Thomas Hardy's 'Weathers' and Sprigged Muslin
An illustrated article by Elizabeth von Witanovski
by Thomas Hardy (excerpt)
This is the weather the cuckoo likes,
And so do I;
When showers betumble the chestnut spikes,
And nestlings fly;
And the little brown nightingale bills his best,
And they sit outside at 'The Traveller's Rest,'
And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest,
And citizens dream of the south and west,
And so do I.
"...And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest..."
What a lovely image Thomas Hardy offers us in his Weathers!
He was his sisters' best friend and lifelong supporter. One can imagine that he followed their interests very closely. Would he be listening to their small talk concerning fashion?
Did they have fashion-plates pinned to the wall? The seasonal ones spread on a small, round side table?
Describing his process of writing, Thomas Hardy once said that it's the images that come to him first, clear pictures of scenes and characters before he starts writing the stories. It has often been pointed out that his exceptional talent as a draughtsman informed his writing with stunning visual detail.
In later years, when his work was introduced in theatrical form, it was noted that he was very particular about his characters' historical costumes. He knew them down to the
smallest details. He seems to have been well aware of women’s fashion in particular, including, of course, the fabric known as muslin.
My first steps to revisit the history of muslin were fascinating, informative, and heartbreaking. First, it’s important to understand that the original muslin was not the
inexpensive fabric of different weight we know today; the heavier one has been used to create a mock-up, to help costume and fashion designers find the shape of the final
product. The muslin that Thomas Hardy talks about here was light, transparent, translucent, gauze-like. "...You could pull a muslin scarf through a lady's ring..." Prior to the 1700s, muslin weaving was a highly guarded secret.
Now let's return to that vivid, exciting line "...maids sprig-muslin drest..." For my question "what is a sprig-muslin?" I found the most logical explanation in several
articles analyzing Weathers: a muslin with an embroidered sprig which is the smallest of branches, a twig of leaves or blossoms. The name given to that favorite type of muslin through the 1800s was the sprigged-muslin.
Why the name? How did it appear? With the Internet at my fingertips, I simply couldn't miss the chance, and ventured further afield! What I came across next is as lovely as the verses we adore: A fragile piece of fine porcelain. The pottery decorated with a relief of a sprig of cherry or apple blossoms. The technique applied here can evidently be traced back to antiquity; but it was this appearance in Europe, in the 17th century, which gave it wide popularity, and the adjective of its category — “sprigged”!
Chinese influence in European fashion, furniture design, architecture, interior design, and more had been overwhelming since the 1600s. Porcelain followed closely. First European
manufacturers of porcelain were built; they took the Chinese samples, copied them, then created their very own versions. From Meissen across the Channel!
In Britain, it was the Elers brothers whose Chinese style mug is a sample of sprigging from the 1690s as is the Staffordshire coffee-pot from the same century.
Later, when muslin, the fabled dream of fabric, made its appearance, I can picture a muted conversation of two businessmen in a corner of a Chinese-brocade upholstered
salon: Drinking Chinese tea from a sprigged teapot one of them noticed the lovely image and his beauty tuned mind suggested it as a possible weave pattern.
I wonder, how far it was from this conversation of two men over a silk scarf, in Alessandro Baricco's novella Silk:
..."D'you know what this is?"
"Wrong. Man's stuff: money."...
The sprigged muslin was on its way! It stayed on the high for long decades through Revolutions (French, Industrial, and others in between), through rest and unrest, until a
brilliant author, a poet, wrote a line evoking the weather of springtime he loved; the freshness of images, the brightness of light, the fragrance of rain showers, the excitement
of eternal renewal, the pungent smell of ground and tufts of bright green new grasses on meadows where rivulets overflow…
“...And maids come forth sprig-muslin drest..."
I hope I helped you see the translucent fabric with small patterns of sprigs, and blossoms and their fragments, weaved into fabric by an accomplished artisan, to create the
Here are some examples of creativity, imagination, and abilities of anonymous artisans to transform a plain background into a cheerful play of shapes, color, shadows, and light,
animated by a woman’s movement, or a summer breeze; patterns that are so familiar to our eyes it is like meeting old friends at the Traveler's Rest.
© Elizabeth von Witanovski
1st March 2021