Vitale Barberis Canonico

The language of fabrics

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The language of fabrics

Fabrics can be said to “speak” a language of their own. But not only when they depict something, like the Bayeux tapestry or the scenes on a Manufacture des Gobelins tapestry, or even when they are actually inscribed with words, like a banner, or a selvedge, for example. The finished look of each fabric has a story to tell, from the colours and the effects of the finishing processes used, but above all the structure, i.e. the way the yarns are woven together. The weave expresses itself in a sort of Esperanto that the textile industry’s technicians, designers and creatives know well. Yet though English has now become our universal language, in the world of fabrics each country has its own specific symbols, and until recently it was not that easy to come across shared terminology. The resulting misunderstandings not only led to technical problems, but also differences and a certain amount of wariness when doing business. It was such a serious issue that various experts set about compiling authentic dictionaries to help translate between two or more languages. In the Vitale Barberis Canonico Archives, alongside the sample books, there are also some “artefacts” of a different kind, but equally fascinating. One of these is the Grosses Bindungs-Lexikon, also known as the Grand Dictionnaire des Liages, or the Large Book of Textile Designs. This is a German-French-English dictionary by Franz Donat, a professor at the Reichenberg Royal Textile School, of which at least two editions were published between 1895 and 1901 (and possibly a third in 1904).

Photo showing the spine and frontispiece of the Lexikon by the German pedagogue, psychologist and university lecturer Helmut Donat

The spine and title page of Professor Donat’s Lexikon.

Reichenberg, Liberec for the Czechs, was known as the “Manchester of Bohemia” for its highly renowned textile industry. Its technical and industrial institute was held in the same regard, thanks also to lecturers like Donat, who did his utmost to foster knowledge-sharing and help overcome the language barrier. His Lexikon (published by Adolf Hartleben of Vienna and Leipzig, but printed by Eduard Strache in Warnsdorf, Bohemia) is a real gem, above all for its wealth of illustrations depicting various types of textile design.

Representation of the textile factories in Reichenberg/Liberec in the late 1800s

The textile mills of Reichenberg – Liberec at the end of the nineteenth century.

The use of illustrations was a stroke of genius, because images enabled the reader to recognise and compare weaves in a direct, intuitive way, reducing the mental effort demanded by interpreting a written translation alone. It was what made Franz Donat’s work such a great success. Thanks to the efforts of two talented translators, the Lexikon truly was “a collection of patterns for every textile specialist and a guide for the designing of textile fabrics“. Its three hundred plates and 9015 different Bindungen/armures/patterns proved invaluable for the industry, offering a formidable compendium of textile knowledge in three languages. The author’s preface explains that the book had taken him around 12 years to write and drew on his lengthy experience in the field. The four main purposes of the publication were to “introduce new ideas into the designing of textile fabrics and to render it possible that with one and the same loom mechanism a wide range of different patterns can be woven“, but also to “illustrate in some measure the infinite variety of styles that exists in the designing of textile fabrics“, “to give the systematic development of designs as wide a range as possible”, and lastly, to offer “an aid for designing“. All the various types of fabric, from plain weave to twill, herringbone to satin, diamond patterns, diagonals, ribs, double sided weaves and damasks, are classified alphabetically, with reference to the relevant image, with the individual designs each numbered: an ingenious system to help readers find their bearings in a labyrinth of different combinations. Professor Donat’s educational background also led him to include a page of theoretical exercises for his students, and indeed any reader who might benefit from them. The first plate in the book shows fabric samples that group together and explain the various weaves, as described in the three languages of the Lexikon. Thus we can see that one particular sample of cloth is known as Leinwand, toile or plain weave.

Photo showing a page from the Lexikon with fabric samples

The page of fabric samples shown in the Lexikon.

Then there is a sample of atlas, i.e. satin (in this case the French and English terms coincide), and one of Waffel, also known as gaufré or honeycomb. Leafing through the book, we can see that verstärkter gebrochener Köper translates to sergés brisés composés and broken fancy twills, or that Spitzmuster corresponds to losanges composés and diamond patterns. 

Photos showing a page from the Lexikon with examples of weaves with three different denominations

A page showing patterns with the three sets of terms.

At that time, Italy had not yet earned itself a place in the textile hall of fame, which is why Franz Donat had not thought of adding Italian as a fourth language. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the woollen mills in Italy – and the Biella area in particular – were still in the process of mastering the craft, but would shortly be making their presence felt, and speaking the language of quality. Consulting the Vitale Barberis Canonico Archives in the present day, we can see that, though undoubtedly fascinating, the Bohemian professor’s work is perhaps a little out of date. In textile terms, while many languages have died out, Italian is well understood all over the world, often with no need for a dictionary.

Fabric sample from the Vitale Barberis Canonico archive
The historical fabric of the archive.
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Montecarlo fabric in 21 micron from the Vitale Baberis Canonico collection
The fabric of the Vitale Barberis Canonico collection.
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