Seeing as One Ought to See

Art, Industry and Pattern Design for Clothing Fabric

Patricia Zakreski (University of Exeter)


In the nineteenth century, the industrial production of fabric required a new kind of pattern design, one which took into account developing technologies of mechanised printing and mass production. Such patterns relied on repetition and structure as ornamentation was reproduced, multiplied and expanded over the large surface area of the fabric rolls. To ensure that such patterns remained harmonious, symmetrical and repeatable, the education of pattern designers included lessons in geometry alongside more traditional art training. At the same time, however, pattern designs for fabrics also had to take into account the pliability, movement and context of the material. As the art critic John Forbes Robertson noted, “A lady’s dress consists of a body, sleeves, and skirt, and it is evident as she moves her arms, that the pattern, if it goes all in one direction, cannot always be seen as it ought to be seen.” Between dress and pattern, therefore, lay the relationship between art and industry.

This paper will show how design teaching about pattern in the 1870s and 1880s sought to reconcile art with industry, arguing for creative freedom for the designer within the limitations and requirements of mechanical reproduction. Drawing on design manuals, curriculum debates, and the growing body of popular writing that discussed the principles of pattern design, this paper will show how these texts defined an aesthetic of freedom within limitation that influenced ideas about creativity in the last decades of the century.


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