Wonder and Dread (5): A Victorian fashion craze
The first time I visited Bradford was during the 2016 Saltaire Arts Trail, when I was invited to show a few of my textile industry-inspired works in the foyer of Salts Mill. Salts Mill blew my mind - everything is on such a large scale, and its history is quite extraordinary: from the mid-19th century vertically integrated, hugely successful
worsted mill plus model village (Saltaire) to empty and almost derelict in the 1980s, to a thriving arts and business complex today thanks to Jonathan and Maggie Silver who bought the run-down site in 1987. (Jim Greenhalf's book "Salt and Silver" includes a good overview of the history).
View of (a part of) Salts Mill from the Leeds-Liverpool canal.
But what really intrigued me was hearing what made Salts Mill such a success in the 1850s: The owner, Titus Salt, had figured out how to spin Peruvian alpaca fibre into fine yarns that could be used to make upmarket dress fabrics. This intrigued me for two reasons: One, this was another global textile supply chain just waiting to be investigated. Two, I couldn't quite put "alpaca" and "upmarket dress fabrics" together. I associated alpaca more with woolly jumpers than with crinoline dresses!
That latter mystery resolved itself when I saw Salts Mill's 1853 sample book of alpaca/silk "lustre" fabrics, at the time exhibited at Bradford's Cartwright Hall.
Front cover of the 1853 Salts alpaca/silk same book. Collection of Bradford Industrial Museum
These were extremely fine dress fabrics with alpaca wefts on silk warps. This combination created the famous lustre effect - not full-on shiny and "hard" like silk, but soft and lustrous. And by combining black, cream or brown alpaca yarn with often extremely brightly coloured silks you get different shades of colour depending on the light. An ideal fabric for the crinoline dresses fashionable at the time, which would show off the fabric's shades and effects to maximum advantage. Many fabrics had beautiful woven patterns that enhanced the play of colour shades in the light even further. The very opposite of woolly jumpers.
So how did Titus Salt get into Peruvian alpaca? Dickens's famous account - that Salt found some bales of Alpaca gathering dust in a warehouse in Liverpool and that the brokers couldn't believe their luck when he actually wanted to buy them - is actually only half the story. At the time manufacturers were always coming up with new fabric creations and looking for different wools all around the world (e.g. Russian mohair or Turkish angora), so it is not surprising that a British agent thought it worthwhile importing some alpaca from Peru, and that Titus Salt had a go at processing it. He was not the first one to have that idea, but he was by far the most successful.
Also, the - possibly speculative - first import of alpaca fibre has to be seen in the context that for most of the 19th century, Britain was Peru's largest trading partner for both imports and exports. Top British exports were textiles - when Salt took over his father's mill in 1833, British textiles already dominated the Peruvian market and the
trade routes between the countries were well established. Returning from Peru, British ships were importing Peruvian precious metals, cotton, wool, saltpetre and, from the mid-19th century, a whole lot of guano.
Alpaca proved quite tricky to process but Salt persevered, apparently locking himself up for 18 months until he had the results he wanted. It was worth it: his alpaca/silk lustre fabrics took the fashion world by storm. He had created a huge demand for a new product that no-one even knew they wanted (a bit like Steve Job's iPhone).
Apart from looking amazing, the fabrics were also cheaper than pure silk, didn't crease easily (great for travel!) and repelled water drops without leaving stains (great for English weather!). What was not to like? Salts also did another line where alpaca yarn was woven on coloured cotton warps - not as lustrous but of course cheaper.
The lustre fabric craze lasted into the 1870s. Between 1836 and 1876 the annual export value of Peruvian alpaca fibre soared from £4,465 to over £ 3.1 million (due to much larger volumes but also higher prices). But even later on alpaca dresses were still quite common, especially for travel wear.
Post-1870 travel costumes from Bradford Industrial Museum's collection, showing the lustre effect of Alpaca fabric.
At Cartwright Hall I could just see the one opened page of the 1853 sample book but that was enou/gh to inspire me to make artwork related to Salt's lustre fabrics. But of course I wanted to see the whole book. Conveniently, at the time of my next visit to Bradford the Cartwright Hall display had changed and the book had gone back into storage at Bradford Industrial Museum (BIM) . So I spent a happy day at the archives of BIM looking at the sample book, as well as some costumes made out of alpaca (mix) fabrics. I didn't have a clue what to do with this information yet, but hey - that would come later.