Joshua Sofaer

Pattern Demands

Today I have seen beautiful things.

I spent time this morning in the archives of Bolton Museum and viewed two amazing early 19th Century pattern books while researching a project across the 10 districts of Greater Manchester. (It’s already hard to lump these diverse and individual places together under one banner.)

The first is a costings book, used to send samples and prices from Peel, Yates & Co., Church Bank printworks to Peel’s Manchester warehouse (1813 to 1822). The second is a designer’s letter book, which records requests and feedback on designs from managers across the Peel business network (1806 to 1813).

Opening the first page of the costings book the depth and intensity of the colour of these fabric samples, which are over 200 years old, is amazing.

The first pages are gridded neatly (by hand, obviously) and samples cut in neat squares. There is something overwhelmingly satisfying in the ordered difference of these swatches.

Even the dye transfer across the page is beautiful.

Some of the patterns are astonishingly fresh, even ‘modern’.

These designs (above and below) could almost be from the Italian design ‘Memphis’ movement of the 1980s, which has recently seen a resurgence. One of my favourite pattern designers, Nathalie du Pasquier (now mostly working on equally interesting paintings) has seen her designs in textiles of the Danish homeware company Hay, amongst others. I can’t help thinking her work has an antecedent in these books.

This grey abstract cloud pattern has a 3D effect similar to those of the Op Art of the 1960s.

The designer’s letter book is perhaps even more startling for the range of organic patterns that sometimes feel almost like looking down a microscope.

This page especially feels like something from a cellular study. The notes here are full of favourable comments, “this is good”, “very good” etc.

These designs were, however, found, “too large” and “too fantastical”.

The designer who kept this letter book is not named but as textile researcher Philip Sykas points out in his wider study of pattern books in North West England, it gives a fascinating insight into the constant push for innovation in calico print design more than two centuries ago. The demands on the designer are often comically contradictory, requiring something “completely new” that is nevertheless adapted from previous good selling designs. I was left thinking that there is nothing completely new and that somehow everything has been done before.

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