The Chelsea Flower Show opens this Friday and is always a source of inspiration for past, present and future textile designers. In light of this, we decided to look back through the Selvedge archive and re-publish an extract of Susan Collier's insightful article exploring our steadfast love of floral fabric...

Francis Bacon declared the garden “the purest of human pleasures”. To delight in nature and organise some small part of it has been seen through the ages as a godly pursuit. “Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul”, says the Koran. Even among the secular, gardening is revered. Voltaire even once said “The best thing one can do is to cultivate one's garden.”

The English textile industry developed through imports from India and Asia, and in parallel with those of France, Italy and Holland. The original imported Indian chintz was decorated with exotic flowers in a varied palette and a permanent glaze. These printed calicos were cottons with smallish sprigs using one colour or more, with patterns both painted and applied by wood blocks. The colour was mostly derived from madder. By using different mordants – metallic oxides or minerals – the dyes were made fast and different colours were developed. The language of this cloth is still with us, so embedded within a traditional English style that its Indian origins are often overlooked.

These early imported chintz cloths almost always show an abundant curving tree framed within patterned borders. This framing within sprigged borders allows the tree to establish its dominant central line as it curves from side to side, issuing branches and leaves that hold gloriously varied and stylised flower forms, sometimes bursting with stamenlike shoots with bold curling, unfurling, stylised leaves. This flowering tree known as Palampore cloth has an exotic heritage combining Hindu, Islamic and Chinese cultures, traded and crosstraded with European textiles. But for our purposes it was mainly imported from India and gave us the structure of one of the rudiments of England’s most enduring style, the floral...

This extract was firs published in The Blossom Issue of Selvedge.

The Royal Chelsea Flower Show, 23-37 May

London Gate, Royal Hospital Road, Royal Hospital Chelsea, London SW3 4SR

Wiliam Morris & Co
V&A Archive
Musée de la Toile de Jouy 


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