry off.
|Notice the difference in scale between the print on the bed curtains and coverlet and the Colonial Williamsburg reproduction dress print on Lauren's jacket.|
|Thie poor sacque gown has obviously been remade and Victorian-ized, but the scale of the print would indicate that the textile is likely from the first half of the 18th century. Whitacker Auction, c. 1750-1775.|
|A much smaller and denser print on this 1796 gown. The Met, C.I.55.50.4|
The color of the ground and flowers are other factors in selecting a printed cotton. Pay particular attention to what colors appear where on original textiles. While white grounds were arguably the most common for printed cottons, you do see that dark brown, Turkey red, and blue were used for colorful grounds.
|A dark brown ground on this c. 1774 printed cotton English gown. The Met, 26.38a|
Pastel grounds, however, don't seem to exist at this time. Avoid that yellow and blue floral cotton in your local fabric store, along with pink, powder blue, or mint green. Nope. No Ma’am. Almost every printed floral cotton in your big box fabric store is going to be wrong for the 18th century.
|Look closely - this is not a solid pink ground, but very dense dots (vermicelli). Manchester Art Gallery c. 1774|
|Consider instead this documented reproduction from Colonial Williamsburg - a white ground with polychrome printing.|
|Another good print from Colonial Williamsburg, but notice the brown flowers - the original this design was taken from probably had purple flowers.|
A few more thoughts on printed cottons to keep in mind when you’re going fabric shopping.
First, if it looks Victorian walk away. Saccharin cabbage roses have no place in the 18th century. Second, if the print looks like it is inspired by silk or wool damask or jacquard, leave it behind. What works for weaving, does not work for printed cottons.
|It doesn't have to be complex - a simple floral or geometric design may also be very accurate. Bodice front panel of printed cotton, c. 1770-80 Platt Hall, Manchester Gallery.|