As stone and marble immediately place some limitation upon the kind of design to be used for their embellishment, so rugs and fabrics of various kinds place restrictions upon the decorator. Although wonderful machinery may weave practically any pattern which the artist's fancy creates, the nature of the material to be woven determines what kind of design is appropriate to it. A dark, heavy fabric does not lend itself to delicate details, nor a filmy material to heavy design.
Conventional forms are the outgrowth of the limitation of materials. In picturing natural objects in basketry, the savage finds himself compelled to substitute square forms for curved, because his reeds are coarse and the lines of the weave are square. As the material becomes finer the limitation is not so great, and as man becomes more expert he finds it possible to develop more and more elaborate designs in his weaving. The height of perfection with the least conventionality is reached in tapestries.
The use for which a fabric is intended finally determines the kind of design which shall decorate it. A material which hangs in folds must have a different treatment from one which lies flat. Cloth which is to be cut in many pieces or broken by seams should not be covered with large patterns. A fabric forming a background must needs be quiet and retiring both in color and design, while that which serves purely as ornament may be much more striking.
There are two distinct methods of producing design in textile fabrics. In the one, the figure is woven into the material in various colored threads or with different weaves. In the other method, the design is stamped in color on the threads of the cloth either before or after weaving. There may be a combination of these two methods in one fabric, as when a design is printed on a cloth which has already been ornamented in the weave.
Design formed by variation of weave may consist of lines, stripes, checks, or figures of the same color as the background. With the introduction of different colored threads in warp and filling the possibilities of variation become endless. The devices for varying weaves, for alternating colors, become almost superhuman in the Jacquard loom, and the results produced are marvels of mechanical skill.
Printed designs are somewhat more limited in color, although even here a wide range may be obtained. The pattern used is restricted only by the limitations of wood carving or copper engraving.
In fabrics used for clothing, the plain, unfigured cloth is frequently most satisfying, lending itself well to tucks, folds, and seams. The beauty of plain cloth, however, depends for its charm entirely upon the texture. When the texture is not rich, lines, stripes, or figures add interest. With the hard-twisted threads of worsteds, if the surface is broken by diagonal twills, almost invisible though they may be, pleasing results are produced. Introduction of a little color in a hair line or a cross marking leads to greater variation in stripes, checks, and plaids. Variety thus gained adds interest to dress and offers greater possibilities in color combination. The dictates of good taste are to choose from these stripes, checks, and plaids the inconspicuous and those suited to the individual figure, leaving the strangely peculiar styles to those whose chief claim to distinction lies in the loudness of their clothes.
Figures in cloth, beginning with the simple dot, a mere variation in weave, become more and more elaborate, growing into scrolls, flowers, bouquets, vines, trees, finally landscapes and architectural representation. Possibilities of great beauty are opened, and also abundant opportunity for the exercise of poor taste. The offerings of the market express well the status of public taste. In contrast with the many really beautiful designs exhibited in the best shops are found hundreds of designs with nothing to commend them, unless it be that they are "different."
As has been said design in clothing materials must be much limited by the comparatively small surface to be covered and by the lines of seams and folds which break that surface. The richness of heavy silk may be increased by a damask pattern in the same color, which gives an added play of light and shade on the lustrous threads. In this case the design may be quite large, but not too complicated, as the figure is partly lost in the luster of the surface. No other material offers equal possibilities. Linen with the same sort of design gives beautiful effects for table use, but is too stiff and unwieldy, when so ornamented, for beauty in clothing material. Wool lends itself to such design only under exceptional conditions when the character of the fiber has been altered by chemical treatment, and it is then too wiry for clothing. Cotton has not that inherent beauty of texture which makes damask designs excellent.
Soft cottons and silks are very attractive when decorated with bouquets of flowers, even if these are quite large; a pleasing color effect is obtained, combined with delicacy and gayety. The same pattern executed in heavy materials would be most inappropriate, or in dark tones would loose its charm. Simple all-over patterns of the same color or closely related colors are pleasing in different textures provided they are not too large or too intricate. Oriental patterns, which are combinations of geometric designs and conventionalized natural forms, may be good on silk or more simply executed on cottons.
The field of design in dress materials is therefore limited to a few types, variation in weave, lines, stripes, plaids, checks, more or less complicated spot designs, and rather simple all-over designs being the most suitable forms.