patternbooth goes to the archives

I've been a fan of The Design Centre archive at Philidelphia University since I first came across its brilliant tumblr site.  I thought it would be interesting to find out more, so I caught up with Sarah Moore the curator at the archive... 

patternbooth:  Tell me about the archive, how did it come to exist at the university? 

sarah:  The Historic Textile and Fashion Archive at The Design Center was established in 1976, during Philadelphia University’s tenure as Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science.

Many of our objects were utilized as teaching tools by professors during the university’s 129-year history. Professors wanted to share their personal collections with everyone, so they were consolidated in the 1970s.

We have student produced samples dating back to the early years of the university.

Other objects have been donated to the collection by private donors.

patternbooth:  How far back does the archive go? 

sarah:  The oldest objects in the collection are pre-Columbian wovens from Peru. The newest object is a 1999 beaded gown designed by Todd Oldham.

He donated the dress to The Design Center when he curated the exhibit Oddities in our galleries in 2001.

patternbooth:  What is the archive used for? 

sarah:  Our collection is used to teach and inspire. Students from design disciplines at Philadelphia University and other area universities visit the collection for research every semester.

We also work with industry partners in the textile and fashion industry.

Additionally, we loan our objects out for exhibition.

Most recently, a few of our 1920s accessories were on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for the exhibit American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

patternbooth:  What are the challenges of maintaining the archive? 

sarah:  The archive is very large, over 200,000 objects in total, and varies from 1950s Pierre Balmain ballgowns to spinning wheels to delicately embroidered kimonos to the swatches we feature on our Tumblr.

All of our objects are stored in the former residence of Goldie Paley, a 1955 California case study style house overlooking the Wissahickon Park.

With the entire rear of the house being floor-to-ceiling glass, we must monitor light, temperature, and humidity conditions to keep our objects safe for the next generation.

patternbooth:  Tell us about your role? Do you come at this from a textile background or that of an archivist? 

sarah:  I come from both a design and an archivist background. As an undergraduate, I studied Fashion Merchandising and Fabric Design at the University of Georgia.  I took a history of costume class, and it opened up a whole new world to me, one outside of the fashion industry.  I had never considered the intersection of museums and fashion until that course. My history of costume professor, Patricia Hunt-Hurst, encouraged me to attend the University of Rhode Island, where I studied Historic Fashion and Textiles with an emphasis in curation. 

Prior to coming to Philadelphia University, I gained museum experience working in textile collections at Rough Point mansion in Newport, RI and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. I wear many hats in my duties at The Design Center.  One day I may be hosting a class tour for our fashion and textile design students, and the next I may be at a local gallery setting up an exhibit about our swatch cards.  

patternbooth:  What have you noticed about the evolution of print and pattern? 

sarah:  With generous funding from the Barra Foundation, we have digitized and cataloged over 9,000 textile swatches this year. Our digital database Tapestry will debut later this year, and users will be able to search by motif, fiber, year, and manufacturer. Most of the swatches digitized during this project date from 1880 to about 1915.

The most interesting evolution our staff has noticed during the cataloging process is the difference between European and American prints during this period.

The European textiles often have complex repeat patterns – ribbons, vines, vermicular - where as the American prints are usually simpler half-drop repeats.

I find this interesting as Philadelphia University was founded as Philadelphia Textile School in 1884. When the Philadelphia textile manufacturing community viewed the sophisticated textiles from Europe at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, they realized the need for an institution to promote quality textile design in America.  The samples we have been cataloging are the types of samples from Europe that early Philadelphia University students would have studied. 

patternbooth:  The variety is mind boggling.  How do you make sense of it? 

sarah:  I am always completely amazed at the variety of textile patterns that we have.

Some of my favorites are the conversational patterns from the late 19th century that include anything from hogs jumping over hurdles to whimsical fruit prints. Our weekly columns, Wardrobe Wednesday and the newly introduced Furniture Friday, help to make sense of our historic collection in relation to contemporary fashion and interior design.

patternbooth:  What does the future hold for the archive? 

sarah:  The debut of our online databaseTapestry that will make our swatch collection globally accessible on smartphones, tablets, and computers is our next step.

The initial site will include 9,000 Victorian-era prints and 1960s Jacquard samples.

With our newly developed platform for our digital collection, we hope to expand past this initial amount with more swatches and three-dimensional objects in the coming months and years.

patternbooth:  Does the archive have a dream? 

sarah:  The Design Center’s dream is to have one of the largest online pattern databases and continue to inspire designers, students, and aficionados of design, locally and globally, as we have for the past four decades. We would love to collaborate with other cultural institutions and design teams as we grow.

I thoroughly recommend putting aside an hour, a day, a week, to explore the archive, it really is full of pattern treasure.  If you want to visit the archive at it's tumblr site then you can click the link here