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A luxury chair upholsterer, based in Düsseldorf, selling accent chairs and velvet cocktail chairs.

Journeys in Print and Pattern | The Fascinating Story Behind Houndstooth

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Pull up a chair around Lynda Sparshatt's fireside, to learn more about chairs, craftsmanship and what inspires us.

Journeys in Print and Pattern | The Fascinating Story Behind Houndstooth

Lynda Sparshatt

I’m fascinated by the story behind patterns. Many well-known patterns have survived for centuries and taken on an almost legendary status as so many stories, origins and myths surround their usage. When I fist began researching Houndstooth I had not imagined it would date back so far. Houndstooth has cropped up throughout history as a kind of recurring motif and each time it has taken on a new meaning or agency - such as to grant anonymity, or to reclaim for women a space previously reserved for men. Have a read, and see if you also find yourself fascinated by fabrics!

The earliest known example of a houndstooth cloth was first discovered in a Swedish peat bog dating back to 360 and 100 BC. Since then, the ubiquitous houndstooth pattern has become a fashion staple, an interiors accent and a palimpsest of textile history ranging from Swedish Astrology and Scottish Clan wars to French fashion houses and McQueen’s dramatic 2009 statement on consumerism.

Contemporary houndstooth is thought to generate from the Scottish Lowlands in the 18th century and is made up of four light threads of wool and four dark. Each thread is woven in a warp and weft formation of 2:2 advancing one thread each pass to create the craggy, off-kilter pattern.

The Houndstooth of the Baskervilles

The game’s afoot Watson as forensic archaeologists try to piece together the fate of the Gerum Cloak. The cloak is the oldest known example of a houndstooth pattern and is the oldest piece of clothing ever found in Sweden, dating back to as early as 300-100 BC. Submerged in a peat bog, neatly folded and almost perfectly preserved, the cloth was retrieved almost 2000 years after it was discarded/hidden in the murky waters in the region of Östra Gerum in Sweden. In the year 1920 the cloth was pulled out of the bog by baffled but no-less excited archaeologists. Three small stones were also uncovered that had been used to weigh the fabric down. Teasing its worn fibres from the congealing mud, the archaeologists gently unfolded the cloth and experimentally threw it over their shoulders (Sherlock and every forensic scientist after would have been horrified). With no other explanation for its usage, the fabric has since been known as a cloak. But there was something unsettling about the cloak. No less than five dagger wounds had wrought its fibres, and without a blood stain or a body, archaeologists were puzzled as to why.

Photograph of the Gerum Cloak investigation, photograph by  https://svenskhistoria.se/

Photograph of the Gerum Cloak investigation, photograph by https://svenskhistoria.se/

It is the deliberate placing of the three stones that raises so many questions. Why try to hide the cloak in a peat bog, did the person mean to temporarily hide it, thinking it would not sink too far and one day it could be retrieved? Was it an offering? Was it simply rubbish disposal? But if you had murdered someone and needed to hide the stab-ridden evidence then a peat bog would be somewhat convenient.

And so the case of the Gerum Cloak has remained open until recently when one compelling theory made its way to the fore. Using the most simplistic of computer programms (Paint) and digital analysis of modern images of the cloak, historians have noticed discrepancies in the colours of the coat with lighter patches, scattered across the surface. Further investigation has revealed these dotted patches to mirror the constellations of the stars. Could it be that this cloth was some kind of astrological aid? Well it would seem so, with the five dagger openings coinciding with the Equinox, Solstices and 24 degree axes of the world, to help the user of the astrological map orientate themselves. This theory is nicely explained in Ancient World Blog, but as for the stones and why it was hidden in a peat bog? - Perhaps we will never know.

