To understand the history of surface pattern in textile design is to understand that each pattern will have a personal, cultural and regional dimension as well as that of a general historical perspective. This perspective will inevitably bring in aspects that are seemingly diverse, but fundamental to the characteristics of human life such as social, political and religious movements and upheavals. All of these elements can often be read into a particular pattern style, and even sometimes a specific and individual piece of work. However, there are also aspects to pattern work that can seem unchanging, familiar even, to generations irrespective of their cultural affiliations and time line.


The four textile designs chosen for this article were produced in Britain between 1849 and 1851. Although to some extent they do fit into a framework that denotes the early Victorian period of decoration and design, they could equally have been placed within another era, region, or culture, largely because of their subject matter. 



Floral work in surface pattern work seems to us to be ageless, and to some extent it is. It has had a near continuous appeal from the beginning of human decorative ideas concerning pattern work. It is also a near universal inspirational tool, with practically every culture, both historical and contemporary, using anything from simple motifs to complex interdependent ideas to produce pattern work based on the floral world that we constantly see around us.


Florals have always been a particularly important aspect of textile design work, whether historical or contemporary. They give ample excuse to experiment with colour, form and dimension. The four examples shown here give some idea as to the scope of floral pattern work produced in one small period of the mid-nineteenth century. Some examples appear particularly accomplished and sophisticated, while others take a much more simplistic approach to pattern. However, each has a charm and comfortable approach to the floral, with pattern work appearing confident and intrinsic without being too studied or formal. 


Pattern without a floral dimension is of course possible and much highly creative work has been produced in the geometric and abstract fields across many generations. It could well be argued that this form of pattern work derived long before the floral was used, with many early ceramic pots using an endless arrangement of geometric and organically sourced abstract pattern work. However, without the floral based dimension to pattern, despite the rich variety produced by the abstract, human decorative history would be much the poorer and the perhaps the link with the natural world might be that little more ephemeral. It is the strong belief in the connection between the human species and the natural world that can be seen as being symbolised in the endless variations of floral pattern work.


This perhaps is part of the appeal of the floral. Whatever the situation of the human world, whether it be contemplative or material, benign or oppressive, compassionate or aggressive in character, the relationship with nature has always been constantly present, a relationship that we are all intrinsically aware of. Therefore, floral pattern work within the context of surface pattern is a form of comfort, an old friend if you will. The diversity and plenitude of the natural world in both colour and style has always intrigued us and intrigued the designer especially. Illustration: Printed textile design, 1849. The sheer range of styles, produced on an individual and cultural level and over endless generations, from a seemingly simplistic source material, the flower, is near beyond contemplation. It has never really failed to appeal and will very likely continue into the future of our species as long as we are aware that we have an intrinsic and practical connection with nature, and even if that is lost through various forms of high urban living, the memory of the relationship with nature, the flower, colour and form will no doubt linger for many generations, even though the original inspiration may well be forgotten and the real practical relationship severed.


In a practical sense, we have used the floral motif as a pattern base because it is attractive and adaptable. It serves a seemingly endless source of variation which helps to overcome the problem of endless copies in the same format. However, the use of the floral motif goes much deeper than contemporary short-term practicalities. It is a part of who we are, it is our connection with our past and with the planet around us. It constantly reiterates our place and our role as a natural species in a natural world. 


Originally Published in the Textile Blog