Floral motifs in textile design through centuries

Posted by Weronika Rosa on

Floral patterns have appeared in decorative arts since ancient times and play a vital role in the creative processes of fabric production. Inspired by the shapes, colours, and textures of the botanical world, artists and craftsmen from around the globe have copied and interpreted the flora through centuries. 

Brocade, 18th c., Fondazione Antonio Ratti collection


Thanks to the scientific expeditions and development of the trade of exotic plants in 17th c., lavishly illustrated herbaria were created and became models for hand embroidery. At this time, we can observe a significant development of gardening and rapidly growing consideration of flowers. Floral still lifes became a popular genre in painting and imitation of natural blooms were applied as the major motifs on fabrics. 

In the 18th c. the flowers remain the main inspiration for patterns and motifs. Designers competed and inspired one another with imaginative combinations of flowers, branches, seedlings, crowns or bouquets creating diversified compositions. All the fabrics that I have seen in the most famous stores in Paris were superb and magnificent for their [...] simplicity, a beautiful selection and a great verisimilitude of the flowers, wrote Nicolas Joubert de l'Hiberderie, author of a handbook for the textile designers. In that period, a flower also means a new fabric. This shared terminology shows that the fashion and flowers were henceforth joined in the textile industry. 

Italian brocade, 1749 – 1760, Fondazione Antonio Ratti collection


Towards the half of the century, the exuberance of the 1730s gave ways to more calligraphic forms and delicate colours. The characteristic curves of nature define the stylised floral shapes and become compositional standards in the so-called meander drawings. Meawhile, advances in chemical knowledge of the process of dyeing (summarised in 1763 in Art de teinture en soie), provided the textile industry with new colours, enhancing the ability to simulate the chromatic variety of the vegetal kingdom.  

In the second half of the 19th c. the Industrial Revolution had led to high levels of standardisation with mass production, considered by many to be of low quality and dubious aesthetic value. The floral decoration was wide-spread in Western Europe, following a new romantic model of femininity. The spread of printed floral illustrations and advances in technology allowed a wide variety of decorative solutions in the textile industry.

Project of floral motif, 1895-96, Chavent Père & Fils, Fondazione Antonio Ratti collection


The Arts&Crafts movement and Art Nouveau rejected the growing mechanisation and aimed to preserve the beauty of art and handicraft. In both tendencies the flowers are a predominant element.

Through the centuries, the patterns were strongly influenced by the limitations of textile ennobling, dyeing and printing. The first successful method of transferring designs to textiles was that of wood-block printing, introduced in Europe in 17th c. This could produce detailed designs, but required the preparation of individual blocks to print each colour separately. Smaller areas of colour were often hand-painted. The introduction of manual screen printing in 1930s rapidly occupied a prominent place in the production of printed textiles. But a revolutionary transformation came with the Digital Textile Printing introduced to the fashion industry in the late 1980s.

Project of floral motif, 1924, Chavent Père & Fils, Fondazione Antonio Ratti collection
While we have seen big trends come and go, floral applications and prints were always timeless. Until today, the kingdom of flowers, with its diversity of colours and shapes, continues to inspire fashion designers and textile creators.



The Metropolitan Museum of Arthttps://www.metmuseum.org

Victoria & Albert Museum, https://www.vam.ac.uk

Fondazione Antonio Ratti, https://fondazioneratti.org

The Mint Museum, https://mintmuseum.org/

Drusilla Cole, Un siècle de motifs (2009)

Giardini de Seta, tessuti, abiti e botanica del territorio lariano, Fondazione Antonio Ratti (2015)


All the presented textiles are from the FAR collection.


← Older Post Newer Post →