From now until January, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will display the museum’s own collection of Renaissance textile pattern books in the lower level of the Robert Lehman Wing. Rediscovered in 2011, the Met’s collection of first-edition Renaissance textile pattern books is third-largest in the world and encompasses over 65 of about 120 books published in the time period.
The textile pattern books are on display as part of “Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution,” a larger exhibit at the Met that combines printed pattern books, drawings, textile samples, costumes, paintings, and other works of art to explore the influence of Renaissance textile pattern books on the history of fashion. In addition to loans from other museums worldwide, the exhibit includes objects from different branches within the Met, such as the Costume Institute and the Departments of Medieval and Islamic Art.
The books are particularly fascinating because they were made when the invention of the printing press allowed for the mass circulation of non-religious texts for the first time. Although embroidery had already become ubiquitous among women of all social classes by the late Middle Ages, the first textile pattern book was not published until 1523. From then on, publishers all over Europe scrambled to copy the genre and to assemble the most interesting designs for their readers, introducing Islamic patterns such as moresques to Renaissance fashion in the process.
“I chose the period—these first hundred years—of this show because that’s the time of experimentation. They go from basically no precedent to a type of book and pattern-making that is still in use today,” curator Femke Speelberg told Spectator in an interview. “It is really the first time that fashion and identity through design comes through in book production.”
In reference to the word “virtue” in the name of the exhibit, Speelberg highlighted the important position that needlework occupied in the Renaissance.
“Needlework was seen as the most virtuous thing a woman could do at the time,” Speelberg said, citing the Virgin Mary and Penelope as religious and mythological origins for the motif. “At the same time, book publishers were clever [in that] they used the word ‘virtue’ in parallel with virtuosity. They said that if a woman applied herself to needlework she could measure the greatest sculptors and architects and painters of the time, [which] really propell[ed] women to excel in their work.”
Although it focuses on the 16th and 17th centuries, the exhibit also features a selection of modern fashion garments from the Met’s Costume Institute, including vintage Ralph Lauren sweaters and traditional Russian robes.
“When I really started working on [the books] and I had all these patterns in my head, I started seeing them everywhere on the streets. People are still wearing them today—it is the same type of patterns,” Speelberg said. “I noticed that in all types of ethnic cultures around the world, we see the same type of patterns popping up, which says something about how people design fabric designs … but also that these pattern books therefore still have a lot of relevance today and we can still take a lot of inspiration from them.”
In an effort to aid this creative process, the Met digitized over 2,000 textile patterns from the exhibit into the museum database. Full electronic versions of featured pattern books are available on iPads in the gallery. Speelberg hopes that modern textile designers will be able to derive inspiration from the patterns and work with them in the future.
“The patterns change with fashion, but the wand for that kind of ideas … that is how designers still work, so it is really reflective of the artistic creativity in the process,” Speelberg said.
“Fashion and Virtue: Textile Patterns and the Print Revolution, 1520-1620” opens Oct. 20, 2015, and runs until Jan. 10, 2016, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.