English Royalty

English Royalty

To my readers:  Sometimes life gets in the way and that is certainly what happened when I promised this blog on Liberty fabrics two months ago!  But better late than never…we’ll be introducing another Liberty print to the web store next week…watch for a discounted price…we got a great deal!

A shop is part of the social history of its environment — In Liberty’s case, of London.  Its development is influenced by changes in social pressures, class patterns, governmental policies.  It is affected by wars and depressions, by trade booms and enemy bombs, by changes in fashion and taste.  What gives Liberty’s its peculiar distinction is that it has not only reflected these changes, but has itself contributed to artisitc movements and the development of fashionable taste.  Arthur Lasenby Liberty told his artist and designer friends that , if he could only have a shop of his own, he would change the whole look of fashion in dress and interior decorations.  He got his shop, and he did.
~Alison Adburgham, author, Liberty’s  A Biography of a Shop.  London 1975.

Many people are familiar with the history of Liberty of London. The quick version of the story is one of the son of a draper who made his way up the ladder in retailing in mid-19th century London.
By 1875, he had earned a reputation as a savvy buyer and connoissuer of fine fabrics and homegoods.  With a clear vision towards the influence of Eastern artistry, Arthur Lasenby Liberty bought a shop on Regent Street and began his climb in the world of design.  Although not a designer himself, he was
known for having a good “eye”  and an uncanny knack for knowing what would be the next big trend.  Liberty’s is often touted as the founder of the Art Nouveau movement although Liberty himself did not claim so.  Although involved in all the decorative arts, Liberty was always known for its fabrics.  Fine printed silks gave way to furniture coverings in cotton and then to cotton prints for garments.  Liberty forged relationships with several fine printworks, eventually settling with Merton which the company purchased in 1904.  The original prints were done by wood block and then be hand screen printing.  As the demand grew, they moved to more mechanized systems.  The existence of the original blocks, however, proved essential in bringing back the archival prints over the years. Eventually, Liberty of London grew from a small store to several blocks of stores, including the iconic Tudor storefront that is associated with Liberty today. In later years, the company expanded in Europe and America.

Liberty of London Storefront
Photo by Luis Villa del Campo

Arthur Lasenby Liberty passed the store on to his nephew in 1916 and died the following year just prior to the opening of the Tudor store.  During the war years, Liberty survived by staying true to is mission and continuing to offer high end goods and bringing new items to market when few other enterprises were able to do the same.  At the same time, the Liberty employees supported the war effort and the company made it possible for them to do their jobs and serve their country.  After the war, retailers were under a great deal of pressure to look contemporary.  Liberty introduced Young Liberty to appeal to that segment of its customer base, but it always retained its stature as a pantheon of good taste. Americans flocked to London or to US importers to obtain the Liberty look in clothing and in home decor.  In the sixties, Liberty was able to offer its clients a hippie sensibility with a refined taste.  With its small prints (little florals) on Tana lawn, Liberty was a trendsetter for designers who wanted to create a current look for their clients.  By the seventies, The Art Nouveau look was back and Liberty was there with its Lotus collection, revived and re-colored.  Over the years there were serious ups and downs in the retail business.  Directors were often at odds as they struggled to choose the right artists to meet their twin goals of staying modern and honoring the past. In 2000, the Liberty family sold the business.  The company continues today offering both retail and wholesale fabrics and furnishings. Each season, Liberty of London fabrics offers a seasonal line of Tana Lawn and a selection of classic prints.  With a foundation in their archives, the designs always show an eye to the future.

Liberty of London Cathryns
Cathryns Tana Lawn
Liberty of London Chantrell
Chantrell Tana Lawn
Liberty of London Pebble
Pebble Tana Lawn

Tana Lawn, named for Lake Tana in Ethiopia, is woven from fine Eyptian cotton.  The tightly woven plain weave has a silky hand that is second to none.  Once 36 in. wide, it is now milled at 54 in. which is much more user friendly for the apparel industry as well as home sewists.

My Own Liberty Story
Everyone should have at least one Liberty story!  I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of Liberty of London fabrics over the years, but this is one of my favorite anecdotes.   On a trip to London in the mid-eighties (prior to owning SBDF), I had an afternoon to spend on my own.  Off to Regent Street!  I spent most of the afternoon in Liberty’s while my husband was in boring meetings 🙂  Of course, most of
my time was spent trying to decide just which fabrics would make the trip back home with me.  One of the ones I chose was a deep eggplant Varuna wool…oh the hand of this lightweight wool fabrication!  I bought enough for a suit and wore it for years.  In the famous remnant room, I purchased a blouse length of a Tana lawn print to match that suit and others in my wardrobe.

Liberty of London Printed Bag
I no longer have my blouse, but this is the same print in a different colorway. Mine was plum and teal, of course!

Since this was the era of suit blouses, I made a blouse with a high neck and soft gathers that opened to a darted front so the print was fully exposed.  The sleeves were narrow and set in. I wore it well for several years.  This is really a story about scraps.  I found that the fabric had frayed away from the armscye seam.  The strong poly thread that I had used was too much for the delicate yarns of the lawn, especially in a fitted sleeve.  I went to my famous scrap box and found a small bundle of the print.  I was able to patch the back sleeve area from the inside matching the print exactly—a nice feature of a defined print.

Liberty of London Print
Closeup of print design. The matching was very easy due to the definition of the print.

After all those washings, the color was true to the original…a perfect match!

The name Liberty of London is synonymous with high quality prints and is truly one of the “royals” in the garment industry. Over the years Sawyer Brook Fabrics has offered selections from the classic collection as well as recent and current seasonal choices.  We will continue to search for opportunities to bring this fine fabric to market as sewing and wearing it is an experience that every sewist should have.

Coming Soon to the web store.

Liberty of London Pepper Print
Liberty Classic Pepper Print

Pepper was designed for Liberty by the Jack Prince Studio in 1974. Jack Prince designed for Liberty for many years both on dress and furnishing fabrics. Pepper has been on Classic Tana since 1979.


5 Responses to “English Royalty”

  1. Lynda alford


    I also love Liberty prints and have spent many fascinating hours in the shop on Regents Street. I enjoyed your story and the company background info.

  2. AnnCaroll


    Your Liberty story brought back memories. The last time I was there the fabric was all very upscale and prohibitive in price. I looked for the remnant room and couldn’t find it. Does it still exist?

  3. akletjian


    Thank you for the Liberty background story. I once found liberty prints in a clearance pile at a fabric store about 10 years ago, I still have it! You are right, everyone has a liberty story. Thanks for yours.

  4. yolanda sole


    Great fabrics, and even better service!!! Called from Austin, talked to someone very charming, and got the fabrics on the exact date the sales lady had mentioned!!! The colors are totally true to the picture on the web! Thanks, a real pleasure!!! 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.