Books: William Morris and creating a social fabric

An indispensable book on Morris’s revolutionary cloth designs and techniques—and the political views that inspired them


Linda Parry’s revised edition of William Morris Textiles is the culmination of more than 30 years of careful research and hands-on experience with the works of Morris & Co in Parry’s former position of deputy keeper of the department of furniture, textiles and fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The resulting work is as detailed and as satisfying as one of Morris’s designs. Today we are used to Morris’s doves, daffodils and daisies appearing on everything from tea-cozies to Doc Marten boots, but as Parry reminds us, Morris made bold aesthetic and political statements through these embroideries, printed and woven cloths and intricate tapestries. His attempts to produce “genuine goods”, using natural materials, where handiwork was as important as machine production, still seem relevant in 2013. Morris’s coherent and radical rethinking of Victorian textiles becomes clear when familiar designs such as “Strawberry Thief” and “Willow Bough” are seen together here in superb colour reproduction.

As Parry acknowledges, Morris’s private life is intimately bound up with his public enterprises, but refreshingly the usual tales of Pre-Raphaelite sexual intrigue are absent here. What does come across clearly is Morris’s own voice, from his letters, lectures and personal notes. His enthusiasm and tireless energy in the pursuit of producing ever more beautiful and useful objects shines through the text, like the rich and glowing silks woven through one of his tapestries. This primary material is skilfully combined with clear explanations and descriptions of the materials and processes involved in textile production, from developing the perfect indigo dye to the complex method for setting up a tapestry loom. A fascinating chapter covers the business and retail operations of Morris & Co.

Parry also makes a case for the social significance of these textiles as she traces Morris’s influence on his complex networks of friends, patrons and employees. Neither idealising nor criticising Morris for his pragmatic approach to socialism, Parry shows how the operations of Morris & Co demonstrated to manufacturers that there was a profitable alternative to sweatshop conditions. At the same time, she does not shy away from describing Morris’s entrepreneurial ambitions or pointing out that many of his workers, some of them teenagers, did suffer from the long hours they spent crouched by the loom. Parry is equally evenhanded in her discussion of Morris’s work for aristocratic patrons, such as the Howard family, or large companies like the Orient shipping line. The opulent effect of these expensive commissions comes to life in wonderful contemporary photographs, showing the textiles in situ. As Parry points out, Morris was open about the high prices his textiles commanded and the elite audiences they were aimed at, stating that this enabled him to pay his workers a fair wage.

Experiments with dyes

It goes without saying that a book devoted to Morris’s designs is beautiful, but it is also an incredibly useful resource. With biographies of the key personalities involved with Morris & Co, reproductions of Morris’s preparatory sketches and notes from his experiments with dyes, and a chronological catalogue, which notes where both samples of the textile and the original design are held, this book will be invaluable to collectors of Arts and Crafts textiles, to researchers and students of design history and even to the artists and designers of today. I would recommend reading this book alongside Fiona MacCarthy’s magisterial biography, William Morris: a Life for Our Time, to gain a rounded understanding of Morris’s full and varied life, but one can imagine him entirely approving of the work and detail that has gone into this indispensable volume.

o Linda Parry, William Morris Textiles, V&A Publishing, 304pp, £35 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Creating a social fabric'