Since the beginning of the Christian Era, the West imported silk from China and Persia. Under Justinian, the processing of this yarn came to Byzantium, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, a city with whom Venice had a strong trading relationship.
Venice had gained special privileges from Byzantium, such as the freedom of tax-free trading of all sorts of goods from the East. For this reason, it had the exclusive right to import luxury products such as spices, ivory and silk fabrics.
In addition to the trade of fine fabrics, local production of raw silk and its weaving later started, even if initially limited to simple patterns, without any embroidery.
Silk weaving techniques improved through time thanks to contact with other civilisations, mainly Chinese and Arabic, that had already been processing the fine yarn for centuries.
In particular, some fundamental processes for the production of clothes of gold were revealed to the local craftsmen by Antinope, an expert Greek weaver. He arrived in Venice with the court of the emperor Henry IV, who went there at the end of the XI century to venerate the relics of St. Mark’s body.
It is said that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire fell in love with the noblewoman Polissena Michiel during his stay in Venice and he wanted to gift her with a beautiful silk and gold robe. For its realisation, he commissioned Antinope who, employing local artisans, taught them the technique.
Another important contribution dates back to 1269 when the Polo brothers returned to Venice from their first journey to China. From this country they brought back several goods and fabrics, introducing Venice to certain technical weaving solutions and the typical Chinese decorations with plants and animals.
During the 1300s, there was a change in the decorating style, which left behind the old patterns, very regular and symmetrical, and started experimenting with lively and realistic images, decorated with botanic elements. Traditional Chinese allegorical symbols were adopted, including the lotus flower and leaves, the peony and fantastic animals, together with those of Christian symbolism such as the calf, the peacock and the parakeet, with vegetable connecting elements.
Also, the numerous skilful weavers who went to the Laguna from Lucca, between 1307 and 1320, largely contributed to the development of the Venetian silk art, especially regarding velvet making, of which they were true masters.
At the end of the 14th century, Venice witnessed the rise of velvet becoming one of the most requested luxurious fabrics. In particular, there was a type of decorated velvet called “afigurado”, in which the decoration is characterised by strong chromatic combinations and oriental elements such as the jagged leaf or the crowned palm frond. Artists like Jacopo Bellini and Pisanello contributed to the creation of such decorations.
A typical Venetian speciality was the alto-basso or controtagliato: a velvet, generally of an intense scarlet red with a surface made of various levels of thickness, decorated with concentric roses alternated vertically and horizontally with heraldic crowns sustained by the junction of two twisted branches.
This velvet, which remained unchanged for four centuries, became the status symbol of the highest social and political classes; the stoles worn by senators and the state prosecutor were made with it.
In the Elizabethan era of history, levels of comfort significantly increased. Heavy curtains were draped over bedheads and around four poster beds to prevent drafts. Mantelpiece drapes were also very popular, and all types of draperies became more and more elaborate - even for windows. Tall windows were framed with window headings, deep swags and tails. These were often heavily trimmed, surrounded by intricate wooden cornices.
Upholstery fabrics for sofas started to catch on and became popular in great English houses. Upholstered settees were ordered so that multiple people could sit together in comfort, and this became the prototype for the modern-day sofa. Upholstery were then materials used in the craft of covering, padding, and stuffing seating and bedding. The earliest upholsterers, from early Egyptian times to the beginning of the Renaissance, nailed animal skins or dressed leather across a rigid framework. They slowly developed the craft to include cushions, padding, and pillows—stuffed with such materials as goose down feathers and horsehair.
The medieval upholsterer, who was primarily concerned with fabrics, made mattresses and hangings. In the 17th century beds were draped with sumptuous fabrics and ornate trimmings; as these beddings became less fashionable, chairs and sofas were in turn elaborately upholstered with velvet, silks, and needlework.
Springs, which permitted soft, bulky shapes, were first used by upholsterers in the 18th century; helical by the mid-19th century, they were later flattened for maximum resiliency. Upholstery techniques were revolutionized in the 20th century with the introduction of molded sponge rubber, dirt and liquid retardants, plywood, naugahyde, and synthetic fibres, which created new springing, cushioning, and covering materials.
At the same time, furnishing textiles underwent substantial changes, as well: during the 1600s, windows had a single curtain, usually made of saye, a typically English woollen fabric, very often green. Besides, cloths were laid on tables and upholstered chairs had covers made of leather, needlework or a “Turkey-work” woollen fabric, owing this name to its motifs, similar to Turkish carpets.
