Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


As textile historians we are trained to observe physical evidence — materials, structures, methods of applying surface decoration and patterns. In brief, we deal with design. Despite our design focus, we frequently seek to explain differences within the context- of art historical research. Our conclusions, like those of the art historian, often focus on attribution and connoisseurship, rather than contributing to an understanding of textiles as cultural or economic indicators.

Although the academic study of design dates from the mid-19th century, only in recent years has this study moved from considerations of styling. Within the last three decades the critical examination of design objects and processes have given rise to the nascent discipline of design history. Increasingly design is viewed as the material embodiment of social and economic values. It is examined in light of the interrelationships that exist among the design process, marketing, distribution, customer satisfaction, and factors of supply and demand.

In this context, design is viewed as evidence for the complicated means of managing the activities of daily life. Those who use design in effect make choices about technology, aesthetics, function, market trends, even about our notions of progress, when creating the objects and processes for others. The user, in fact, has only two choices: to acquire the product or to reject it.

The study of trade textiles compels us to consider the marketplace. Regardless of their place in time or the nature of their production, trade textiles embody an economic imperative. They were created as commodities to be bartered or sold. Only after the market transaction occurs, do the actual objects assume meaning through usage or association. Take, for example a seventeenth-century embroidered bed cover made in China for the Spanish market. To the producer the product existed solely for financial gain. To the user, its meaning as a status possession was based on prestige, embodying notions of taste, exotic appeal, cost, rarity. Its meaning as an artifact for the contemporary textile curator is based on age, survival, the history of ownership and technique.

The marketplace is a point of transfer. Transfer is both physical and intellectual; it is based on a contract between buyer and seller. If a contract does not exist, negotiation breaks down and trade does not take place. In some sense this contract is embodied in the bill of sale. Yet, the contract is infinitely more complex. It consists of a number of interrelated factors and influences.