The Cloth Antiquary
What do you do when there’s no Wikipedia page?
In my last three posts, I have given you some small samples from the 1936 book, The Romance of French Weaving. There are so many fascinating stories in this book – misappropriated inventions, stolen designs, forbidden dresses, government intervention, even 17th century royal “product placement”.
Throughout the book he referred to himself as a “cloth antiquary”, a descriptive term I liked. I began to wonder about the author, and how he came to know so much about textiles. The author bio on the book cover says only “Head of the great House of Rodier, internationally known manufacturers of hand-woven fabrics.” I think I am pretty familiar with the names of famous design houses, but this was one I didn’t know, so I started to hunt.
There are no complete biographies of Rodier on line, but what I am finding suggests a man with a multifaceted career.
Paul Rodier was born in 1867 into a family with a textile firm that is still in business, mostly in knitwear. The fact I see most often repeated about the company is that Coco Chanel used their silk jersey fabric for a popular line of fashionable women’s wear.
In the 1920s and 30s, stories and ads featuring Rodier designs can be found in periodicals like French Vogue, Monsieur, and Les Modes.
During the same era, I can find many mentions of Rodier on the boards of textile industry organizations.
In the March 1924 issue of French Vogue, writer Marjorie Howard wrote about spending a whole day with Rodier, touring the homes of the weavers in the towns of Bohain and Seboncourt. Here are some excerpts (translated by Google Translate and me):
Old craftsmen, trades of yesteryear
how French manufacturers produce their marvelous fabrics
A company that extends over an area of over 150 kilometers is certainly important thing! Well! there had to be the big surprise for me: namely that a fabric factory in France does not look anything like a factory as we usually imagined, providing a powerful driving force and bringing together in the same place several hundred workers. This, indeed, is composed mostly of villages and small towns where all the inhabitants live and work in their own homes, with business belonging to them and under the daily supervision of “rondeurs” responsible for providing each with essential raw materials, to be converted into woven pieces. And I discovered there, not without astonishment, why the French industry remains unequaled in all luxury products.
Rodier …and [several other French design houses] wisely abandon other nations’ intensive production of upholstery materials, to turn their attention to novelty, and stay primarily creators, adept at taking advantage of the dexterity and the inventive power that are the prerogative of the French craftsman.
Across the threshold of the first house, a surprising spectacle awaited me: four generations living under the same roof, three of which presently occupied in weaving, and a fourteen-year-old looking forward to his turn enter into the profession! A large room on the ground Floor, with, in the corner, a stove on which steamed the soup for the next meal; near it, disdainful and indolent, the inevitable cat, companion of the entire household, and against the immense floor-to-ceiling windows, two looms, so the appearance of the interior was airy and light.
Before one of the looms, the son, a boy of sixteen, was weaving a blue serge with a complicated design of a wide red border: for only two years has he handled the shuttles, but is already entrusted with hard work. On a wooden bench polished by long use, before the second loom, the grandfather on his side ended a large red and green flower design; on a natural background, with, on each side, a red border along the fabric; and sitting beside him, an old woman with white hair and rosy cheeks – his wife – was helping to follow the complicated movement of the shuttles of different colors.
“And how long do you work each day?”
“From six in the morning to nine at night, and sometimes even up to ten o’clock when I want to end the flower I started”.
And the old man did not doubt that his simple answer summarized in a few words, the point of view of the artist for whom time is relative and that counts only the success of the work undertaken. What a contrast to the plant operator, whose working hours are measured for each minute!
The Rodiers, moreover, never use the term “worker”, but “artisan”, or “designer” for the weavers who work for them, while managers and foremen are not “employees”, but “collaborators”.
Bohain and Seboncourt are in northwest France, and were on the path of the German invasion in 1914, and Rodier and his foreman Quersonnier told Howard stories of how their business fared during the war. Rodier took a suitcase of samples down to Lyon in the southeast, and worked with weavers there. His foreman stayed in Bohain, hid the company’s documentation and patterns, and endured regular visits from a German officer who threatened to destroy all the fabric samples. Towards the end of the war, Quersonnier made a list of all the damage the Germans had done, and got an officer to sign it, saying he wanted it “as a souvenir of the war.” Then, when Armistice was declared, he brought the signed list to the Committee on Repairs to get reparation.
Even in 1924, it was apparent that things were changing:
A striking detail to the visitor is the age, usually advanced, of Bohain workers. Young heads are rare, and in only one of four houses at Seboncourt visited, we found young generations training to replace their elders. This evil is born of war, and other, less obvious, factors [are causing the change], it is nevertheless regrettable: the days of old, the son naturally succeeded their father; but youth learned during five years of life off-kilter, how easy it is to leave his native village; he found himself tempted by the existence seemingly easier, by the distractions of large cities. To remedy this situation, it is envisaged, with the cooperation of the government, the foundation of a weaving school that Messrs. Quersonnier father and son would be responsible for organizing, where a solid technical education would be given to apprentices, and love of their trade, one of the most interesting ever, would be passed on.
In the introduction to The Romance of French Weaving, Rodier writes on this theme as well:
When after the war we were, all of us, in a turmoil trying to come to a decision as to the bst way to take up the burden of industry and commerce, th choice between quantity and quality production seemed to be inevitable.
Was not the new age opening before us — an age to which we must adapt ourselves if we were to march with the times? And was it not the Age of the Machine, to which all of us — no matter what our occupation was before the war– must now bow with respect?
But before I could make a final decision a piece of cloth came off a handloom in Picardy… Something had been decided. The work had begun upon the handlooms, just as it had always begun upon the handlooms of France after every great catastrophe. There was no other decision for me to make, an instinct of self-preservation had expressed itself and been put there before me! (p. vii)
Rodier says that this is when he had the idea to write about all the French weavers who had left behind either a written or a woven record. (And he thanks an anonymous woman who collaborated with him on the book but declined to be named! Could it have been Marjorie Howard from Vogue?)
If you would like to see some of his more complex designs, there are some available to view online:
- Here is a silk curtain fabric at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
- The V & A Museum has two Rodier textiles, both still under copyright. Here is a beautiful dress material of cream silk embroidery on cream silk crepe from 1928. I love how the scale of the design motif changes across the fabric. And while this furnishing sample from 1930 doesn’t look like anything special, I learned on this page that Rodier designed fabrics for the luxury liner Ile de France, and from some Picasso designs.
- These four designs at The Art Institute of Chicago ® , also from the 20s and 30s, are much more interesting.
Paul Rodier died in 1946, so he made it through WWII, but I have not been able to find out any more about his later life. Yet.
He may have thought of himself as a “cloth antiquary”, but he also wanted to keep weaving alive and handloom weavers working in the modern age. To achieve those goals he designed fabrics for all kinds of uses, and even wrote a book to educate and charm an audience of consumers.