Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at Textile Society of America 11th Biennial Symposium: Textiles as Cultural Expressions, September 4-7, 2008, Honolulu, Hawai'i. Copyright © 2008 Victoria Mitchell


The paper analyses 18th-century pattern books from the city of Norwich (UK) as examples of cultural mediation. The anthropologist Arjun Appadurai notes that from a ‘methodological point of view it is the things-in-motion that illuminate their human and social context’. The books are always on the move, portable, negotiated afresh with each encounter; they are a marketplace in miniature, carrying patterns, fabrics and names across geographical and cultural borders, snippets of detail in sample form linking back to the special relationship between the master weaver and merchant for which Norwich was famous. The word ‘detail’ (Fr. détailler) is used here to denote both the cutting into pieces of the cloth and the ‘tally’ that is central to the accounting. As well as drawing on previous historical research and recent studies of pattern books this paper also combines fresh analysis of the books themselves with theoretical contexts from visual and material culture. Cloth carries significance at the borders between cultures, often marking and serving culture in vulnerable, transitional circumstances. The books signal, for the eighteenth century, the fine line that marks a crucial exchange between production and consumption, and thus between the material and the social fabric. These visually stunning patterned samples are a focal point in a series of transactions linking sheep farmers in the East of England with the fashionable bourgeoisie of Europe and beyond, and vice versa. The detail provided by a well-targeted sample is sufficiently robust to enable a whole territory of textile culture to be mapped.