On the Trail of a Textile Legend

In the late 1800s, Candace Wheeler was a textile designer, a business partner of Louis Comfort Tiffany, owner of her own design business, a writer,  a founder of a rural artists’ colony and of businesses for women – and she started all this at the age of 50!  She worked at her business, Associated Artists, until the age of 73, and was still writing books two years before her death at the age of 96.  She is now considered to be the “mother of interior decoration.”

I first read about her back in 1999. ( I know, because I still have that article. And another one, from 2001.) So I was happy to put my hands on the book Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design 1875 – 1900, by Amelia Peck and Carol Irish.  Published to accompany an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this book delves into Candace Wheeler’s life and work.  (The exhibit ran from Oct. 10, 2001, to Jan. 6, 2002.  Fortunately parts of it are still viewable on the web, here.  And while you’re there, check out the wonderful feature Connections.  I got a little side-tracked there for about two hours.)

Wheeler thought that decorative needlework as a business could accomplish several important goals – provide employment to women (especially since there were so many widows after the Civil War), elevate American taste,  and raise the world’s perception of American craftsmanship.   She was strongly influenced by Japanese art, and favored designs that showed nature as it really was – flowers in her designs were shown from all angles, at all stages of bloom, from buds to past their prime, or with leaves partially obstructing them.

Her challenges came from that age-old problem of trying to create high-quality work in an economic and timely manner.  Mass-produced textiles were available and cheap, but she wanted to create outstanding works.  Wheeler especially loved creating textiles that changed appearances depending on light conditions- she treasured remarks made by artists and critics to the effect that her textiles were more versatile and intriguing than stiff, static paintings .  To achieve those luminous effects, she needed to use expensive materials such as silk, silk velvet, and special metallic yarns.  She also needed employees to add detail and depth to textiles with applique or embroidery.

These high end materials and techniques meant that only the upper classes could afford her work.  She produced curtains for the Vanderbilts, for the 226-foot yacht of a publisher, for the Madison Square Theater, and for the Veteran’s Room of the Seventh “Silk-Stocking” Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in New York.  Oh, and for Mark Twain’s house.  (I always thought he would live in a really basic farm house, but no.  His house was really fancy.  Look at his dining room for a Candace Wheeler wallpaper.  I got a little side-tracked here too.)

As the years went by, Wheeler continued to help women learn marketable skills.  She continually tried to expand the decorative arts field, whether with products that more people could afford,  or with classes and publications to teach women how to create their own designs.  She experimented with more methods to show light, shadow, and movement in textiles.   She oversaw the decoration of exhibit halls, designed wallpapers, and wrote books of decorating advice.

wallpaper design

One of Candace Wheeler’s wallpaper designs

Of all of Wheeler’s many accomplishments, there was one mentioned that really piqued my interest.   Over and over in the book, the authors referred to a weaving pattern for “needle-woven tapestry” that Candace Wheeler patented.  They said she had invented it in 1880, and that it was “a loosely woven silk canvas with a double warp (vertical threads) in one shade and a double weft, or woof (horizontal threads) in a contrasting shade.” [their parentheses]  As a weaver, I was instantly curious about this weave.  It just sounds like some sort of double weave, or double-faced twill – I couldn’t see how it could be such an innovation that it would be patentable.  Also,  I had always heard that weave structures couldn’t be patented, because anybody who knows weaving could figure them out for themselves.

Then they quoted from the patent:  (If you are a non-weaver, skip this part, but if you are a weaver, you might enjoy trying to figure out the draft from this description.)

…consisting essentially of a plain woven fabric, canvas or cloth, having a closely-woven back of thick woof-threads and an open or loosely-woven face of thinner woof threads, with interstices between the face woof-threads adapted to receive ornamental threads…the said back and face woof-threads being held by a double series of crossing or binding warp-threads passing alternately from the face to the back of the fabric, and holding the woof-threads both of the face and back to an intermediate series of straight warp-threads.

This was followed by:

Wheeler had discovered her tapestry cloth by accident while searching for a ground fabric that would best accommodate her embroideries… she had been standing one day by a jacquard loom watching some silk being woven to her order, presumably at Cheney Brothers, when she came across an imperfect, discarded remnant of loosely woven silk canvas; this became the model for her new fabric. (p. 139)

Which led to another question – can you patent something that is already in existence?

Throughout the book, this cloth was referred to many times.  More details were given, but I just couldn’t see how this cloth would be any different than any cloth with supplementary wefts laid in.  Sadly, only one known example of the cloth still exists – Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, created by Candace Wheeler’s daughter Dora.  The detail shown in the book clearly shows ornamental threads woven in, in both weft and warp directions. I could see that it would be quicker than traditional embroidery or tapestry, and it seemed very effective as a method of creating pictures.

But I still wanted to see the drafts.  Of course I turned to the Internet, but there is surprisingly little about Candace Wheeler out there.  I was even reading the footnotes and appendices of the book, trying to find out more about the patent.

And in the Chronology, there was another little twist:

July 20.  Wheeler and a former employee, Mary Tillinghast, file separate applications for letter for patent for “Needle-woven Tapestry” with the United States Patent Office.  Both claim to be the sole inventor of the stitch used in needlewoven tapestry fabrication. (p. 256)

Well, well, well.  Who really noticed the cast-off silk fabric remnant?

The Chronology goes on to report that in late 1881, Wheeler sued Tillinghast, but in 1882, the women agreed that their inventions were different, and dissolved the case.  They each got a patent on the same day.

After a few more days of trailing hints on the Internet,  I finally learned how to find historic patents, and found the actual patents!

Tillinghast’s is called Needle-woven Tapestry, an “article of manufacture of artistic character.”   As near as I can tell, her fabric is like a counted cross-stitch cloth, with the spaces only made in the weft. There is a little doodle of warps and wefts on the first page – I imagine a patent investigator quizzing her about her technique and scratching down notes to make sure he understood.  (The actual patent number is 268,149 from Nov. 28, 1882.)

Wheeler’s is called Art of Embroidering and Embroidery, “a new and useful improvement in the Art of Embroidering.”  It’s a little confusing because the warp threads are shown in the horizontal position in the first diagram and the vertical position in the second.  I still couldn’t really tell how it was woven, but I discovered that, in 1883, Wheeler got another patent for “Fabric of Needle-woven Tapestries,” and that one goes into more depth, with even a loom diagram.  None of the patents has a draft as they are standardized today, but I think there’s enough detail to figure out the basics.  (The first one is number 268,332 and the second is 271,174.)

It has two warps on separate beams, one warp that is tensioned as in ordinary plain weave, and one that is under less tension and can take up at different rates.  It is woven with two shuttles, the bottom layer in a tight weave, and the top layer of thinner, more flexible threads, creating a more spaced weave.   I would love to try to weave it sometime, and see if I could bring a little piece of the past into the present.

Finding the patents created even more questions for me.  I wonder if the fact that Wheeler patented her technique actually worked against her, by limiting her audience.  Or maybe looms just got to the point where the whole process could be automated.  Or maybe our decorative instincts moved to the “form follows function” school, and we just didn’t want tapestries anymore.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts!