past & present: liberty of london (part 1)

sources for liberty fabric: purl soho, the top drawer, b&j fabrics and of course, liberty of london

After I wrote about the History of Toile, I asked for some requests for other pattern histories. It was a bit of a draw between houndstooth and Liberty – and with the Target collaboration it seems like Liberty is everywhere so it seemed like a good time to dig into the history of Liberty of London and if you’re a houndstooth fan – don’t worry – I’ll tackle it soon! (Let me know if you have any other pattern (or not pattern suggestions) for future Past & Present columns! (See the Past & Present archives here!) And stay tuned for a Liberty of London round-up later today!

Mr. Liberty
Arthur Lasenby Liberty was born in 1843, the son of a draper in Buckinghamshire. He was one of 8 children. Although intelligent, he failed to win a university scholarship and so at age sixteen he took a job working in his uncle’s lace warehouse.  Then in 1859, with the help of another uncle, he was apprenticed to a draper – the only positive to this position was that it was in London. Then (as now) one of the most fashionable streets for shopping was Regent Street (no grocers, ironmongers, pubs, butchers, bakers, nor candlestick makers were permitted to set up shop on Regent shop) – it was jewelers, silversmiths and the most fashionable shop for ladies – Farmer & Rogers. Somehow Liberty persuaded the owners to take him on and ended his apprenticeship at the draper.

kimono of the meiji period (1868-1912) from the victoria & albert museum

It all started with the kimono
Arthur Liberty had become fascinated by Japanese art and design at London’s 1862 International Exhibition – in fact, it was partly his enthusiasm for all things Japanese that convinced Farmer & Rogers to buy up all the available stock from the exhibition to create an Oriental Warehouse department in their store. Within two years, Arthur Liberty was promoted to manager of the Warehouse. All the most stylish ladies in London were crazy for the kimono and Farmer’s & Rogers was the place to get it. It was the most fashionable division of the most fashionable shop and served actors and actresses as well as artists such as Whistler, Rossetti, and E.W. Godwin.

liberty of london store sign – from the 1920s tudor-inspired store

Liberty Opens in 1875
After 10 years as manager of Farmer & Rogers, Liberty asked to be made a partner in the store and was refused. Encouraged by friends (and with £1,000 borrowed from his father-in-law), he opened his own store – East India House – directly across the street. He stocked the familiar Eastern imports – even the shop girls wore kimonos. The shop was an overnight success. Liberty was able to pay his father-in-law back in just eighteen months and have enough money to expand the shop. (Unable to sustain the store without Liberty, Farmer & Rogers closed down shortly after he left.)

CLICK HERE for more Liberty!

Liberty Begins to Develop New Techniques for Dying Textiles
Although Japanese imports were still in vogue, Liberty was concerned with the their decreasing quality – and so began to look elsewhere for new objects to introduce in his shop. He liked Indian printing techniques but the delicate dyes didn’t wear well and seemed too fragile. So Liberty imported plain, undyed fabrics and had them dyed in the UK with the pastel tints of the East. People just couldn’t get enough.

oscar wilde by napoleon sarony in new york in 1882

Oscar Wilde – Brings the Taste for Liberty Fashion to the American shores
If there’s one individual we should all thank for bringing the fashion for Liberty across the Atlantic – it would be Oscar Wilde. On his 18-month lecture tour of the United States, he frequently lectured on the subject of “House Decoration” – it was the perfect subject to introduce the fashion of the Aesthetic Movement to American audiences.

Liberty Art Fabrics
As early as late 1870s, Liberty began to commission artists and designers to create patterns for fabrics. Because the company was working to develop its own branding, the designers weren’t named but they did include – C.F.A. Voysey, Harry Napper, Jessie M. King and Lindsay Butterfield.

[from left: evening dress 1920-1925, coat, 1928 – both liberty of london]

As fashion changed, so did Liberty. In the 1920s a division of Liberty was set up in Paris – Maison Liberty – to add a French flair to the costume department. (The Maison Liberty closed during the economic crisis of the 1930s). Today the British firm seems to be all about a global-level of collaboration – Liberty of London for Target, 10 corso como, M.A.C. Cosmetics and Merci. Whew! What I’d love to see is a Liberty of London New York! Can somebody make that happen?! Stay tuned for the Liberty of London round-up!

Books to Read!
Liberty of London: Masters of Style & Decoration by Stephen Calloway – Stephen Calloway, curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum,  edited this collection of essays for an in-depth look at Liberty of London. It’s a great resource. My only complaint is that I wish there had been more color photographs – there’s a lot of black and white – and with a company so color-centric, it feels like you’re missing out by not seeing the full color.

Facts to Know!

  1. When Paul Poiret, that famous French designer of the early 20th century, opened his fashion house in Paris, in 1903, he used Liberty fabrics.
  2. Arthur Lazenby Liberty was knighted in 1913 for his role in promoting the decorative arts in the U.K.

  1. Meg says:

    I love these history bits, but you might want to check the first date … unless he opened his store 8 years before he was born. In which case, wow, go precocious designer!

    1. grace says:

      thanks meg! just fixed it :)

  2. V says:

    Thanks for posting this! Beautiful stuff!

  3. Ana says:

    Beautiful patterns..Love them!

  4. Ley Holloway says:

    I’ve always loved Liberty, used to visit a lot but I live over 200 miles from there now. It would be a dream to have my jewellery designs in there! I used to own a silk jacket made up of about 6 beautiful liberty scarves. I once got followed around the store by the security man, very annoying!

  5. Lisa says:

    Really enjoyed your Liberty history. I have a silk Liberty scarf I bought about 48 years ago. I thought it was the most beautiful scarf I had ever seen and I still do. Wish I knew how to send you a photo.

  6. betsy says:

    Hey, thanks for the Liberty love! I had an internship there many years ago and have been obsessed ever since..

    Anyway there is another great book.. Liberty & Co. in the Sixties, which I have read over and over.

    Also, I feel like I have to say that my store carries Liberty fabric, if anyone needs some!

  7. Naomi says:

    This is fantastic! Thank you. Did Mr. Liberty have any connection to William Morris?

  8. jasmine says:

    This is fascinating… will definitely have to look more into the history of Liberty. Thanks for the post!

  9. Meghan says:

    I’m really enjoying this new series — textile history is fascinating. And the photos! How can there be so much inspiration in a few small inches of loveliness?

  10. summerland says:

    I — L O V E — this past & present feature! Since it took me awhile to believe I could make a living in the design world, I graduated college with a super safe degree. This feature is like grad school for me. It makes me investigate things further and even sparks some new ideas for my own products. Keep it up!

  11. Peggy says:

    My all-time -favorite fabric store, Polly’s in Jackson, MS, used to have tons of L of L in stock. When they closed a few years ago, it was like a death in the family.

  12. Emily says:

    love it! can you do joseph frank in the future?

  13. Sharon says:

    I used to love going into the store just to visit but now that I live across that big pond I miss my little adventures. Thanks for the history lesson I will go again this summer knowing more than before.

  14. Anneth says:

    Great column! I love Liberty and I have the good fortune to live in London, but they’re simply beyond my budget these days. Even the Liberty for Target range that is for sale here is overpriced – and can’t be returned.

    Why not consider doing a column on the Harris tweed? It’s experiencing a resurgence in a big way over here now that the new Doctor on Doctor Who sports a Harris tweed jacket, and there are some really interesting stories associated with it.

  15. Jackie says:

    Liberty’s is my favorite store in London. The actual building, inside and out, is really beautiful and full of gorgeous things.
    When I die, I want to go to Liberty’s :)
    Great post. Thanks!

  16. steven says:

    im lucky enough to use the liberty shop as my local haberdashery, and its an experience i love every time, i often just pop in for 10 minutes just to flirt with the fabrics…

  17. Chloe C says:

    Thank you for this post of background.

  18. Melanie says:

    My most worn scarf of all time — Liberty — an unusual geometric from the 1980s. Loved the post!

  19. Lynn says:

    Patchwork on Central Park in Melbourne Australia has a great range of Liberty of London fabrics.

  20. tinabobina99 says:

    Once when we flew into Heathrow, I asked the agents at the car hire place for directions to Liberty. You’d have thought I wanted to go to Outer Mongolia — they were very doubtful that I could manage my way through London. But that was the one stop I wanted to make before driving to Dorset, and man was it worth it!

  21. Brianna says:

    Anneth – Where do you live? I assume within the US since Target does not ship internationally at this time. If that is the case, any merchandise purchased at Target or on can be returned at the store within 90 days of purchase with a valid receipt OR the credit card you used to purchase the item as long as the item has not been worn.

  22. kclara says:

    oh, wow, these are gorgeous patterns. I keep thinking maybe I should go back to school to study textiles, but this is a great resource. thanks!

  23. Lauren says:

    please please please don’t forget William Morris as an influence on pattern design! I think Liberty can be said to have bridged the enormous gap between William Morris and Laura Ashley.

  24. how about “seersucker” .. a fascinating history.

  25. I so love liberty fabrics as well, they inspire me to make some jeweller, and I learned quite a lot about its history thanks to your post.

  26. Erika says:

    I knew very little of the brand. So happy i read and now know the background.

  27. Laura says:

    I lived in London for a year and spent countless hours in Liberty over the course of that year. I still get their emails and they always make me nostalgic for London.

    Thank you for posting this on pinterest, I would have missed it otherwise.


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