This section is from the book "Hints On Household Taste In Furniture, Upholstery And Other Details", by Charles L. Eastlake. Also available from Amazon: Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
While on the subject of curtains, it may be as well to add a few words regarding the employment of fringe. Fringe, as Pugin justly pointed out, was originally nothing more than the threads of silk or woollen stuff, knotted together at a ragged edge, to prevent it from unravelling further. By degrees they came to be knotted at regular intervals, so that at length this contrivance grew into a system of ornament, which survived the necessity of its original adoption. But long after the use of detached fringe, it continued to be made of threads alone, and threads of the same quality as the stuff. Now, manufacturers not only have lost sight of the original motive of fringe, but make it of fantastically turned pieces of wood, twisted round indiscriminately with silk and woollen thread; and these are often attached to a valance scarcely deeper than the fringe itself! I have even seen cord fringe sewn on stools, fire-screens, etc, where it is utterly inappropriate. and where, in short, no one but a modern upholsterer would ever think of putting it.
The lace trimmings and edgings used for 'antimacassars' and similar articles of household use are often open to objection on account of the flimsiness and extravagance of their design. It is a great pity that ladies who devote much of their time to the execution of the wretched patterns sold at 'fancy-work shops' do not exercise a little more discrimination in their choice. A little pains, together with a careful examination of old specimens to be found at the South Kensington Museum and elsewhere, would soon enable them to reform their taste in this respect, and acquaint themselves with the general principles on which such work should be designed and carried out. The annexed specimen of hand-made lace is from the work of a young lady who has given some attention to the subject, and evidently with much profit. It will be seen that the lace trimming is here divided into compartments which, though similar in general design, display some variety of detail. This is exactly in accordance with the spirit of old and sound principles of manufacture.
In the early part of this century, window-curtains were only made of silk or damask. The material known as 'rep' was next introduced, and was in many respects superior to what had been used before. But the Germans have invented a still better stuff - a mixture of silk, wool, and cotton - called cotelan in the shops, which is often worked in diaper patterns of excellent design. It is one of the most artistic examples of modern textile fabric which I know. To the French we are indebted for a heavy ribbed material decorated with broad bands or stripes of colour running transversely to its length, and resembling the pattern of a Roman scarf. This stuff has been much in vogue of late years, particularly among artists and people of good independent taste.
Another French material, called 'Algerine,' appeared for a short while in the London shops. It was made chiefly of cotton, and was also designed with horizontal stripes of colour on an unbleached white ground. In effect, it was all that could be wished, and it had, moreover, the additional advantage of being washable. But, of course, because it was cheap, and about the best thing of the kind which had appeared for many years, it found few admirers and but little demand. Having recently inquired for it at a well-known establishment in Oxford Street, I was told that its manufacture had been discontinued, or, at all events, that no more could be procured from France. * The new cretonne now used for bed furniture, etc, is a good substitute for chintz, in so far as it will wash, and does not depend for effect on a high glaze. But the examples of this material which I have hitherto seen are not very satisfactory in design.
There is also a new kind of damask now made of plain colour - either green or crimson - enriched with stripes, worked in various patterns with gold-coloured silk. It is not so expensive as cotelan, being much lighter in substance, but the design is very good. In this case the stripes run parallel to the length of the curtain, and thus give greater apparent height to the room in which they are hung. Horizontal stripes, on the contrary, have a tendency to make a low room look lower, though it must be confessed that the folds of a curtain are more agreeably defined in this manner than when the stripes run parallel to them, and thus confuse the eye.
* I have since seen some good specimens of a similar material at the shop of Mr. Dome, of Harriet Street, Lowndes Square.
Embroidered Curtains, manufactured from Designs by C. Heaton.
Some very beautiful specimens of portiere curtains have recently been made from the respective designs of Mr. A. W. Blomfield, architect, and of Mr. C. Heaton. They are composed of velvet and other stuffs, embroidered by hand and decorated with deep borders, consisting of alternate strips of velvet and common horse-girths. It is a remarkable fact that horse-girths (as well as certain kinds of coach-trimmings) traditionally preserve the spirit of some very excellent designs, which have probably varied very little, in pattern and general distribution of colour, during the past century.
Two specimens of the curtains designed by Mr. Heaton are here given in illustration. One of them is decorated in applique work with a representation of AEsop's fable, 'the Fox and the Stork.'
For summer curtains I have seldom seen a better material than that which is known in this country as 'Swiss lace.' It is made of stout thread-cotton, and worked in two or three small but well-defined patterns. It is apt to shrink a little in washing, but is otherwise faultless in a practical point of view; while in design it is infinitely superior to the ordinary muslin curtain, on which semi-naturalistic foliage and nondescript ornament is allowed to meander after an extravagant and meaningless fashion. It is not that 'nondescript' ornament must necessarily be bad - it is not that semi-naturalistic leaf-patterns are radically wrong in principle - but simply that English and French designers are, as a rule, quite unable to treat these elements of decoration in a proper and artistic spirit. Who ever felt the least interested in the pattern of an English muslin curtain ? We may look at it the first day it is hung up, but thenceforth the eye has no more pleasure in resting on it. We know instinctively that the whole thing is contemptible and commonplace - simply machine-made ornament at so much a yard. We have seen a hundred other curtains of this kind before, and we shall see a hundred more. They all look alike, and if they are not - who cares to note the fact ?
Far different is the work of Oriental looms, in which every line has a purpose, every accident of form seems to be in its appointed place. The ignorant Eastern weaver, left to his own art-instincts, and uninfluenced by any mercantile considerations, may safely trust to the light of nature. Almost everything which is produced by the labour of his hand and head is sure to be good and beautiful. But our school-of-design gentlemen, after spending years in drawing from the 'flat' and the 'round,' after getting the whole grammar of ornament by rote, and learning how to apply colour by the help of a multiplication table - these educated art-workmen in England - what have they accomplished ? Little or nothing, I fear, which posterity will reckon among the art-treasures of this country.