supplier Liberty Fabrics
For over 140 years, Liberty Fabrics has been synonymous with vibrant colour and vivid, imaginative prints. The company began as a small fabric shop on Regent Street in London, offering a stock of exotic fabrics sourced from around Asia: soft wools from Kashmir, fine lightweight cottons from India, and beautiful hand-painted silks form China and Japan. Increasingly, the company concentrated on importing plain textiles which were dyed and hand-printed in England. Most of these patterns were reproductions of floral prints that had been acquired from the East.
As trade developed, Liberty had its own fabrics woven in the UK and the
company commissioned some of the most distinguished artists and
designers of the time to create prints for its textiles. Many of them
were linked to the new Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau movements, and
their use of organic and floral motifs was so influential around 1900
that it gave name to ‘The Liberty Style’ in Italy and also laid the
foundations of a new aesthetic that is still perceived as
quintessentially ‘English’: quirky, floral, innovative but familiar.
The romantic all-over designs that have become a signature for Liberty Fabrics – featuring intricate patterns on a light background, with fruits, flowers and foliage in bright shades – often date back to the 1930s and 1960s and continue to be a source of inspiration for today’s Design Studio, which is located at the Liberty & Co department store in Soho. The Liberty archives contain about 50,000 files from the 1880s onward including original pattern books, swatch books, artworks, garments and fabrics.
Story Libery Fabrics
The archives of Liberty London contain almost 50,000 files and have been kept since the company started producing its first pattern books in the 1880s. They serve as an extensive and constant source of new inspiration but also help maintain the brand’s unique handwriting through the decades.
‘The archive is an amazing library of imagery with corresponding information about the individual designs. In some cases, we know the name of the person who made them; there’s information on the date of creation and production, how many colours were used, what category it fits into, whether it’s floral or stripe; it might talk about blossom or leaves, and if you can identify the flowers or objects, you would add that as well: carnations, cars, roses, or polka dots,’ says Liberty archivist Eleonora Yerolemou.
The archive serves three main purposes. One is for copyright; another is for historical reasons, to provide materials for research and exhibitions. But the most important, says Head of Design Mary-Ann Dunkley, is for inspiration.
‘This is a living and breathing archive. We really do work from it as opposed to buying vintage fabrics for inspiration. But even if a design originally comes from the archive it’s typically redrawn, reworked, and certainly recoloured in our studio. It can often take longer to redo a design than to create new artwork. We may also take an archive piece and look at its layout and flow but put new flowers onto it. We try to keep a record of anything we use for inspiration, so we always have a link back to the archive.’
Many of the tens of thousands of archive designs were block-printed or screen-printed at Liberty’s original print works in Merton, south of London. The factory belonged to the company until the early 1970s and had been hand-printing Liberty fabrics for almost 100 years. Today’s fabrics are made using both traditional screen printing and digital technology in Liberty’s factory outside Milan, Italy.
‘Some of our old archive fabrics are very detailed – small florals and paisleys – and represent something we couldn’t actually print today. It’s fascinating to see that even though we’ve got all this technology at our fingertips, they could create something back then with such an enormous amount of detail and colour. The weave and penetration of the fabric is still something that we sort of gasp at,’ says Head of Design Mary-Ann Dunkley.
‘What is distinguishing for Liberty is the solid link from the
archive, to the design studio, to the printers. In most places you go
and source interesting things but then take it away from that place
and develop it on your own. There’s a kind of disconnect in a way.
What works so well for us is that we have this process between all of
us; there’s quality through all steps of the development of a pattern.
The fact that we have one of the biggest textile archives in Britain
influences a special aesthetic.’