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Telling the tale of Rayon Revolution

Bradford School of Art helped tell the story of a revolution in textiles when it appeared on BBC Two’s A House Through Time.

The Textile Archive in Bradford College’s Lister Building was the setting for a segment of the hugely popular TV show. Design historian Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan told the story of Percival Edgar King, a chemist for the Courtaulds fabric and clothing manufacturer which became the world’s leading man-made fibre production company.

The programme explained how viscose, a man-made fibre, was created by extracting cellulose from wood pulp. It was then treated with caustic soda, followed by carbon disulphide.

Courtaulds bought the patents and licences for the process of creating this material, otherwise known as rayon, in 1904. The company opened the first rayon factory in Coventry a year later.

Glamour for the masses

This new type of silk brought “glamour to the masses.” Instead of silk being available only to wealthy women, clothes made from the luxury material were accessible to ordinary people.

Viewers watched as Professor Sugg Ryan examined samples and garments held in the archive, including a dressing gown. She explained how rayon quickly became the predominant fabric for women’s ready to wear clothing.

Helen Farrar is Curator of Bradford College Textile Archive and Dye House Gallery. She said: “We have some fabulous early rayon fabrics in our collections.”

The archive holds fabrics designed and made by students at Bradford Technical College, which was set up in the 19th century to educate Bradford’s growing textile workforce.

Helen said: “Our students were designing and weaving rayon by 1911 – maybe earlier.”

The archive has samples of rayon fabrics dating from before the First World War. Helen said: “Obviously, the earlier ones are union cloths – a different fibre for the warp – but we also have many student 1920s & 30s two-colour piece-dyed 100% rayons.”

Samples of textiles produced by students from the Bradford Textile Archive

More than a century of design history

The archive also holds a Bradford Technical College Yarn Book with two ranges of Courtaulds dyed rayons, dated 1907.

Helen added: “We hold massive pattern books of paper designs, some with woven samples from local rayon designers Hind Robinson dating to 1917 and 1919.” There are also books and samples from Driver Bros and Driver Hartley, rayons from the Society of Dyers & Colourists Collection and 1940s and 50s international samples collected by James Cleveland Belle of the Cotton Board.

About Bradford Textile Archive

Students at Bradford School of Art, part of Bradford College, have access to the Textile Archive, a fascinating source of textiles dating back to the 18th century. From tiny calico prints from the 1780s to bold 1950s designs, 1850s crinoline fabrics to figured gauze fabrics from 1900, the archive is an incredible record of fashions and trends from more than 150 years.

Fabric sample books, student workbooks from the mid to late Victorian period, textbooks, journals and other printed publications also feature in the collection.

A Fashion student at work

Bradford School of Art

For over 100 years the Bradford School of Art has provided an inspiring, illuminating, and supportive learning environment for budding artists, designers, musicians, performers and other creative professionals.

As well as a wide selection of Further Education courses, we have been providing an extensive range of Higher Education courses for over 35 years. These include foundation degrees, Bachelor’s degrees, and postgraduate degrees. Our Further Education courses enable students to progress onto degrees, and our Higher Education courses prepare students for employment in the arts and creative industries sector.

From Art and Design to Fashion, and Performing Arts to Media Make-up with Special Effects, our students have access to state-of-the-art facilities that include industry standard music studios, photography suites, a TV studio, and fully-sprung floor dance studio.


Published: 11th October 2021


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