Patterns and textiles are all around us at all times, to the point where they have become background noise. However, do you ever stop and wonder where they came from and how they were made? It may surprise you to learn that most of the common patterns you see today have incredibly tumultuous pasts and were so frequently co-opted and assimilated by multiple cultures that they have, over time, lost their significant and fascinating origin stories. Even the advance in textile manufacturing technology resulted in surprising societal upheavals. While today new technologies might be debated in the media, in centuries past they caused such stupendous upsets as to result in physical acts of rebellion.
Read on to find out the strange and shocking history of five of the world’s most ubiquitous patterns and textiles: tartan, polka dots, zigzags, jacquard, and fleur-de-lis.
“I do swear never to use any tartan, plaid, or any part of the Highland garb; and if I do so, may I be cursed in my undertakings, family, and property – may I never see my wife and children, father, mother, and other relations – may I be killed in battle as a coward…may all this come across me if I break my oath.” This strongly worded pledge was part of the Disarming Act of 1746, which England decreed in order to squash the Scottish Jacobite rebellion. Tartan’s troubled history is shocking to consider, because now the pattern is so common that we wouldn’t think twice about wearing it, but, in centuries past, people gave their lives for the right to wear their family tartans. Since wearing tartan is associated with acts of rebellion, it makes sense that this pattern became a staple of the punk movement and a frequent centerpiece in Alexander McQueen’s more challenging collections.
Dozens of cultures claim the polka dot – from the Bushmen of Southern Africa and the Asante people of Ghana to the polka-crazed youth of Europe in the 1830s. However, one of the polka dot’s strangest origin stories has to do with “patching”, which means the polka-dot pattern essentially began as a purposefully applied “dot” on the face that was meant to mimic beauty marks. This obsession swept Europe and Asia and became a source of vanity for many women. To this day, we still associate facial moles with signifiers of great natural beauty, as in the case of Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford. It’s bizarre to think that natural moles were transmuted into facial patches for vanity’s sake and then later became associated with the polka-dot pattern.
The zigzag pattern began its existence as a means of warding off evil spirits, as the zigzag’s jagged borders were thought to resemble a wolf’s teeth. Therefore, women in Eastern Europe began to stitch zigzag patterns onto their shawls to protect themselves from harm. In the Arab world, the zigzag is a common sight, as many Arabic textiles are inscribed with triangular patterns, which regional culture also ascribed protective properties to. The zigzag is also found often in Islamic architecture.
Hold on to your seats, because the history of jacquard is crazy. When the jacquard loom was invented in the early 1800s, it was so efficient that it displaced thousands of weavers, whose previous jobs as “drawboys” were rendered obsolete by the jacquard loom’s new weaving mechanisms. This sparked outrage among the weaving community. In 1812, the infuriated weavers joined Ned Ludd (famous for starting the Luddite movement that resisted the changes brought on by new technologies during the Industrial Revolution), and together they destroyed wool and cotton mills in order to repress the use of the jacquard loom. Their act of defiance is also what gave us the word “sabotage” as they used clogs or “sabots” to destroy the mechanical looms.
Where did the fleur-de-lis come from? No one knows. In fact, its mysterious origins are part of the pattern’s fascinating story. In the Treatise on Heraldry, Michel Pastoureau wrote that the feur-de-lis was “common to all epochs, in every civilization. It is an essentially graphic theme found on Mesopotamian cylinders, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenaean potteries, Sassanian textiles, Gaulish coins, Mamluk coins, Indonesian cloths, Japanese emblems, and Dogon totems.” What is even stranger than its appearance across a multitude of cultures is that the pattern seemed to appear simultaneously across ancient civilizations that had no means of communicating with one another or of affecting one another’s culture. We know it as the national symbol of France, but truly the fleur-de-lis seems to belong to no one and everyone at the same time.
Promo Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree