July 9, 2015

18th century printed cotton and more...

I didn't plan to take a break from blogging but because of it, I can now proceed straight away with telling you about that museum tour. 

In fact, it wasn't at the museum at all. It was at the museum depot. The Rotterdam Museum doesn't have room in basement or attic to store items which are not on display, like many museums do. It shares a depot at the edge city with other museums from Rotterdam. It's not a place visitors usually get to see, which actually makes it more fun to have an opportunity like this.

The museum's collection slumbers, carefully packed, on endless shelves in large rooms which are kept at a temperature of 17 degrees Celsius at all time.

We came to look at items made from chintz and the sample books from the Rotterdam Cotton Company. 

The first item was this magnificent, but impossible to photograph, 18th century dress. We were looking at it with the dress lying flat on a table, great for studying all the details, not so great for pictures. 
It is made from genuine chintz, imported from India, hand-painted in a glorious, large, intricate floral design on this deep red ground. There is a repeat in the pattern but only in about a meter and even then, it isn't exact. Because it is hand work, obviously.
The dress is in a great shape, the fabric even still has its shine.

This skirt is also made from hand-painted chintz but this design seems more European in style. And the design was specifically made to be made into a skirt like this. 

On this lovely children's dress, the design is large but ordered almost like a jacquard (which is, of course, a woven fabric from Europe, usually France).

And this woman's jacket has a very small print. Still hand-painted in the same technique, but very different in look. 

Chintz became very popular in European fashion from the late 17th century onwards so it was perhaps unsurprising that factories across the continent tried to produce something similar. 
That is where the Rotterdam Cotton Company came in. Under various names, this company has existed from the early 18th century up to 1930. They did produce immitation chintz but unfortunately, those sample books are not in the collection of the Rotterdam Museum (some are at a textile museum in Twente). There were some pictures from it. Not just chintz-like floral but also abstract prints which wouldn't have looked out of place in the 1930's or even in the 1950's.

The sample books in this collection date from 1870 to 1930 and show a variety of designs. Some were for local use but many were made for export. Those are particularly interesting: Many designs mimic Indonesian batik fabrics and were made to be sold there to consumers who couldn't afford the real thing. Indonesia was a Dutch colony at the time, which made careful research and marketing possible. 
The same fabrics were occasionally also sold elsewhere, particularly in Africa. Over time, new designs were developed to appeal specifically to that market (other printing companies did the same and one which really specialized on Africa still remains today, Vlisco). 

The Rotterdam Cotton Company created its designs by block printing. Blocks were cut from wood and the fine line details were made by adding small pieces of copper. Separate blocks had to be made for each colour in the design and all blocks had to be perfectly lined up. Block printing may have been less labour intensive than hand painting or batik, it was certainly not a simple process. 

Then, there was a bit of time left to look at some more garments. 

The length of this jacket betrays its age: It has to be from the early 19th century. What looks like yet another floral print isn't a print at all though... It's embroidery, very very fine chainstitch embroidery.

This longer jacket (which was under the short one in the earlier pictures) is made from printed cotton. This one is interesting because its insides show how the bodice length has been changed in such a way that it could be changed back.

The final piece was this short cape, made from chintz with a very dark brown background. It is lined in wool of the same colour decorated with tufts of beige wool. The design looks like an imitation of ermine but in a different colour. 
The full circle cape was pieced to use the least amount of the expensive outer fabric. This was hand-painted chintz as well so it must have been expensive. Even today, the fabric has so much shine that it almost looks coated in plastic...

I hope you've enjoyed this little look in the depot. I certainly did. I suppose this is why you should pay attention to vaguely announced events held by you local museums ;)


  1. Thought of the textile museum in Mulhouse while I was reading this. Lovely.

  2. Wow, how fantastic to have viewed all these thing in such a close setting! Thank you for sharing the pictures.