Liberty fabric is easy to spot. Dissecting this is less easy, but you know it when you see it. The colors are joyous even when somber, the designs sing, and the quality of the weave is always a Liberty of London hallmark. Most impressive, though, is the archive-looting: The designs seem fresh because of the way they reference the past.
Above: Inside the Liberty of London store, on Regent Street in London's West End. The haberdashery department, on the fourth floor (or third, for European readers) off this central light well, is home to Liberty Art Fabrics, including Tana Lawn.
The name Tana Lawn first appeared in the 1930s. "Tana" is named for Lake Tana in Sudan, the source of the cotton plant. "Lawn" refers to the quality of the weave, which is very fine. Photograph via Liberty.
Above: The Liberty florist is found at the main entrance, on Great Marlborough Street. This side of the building is the full length of the HMS Hindustan, one of two ships that lent their timbers to the Tudor revival building. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Four fabric designs, clockwise from top left: Kindle C Dufour; bestseller Susanna B, originally designed by Emma Mawston, head designer of Liberty Art Fabrics (and given a new colorway); Rosa A, featuring a rock rose with scattered peppercorns; and Tatum G, from the Liberty Classics collection. When Tatum G was designed as a Tana Lawn fabric in 1955, it was a reworking of a design from the 30s. Tana Lawn fabric sells for £22 per meter.
"The thing underneath it all is: Liberty fabric is printed on Tana Lawn," says Emma. All that needs to be added, she says, is "our colors, our eyes, our palette."
Plus, of course, Emma's creativity. She comes up with a theme, then sends her designers out on field trips. For "Botanicals" they visited Tresco in the Scilly Isles, known for its high density of flora. For last year's collection, they took their sketchpads to Iceland. William Morris was the jumping-off point and he was fond of Iceland. Emma's fine art approach is a lively mix of abstract ideas with commercial nous.
Above: Rich colors in an outdoor display are a hint of what's to come on the third floor. While some of the fabric patterns we show here may no longer be available, others are produced year after year, sometimes with subtle (or not so subtle) color variations. And Liberty adds dozens of new designs each season. Photograph by Kendra Wilson.
Above: Last year, British TV audiences were treated to a three-part documentary about Liberty. In one episode, Emma Mawston declares: "I was born to work at Liberty." While many staff members share this loyalty, one can't help feeling, after talking to Emma, that Liberty was waiting for her to come along.
Above, from top left: Manuela, inspired by a Liberty scarf designed in the 70s (which drew on the 30s); Jack and Charlie B; Joyce B (in collaboration with a tattoo artist); and Sweet Cherries, a collaboration with British chef Jamie Oliver—the design was made by stamping the marks of sliced cherries and star anise onto fabric.
You may wonder what all this has to do with William Morris. Actually, it was Morris's poem "Iceland First Seen" that inspired Emma Mawston to explore the senses. So we have among these fabric samples: sound, scent, touch, and taste. We'll leave it to you to guess which fabric was inspired by which sense.
Above: The rambling half-timbered landmark in London's West End.
Updated from a post originally published December 16, 2013.
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