Date of this Version
From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).
Ruth Reeves pioneered the use of vat dyes and the screen-print process for furnishing fabrics in the late 1920's. Reeves had a positive genius for publicity, and if she was not the first American to experiment with these techniques, which she may well have been, she was without doubt one of the best known.
Reeves was one of a new breed of textile designers who emerged in the aftermath of the First World War. To hope to work as a textile designer was a risky experiment in itself. American mills employed buyers and copyists in far greater numbers than they did designers, and consequently training in the field was largely unobtainable. As one critic of the system wrote
...textile pattern making was regarded as the lowest and worst paid of the arts. Quite properly our art schools ignored it, since it offered absolutely no field for ambition.2
And so when Ruth Reeves began to exhibit her witty and original handprinted fabrics, the design press took notice, calling her work modern and refreshing, chic, and above all American.
Reeves trained as an artist and she may have gone on to learn the essentials of printing in Paris, where she spent the years from 1921 to c. 1928. In Paris she studied with the painter Fernand Leger, who also designed textiles. She knew Raoul Dufy in Paris, and certainly would have known his work for Bianchini-Ferier, and she may have known Sonia and Robert Delauney, frequent visitors to Leger's studio.
Reeves returned to the States in 1928. The wisdom of the times held that America had no design traditions of its own, probably had no sources of original design, and that modern design was almost by definition a European import. Citing those reasons, we had declined to participate in the 1925 Paris Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts. Consequently when Reeves and her colleagues opened the American Designers' Gallery late in 1928 to prove that there was indeed such a thing as American modernism, most critics, if not all, were on their side from the start. Ruth's work was found to be particularly representative of the American experience