Scottish Houndstooth and the House of Dior

Fast forward 1700 years and wander the sheep farms of the Scottish Lowlands and you’d find some rather dapper shepherds. Houndstooth makes its debut as outer garments for men working in the freezing, damp climes of Scotland, a more diplomatic choice of garment than the clan-tied tartan which could often cause skirmishes due to rival clans taking offence to your tartan. In its earliest iteration the pattern was much smaller and endearingly termed ‘puppy tooth’ but the blown-up contemporary version has surpassed dog and gone as large as spectral hound. The term Houndstooth was first used in the 1930s and in France the pattern is known by the somewhat less fearsome, ‘chicken foot.’

Coco Chanel in Houndstooth on May 30th 1929

Coco Chanel in Houndstooth on May 30th 1929

Christian Dior is often credited as the home of Houndstooth, but Saville Row tailors were hard at work turning Houndstooth fabrics into slick, fits-like-a-glove menswear, long before Dior includes Houndstooth in his 1948 Haute Couture collection.

Another big fan of Houndstooth? Coco Chanel. Her visit to Scotland with the Duke of Windsor in the summer of 1925 for fishing and hunting meant donning tweeds, wools and Houndstooth knits, all of which appeared in subsequent collections. Comandeering the pattern for women from the preserve of menswear was just another way that Chanel sought to give her clothes a certain masculinity to empower women.

Contemporary Houndstooth and Alexander McQueen

Against an all-black backdrop, and the flashes of camera bulbs, models sleuth down the runway to a pulsating beat and electronic guitar chords. Their faces are painted white, their mouths a gash of red lipstick, they circle a gigantic mass or rubbish, pause for photos, and slope back.

14 of the 44 looks in Alexander Mcqueen’s 2009 Horn of Plenty show featured Houndstooh, some with head-to-toe Houndstooth looks and some with a Houndstooth that graduated into a MC Escher bird print. Visionary.

Dedicated to his mother, Joyce Barbara McQueen, the collection explored themes such as waste, the concept of being used, overuse and gluttony. The trash at the centre of the stage was made up of old televisions, tyres, sinks, discarded remnants from houses and shows gone by. The overuse of makeup was prevalent, the red, puffy, grotesque lips of the models made-up to look like Marilyn Manson cum Geisha cum sex dolls. Models had plastic sewn into their hair pieces, with one model’s face being entirely covered in a plastic bag. The parody of conspicuous consumption, the it-girl turned horror figure, all tropes of a McQueen show designed induce shock and awe.

“I think people will look back at it and know that we were living through a recession when I designed it,” said McQueen at the time. “That we got to this point because of rampant, indiscriminate consumption.”

The inclusion of Houndstooth on this occasion paid homage to McQueen’s mother’s Scottish roots, and the fabric by now having undergone a Chanel touch from the 1940s-1960s, a punk twist courtesy of Vivian Westwood in the 1980s, and now by McQueen in sharp tailoring with cinched-in waists, has matured from a Shepherds Garb to a fiercely modern feminine attire.

Today in 2019, Houndstooth is once again everywhere, from McQueen, to Balmain, Dior, Valentino, Balenciaga, Alexander Wang and more. From a puppy to a fully-fledged hound, this jagged monochrome pattern has captured the zeitgeist of many generations, and remains a chic winter-wardrobe staple for the fashion-forward.


References:

  1. https://ancientworldblog.blogspot.com/2007/02/gerum-cloak-of-sweden-is-ancient.html

  1. https://svenskhistoria.se/

  2. http://www.asleta.se/en/kategori/54/gerum-cloak.html

  3. https://www.vogue.co.uk/shows/autumn-winter-2009-ready-to-wear/alexander-mcqueen

  4. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/ready-to-wear-houndstooth-is-fierce-and-signifies-power-over-and-above-prettiness-1813062.html

  5. https://grammarist.com/compound-words/houndstooth/

  6. https://grammarist.com/compound-words/houndstooth/

  7. https://1stontrend.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/history-of-houndstooth-5-2/

  8. https://scadconnector.com/2015/02/02/history-houndstooth/

  9. Picardie, Justin. ‘Coco CHanel; The Legend and the Life’. 2010.

  10. https://www.mcescher.com/gallery/switzerland-belgium/sky-and-water-i/