During the Elizabethan Era, to accomodate large Elizabethan skirts, the farthingale chair was introduced - a chair without arms with a piece of leather stretched across the back and nailed on each side. Elizabethan upholstering materials included: leather, brocade or embroidered cloth, and velvet trimmed with a heavy fringe. Stuffing could be anything from sawdust, grass or feathers, or deer, goat and horse hair.
Sofas still didn’t exist before now - seats for more than one person were usually benches that could be pushed against the wall.
Renaissance style (14th to 17th century)
Belive it or not, upholstery took a while to catch on - anything slightly comfortable was often disregarded and was felt to be effeminate. Jacobean furniture was still similar to Elizabethan, with a few adjustments along the way. Furniture was still made from oak, and blocky due to the carpenters using carpentry tools to make it.
Renaissance furniture was first produced in Italy during the 15th century. Trade brought wealth to Italy, and the growing bourgeoisie was able to afford better and bigger housing. Also, they significantly increased the demand for high-quality furniture.
The Italian style of furniture also spread to other parts of Europe. Craftsmen from other countries traveled to Italy to learn its form and techniques, and some Italian makers were invited to other European nations by the local courts. In many places, the designs were adapted to better suit the local taste and requirements.
In the 18th century, though, people preferred to protect their luxury upholstery fabrics and to uncover them only on special occasions, with tough and usually check-patterned covers. Window curtains became two for each window and were woollen, red or green, though the single curtain was reintroduced toward the end of the century. It was made of wool, a mixture of cotton and linen or, in the wealthiest houses, of damasked silk, and often had blue and white stripes.
With Charles II on the throne, the Puritan regime ended, and the decorative arts began to flourish in England. People were getting used to the comfort of upholstered furniture, and the first fully upholstered chair was built in 1705. This chair was referred to as a “sleeping chayre” - you could rest your head on either the sides or the back. Daybeds grew in popularity and custom cushions were everywhere.
Tapestry and fabric factories began to spring up in London and Paris, and the upholstery business began to boom.
Silk damask, wool moreen, elaborate embroidery were used more and more in upholstery. Cushions were made of horsehair with linen lining and down. Beds were one of the most upholstered pieces in the house: bedsteads were totally covered in soft fabrics such as velvet.
The age of the designer
By now, upholstery was very much integrated into the furniture-making process, and as comfort improved, the drop-in seat was invented. This meant that the seat could be upholstered in any fabric. Designers selected which colours and fabrics to use, which set the trends and colour palettes for the season. The Age of The Designer had begun.
Louis XVI’s chairs were upholstered in pastel blues, pinks, and yellows. Thomas Chippendale’s camelback sofas were some of the first to be completely upholstered, except for exposed legs. George Hepplewhite published a book to offer guidance in interior design, colour palettes, and how to arrange a room. His seats were overstuffed, finished with brass nailheads, and covered in fine haircloths and silk.
Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras, the furniture industry flourished, and standards of workmanship improved. While prices were still extremely high and only available to nobility during the early history of upholstery, great craftsmen were honing their trade and creating entirely new pieces.
Victorian opulence reigned supreme in the 19th Century. Two major innovations brought about modern upholstery. The first was the steam powered engine, which provided cheap power to machine looms so that machine woven fabrics could be mass produced. The second was the steel coil spring, which revoultionised seat cushions.
Bold, Rococco revival styles were popular - rich, jewel-coloured upholstery such as velvet, was paired with gilded, painted, or black lacquer frames. Shiny silks, leather and brocades featured button tufting. Cornucopia-armed sofas often featured matching, upholstered round cushions on either end. Fringing and tassels were used with abandon.
The 19th century saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, with innovations like machine-woven fabrics, chemical dyes, and of much brighter colours on wallpapers and textiles. The birth of printed cotton, the “chintz”, meant a widespread of linings and curtains with floral patterns on a light-coloured ground. But this, as paintings prove, was the century of red velvet upholsteries, too.
And if in the 1930s the colours of interior textiles were soft, with no or only a simple pattern, from the 1960s the motifs of upholstery fabrics became outlandish and vividly coloured. From the Eighties, though, carpets and curtains began to disappear. The introduction of steel coil springs and other modernizations made higher-quality furniture possible for more people at a more affordable price.
And the Geffrye Museum has managed to sum all of this up… and even a lot more.
20th century style
Styles from Mission to Art Deco and Mid Century Modern were born. The invention of Nylon was a durable alternative to silk - resistant to normal wear and tear that affected more traditional upholstery. Other inventions, from bent steel to fiberglass to molded foam cores, revolutionised furniture design and brought about many of the modern designs in furniture we still see today.
As innovation in technology drives innovation, upholstery and furnishing fabrics become more sophisticated, beautiful, functional and durable.
Check out our full range of designer fabrics here.
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