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image of the front page of the Alice Lynes pamphlet

 
 
 
 
 
 THOMAS STEVENS
 AND HIS
 SILK RIBBON PICTURES
 by
 ALICE LYNES, F.L.A.
 Librarian in charge
 Coventry & Warwickshire Collection
 
With notes for the collector
and suggested material
for further study

 
 
 
 
 
 
image of Thomas Stevens woven silk
STEVENGRAPH titled
" The Present Time. "

 
 
 
 
 
 
COVENTRY CITY LIBRARIES
1959

 
Local History Pamphlets No. 2
 
 

 
 
 
THOMAS STEVENS
AND HIS SILK RIBBON PICTURES

 
         The Coventry weavers who made silk ribbon pictures could
scarcely have imagined how eagerly their products would be
sought after today by collectors in Britain and America. Although
several Coventry manufacturers were producing very fine examples
of these novelties it was Thomas Stevens whose name was to be-
come most closely associated with this type of work. Silk ribbon
weaving had been carried on in Coventry for more than 150 years,
and was providing a livelihood for nearly 45% of the population,
when, for an accumulation of reasons, the industry crashed in 1860.
There was great distress among the weavers; thousands of looms
were broken up and whole streets were left with empty houses.
Relief schemes were started and many weaving families emigrated
to America and to the Colonies. It is estimated that about 9,000
people left the city in two years. Several attempts were made to
provide alternative work for the weavers, including the building
of the Leigh Mills, for woollen goods, and a cotton-spinning fact-
ory, but it was one of the younger master weavers, Thomas Stevens,
whose inventiveness and drive were to find a way of adapting an
old industry to capture a new market.
 
         Stevens was born at Foleshill in humble circumstances in
1828, one of a family of seven children. At that time Foleshill
was a village outside the boundary of Coventry, and a large pro-
portion of its people were engaged in weaving ribbon in their own
homes for manufacturers in the city. As a youth Stevens learnt
the art and craft of ribbon weaving with the Coventry firm of
Pears and Franklin, in Upper Well Street. There is no evidence
in the city records of his having served an indentured apprentice-
ship or of his admission as a freeman of the city, which would
follow such a course. By his industry and thrift he was able to
set up in business on his own account in 1854, in Queen Street.
He began with weaving plain and fancy ribbons, but was soon
 

 
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experimenting with a development of jacquard weaving to produce
pictures. For this, the picture was plotted on squared paper, in the
fashion of a cross-stitch embroidery design, and a large card then
perforated to represent each colour appearing in every "line" of the
picture. The cards, arranged in an endless chain and attached to
the loom, controlled the manipulation of the warp threads. Each
time the shuttle crossed the loom a different card came into use,
changing the arrangement of the warp threads and, consequently,
the pattern woven. When all the cards had been brought into op-
eration, the design was complete and, unless an adjustment had
been made to the loom, the pattern was repeated for the required
length of ribbon. A bookmarker, about 13 inches long, woven at
the exhibition held to mark the opening of the Market Hall in 1867,
required 5,500 cards.
 
         When the industry collapsed in 1860, Stevens determined
to make use of his experiments by producing pictures in such variety
as to appeal to all tastes and, by pricing them within reach of the
most modest purse, to stimulate a demand that would keep his
workers in employment. He is sometimes stated to have patented
the process while he was still working at the loom, but, in fact, none
of his patents were for pictures. The earliest productions seem to
have been bookmarkers, although Valentines, Christmas and
birthday cards and scent sachets were available at an early date,
as also were badges for schools, Masonic and Friendly Societies,
festivals and clubs, woven to order. It is evident from reports in
trade journals that the bookmarkers were put on the market in
August 1862. They ranged from small ones at sixpence each to
large ones for use in pulpits at as much as fifteen shillings. The
pictures included portraits of celebrities and local scenes, scriptural
texts, hymns and psalms, and verses from the poets. Stevens also
introduced to the Admiralty a hat ribbon with the name of the ship
woven in gold wire. This he patented; it was adopted and for many
years the firm was the sole supplier to the Admiralty Contracts
Department.
 
 
 

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         Business expanded rapidly, necessitating removal to a new
factory in West Orchard. With a large warehouse in Much Park
Street added soon after. These premises were soon outgrown
and in 1875 the Stevengraph Works were built in Cox Street;
the name Stevengraph being applied to the products. Branch
offices were opened in London and the names of agents in
various parts of the world are found on some of the firm's wares.
Stevens' work was widely exhibited in such places as York, Edin-
burgh, Paris, Antwerp, St. Louis and Chicago. Looms were er-
ected at the exhibitions and goods woven and sold on the spot,
earning for their producer more than thirty medals and diplomas.
In 1878 Thomas Stevens moved to London to manage the business
there, leaving his two sons to look after the production side in
Coventry, and it was soon after this that he began to present his
wares in a new form - as mounted pictures. In September 1888,
after being in indifferent health for some time, he underwent a
throat operation and complications set in; he died on the 24th
October and was buried in Coventry cemetery. The firm con-
tinued under family management until the founder's son, Thomas
Inger Stevens, died in 1908, when it became a limited company.
Production went on until 1940, when the Cox Street factory was
destroyed by bombs, although, as the popular demand for the
Victorian novelties dwindled about the time of World War 1,
the machinery was adapted to the weaving of labels, with work
for the Admiralty continuing. Today, pictures as such are only
woven as special commemorative pieces. The business is now
incorporated, as the woven label division, with Brough, Nicholson
and Hall, of Leek, Staffordshire.
 
         The story of the firm of Stevens illustrates the capacity of
Coventry men to adapt their crafts to the requirements of their
day. Few, probably, will see any connection between the woven
labels on almost every article of clothing they buy, and the
little Victorian pieces which now provide a fascinating study
 
 

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for a growing number of collectors, but which were once an
everyday product of the Coventry weavers. It is the mounted
pictures that provide a special interest for collectors. These vary
in size, some being as small as 1½" x 4" and others as big as
7½" x 13". Subjects are very diverse; they include portraits of
Royalty and other celebrities, such as George Washington, Buffalo
Bill and Fred Archer, the jockey; scenes from history, as the Death
of Nelson and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence and
well-known buildings like Kenilworth Castle, the Crystal Palace
and the Forth Bridge. There is a series of sports, including foot-
ball, tennis, cricket, rowing, hunting, horse-racing and cycling.
Fashions in travel are recorded by a picture of The First Train
built by Stephenson in 1825 and by The Present Time, with a
train traveling at 60 miles an hour; by The Good Old Days, show-
ing a mail coach and For Life or Death, a horse drawn fire-engine.
Legends illustrated are Lady Godiva, Leda and the Swan and Dick
Turpin's Ride to York. Variants of the same subject, such as
changes of colour, provide a further point of interest for the coll-
ector.
 
         Difficulties are often encountered in identifying the maker
of a particular specimen. The only certainty is when the name
of the manufacturer is woven into the ribbon, although it should
be mentioned that this is known sometimes to have been removed,
or when it is printed on the front of the mount. The labels backing
the pictures and, much rarer, the paper to which the bookmarkers
were attached also provide valuable evidence for the collector,
but, being capable of substitution, are not wholly reliable. Dating
the pictures is very difficult. This can sometimes be done by the
subject, as in the case of Queen Victoria and her Premiers, which
shows the Queen surrounded by eight Ministers, with their dates,
and pictures of the Houses of Parliament, Balmoral and Windsor
Castle and the Royal Arms. The latest date being 1886, it is
obvious that it was produced in readiness for the Jubilee the
 
 

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following year. The backing labels can be a useful guide, al-
though they were not necessarily added at the time of manufacture.
The pictures and bookmarkers were woven in a continuous length,
then cut up and mounted as sales required, which may have been
considerably later. The information they give includes a list of
the subjects for sale and facsimiles of the medals and the number
of awards received; the more there were the later the picture may
be assumed to have been woven. In some cases the date of the
medals can be discerned, providing a further clue, as also do the
addresses at which the firm was operating. Another guide is the
registration or design mark, which was put on certain articles
manufactured in England between 1842 and 1883. In the case
of ribbon pictures this was usually woven into the ribbon at the
mitred end of bookmarkers, printed on the back labels or em-
bossed on the mounts. It was a small diamond-shaped device
bearing various numerals and letters, in combinations which
denote the date. It should be remembered that this is the date
the design was registered, and not of the manufacture of a
particular specimen. Since the Jacquard cards are practically
indestructible, a subject that sold well could be repeated al-
most indefinitely, so there could be a wide gap between the
two dates.
 
 
 
 
 
         It is hoped that this short account may stimulate further
exploration of a fascinating byway of Coventry's history.
Readers wishing to pursue the subject should find the foll-
owing suggestions useful.
 
 

 
- - - oooOooo - - -
 
 
 
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SILK RIBBON PICTURES
 
         Much can be learnt from examining the pictures them-
selves. There is a permanent exhibition in the Herbert Art
Gallery and Museum of a selection from the Museum's
Collection of nearly 1,000 bookmarkers and pictures by
Stevens and several other firms. Other specimens may be
seen by application.
 
 

READING LIST
 
BAKER, Wilma Sinclair Le Van. The silk pictures of Thomas
         Stevens: a biography of the Coventry weaver and his cont-
         ribution to the art of weaving, with an illustrated catalogue
         of his work. New York, 1957. illus.
THE HISTORY OF RIBBON WEAVING, more especially in relation
         to its connection with the city of Coventry, from the earliest
         record to the present time. Coventry, 1867.
         Deals principally with the work of Thomas Stevens and in-
         cludes a price list of bookmarkers.
         Bound in Silk and ribbon industry of Coventry (a collection
         of pamphlets).
(NEWSCUTTINGS on Thomas Stevens and the Stevengraph Works).
         1872-1901. illus. in (Lowe, Alfred. Coventry newscuttings),
         1883, 1887-8, 1893-4, 1900-1901.
STEVENS, Thomas. Retail list (of) Stevens' Coventry illuminated
         silk bookmarkers, Valentines, scent sachets, etc. Coventry,
         (1869).
STEVENS, Thomas. Catalogue of Stevengraphs. Retail list,
         1876-7. Photocopy.
         Prices quoted in dollars.
 
         Much additional material on the wider aspects of the Coventry
ribbon industry is available in the Coventry and Warwickshire
Collection.
 
 

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image of rear label attached to the back of the Stevengraph shown on the front page
 
 
 



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