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James Leman’s Album Of Silk Designs

April 8, 2024
by the gentle author

Join me next Saturday here in the 300-year-old withdrawing room at the Townhouse in Fournier St for tea, and cakes freshly baked to a recipe of 1720, at the conclusion of The Gentle Author’s Tour of Spitalfields.



The oldest surviving set of silk designs in the world, James Leman’s album contains ninety ravishingly beautiful patterns created in Steward St, Spitalfields between 1705 and 1710 when he was a young man. It was my delight to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum and study the pages of this unique artefact, which is the subject of an interdisciplinary research project under the auspices of the V&A Research Institute, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Leman Album  offers a rare glimpse into an affluent and fashionable sphere of eighteenth century high society, as well as demonstrated the astonishing skill of the journeyman weavers in East London three hundred years ago.

James Leman (pronounced ‘lemon’ like Leman St in Aldgate) was born in London around 1688 as the second generation of a Huguenot family and apprenticed at fourteen to his father, Peter, a silk weaver. His earliest designs in the album, executed at eighteen years old, are signed ‘made by me, James Leman, for my father.’ In those days, when silk merchants customarily commissioned journeyman weavers, James was unusual in that he was both a maker and designer. In later life, he became celebrated for his bravura talent, rising to second in command of the Weavers’ Company in the City of London. A portrait of the seventeen-twenties in the V&A collection, which is believed to be of James Leman, displays a handsome man of assurance and bearing, arrayed in restrained yet sophisticated garments of subtly-toned chocolate brown silk and brocade.

His designs are annotated with the date and technical details of each pattern, while many of their colours are coded to indicate the use of metallic cloth and different types of weave. Yet beyond these aspects, it is the aesthetic brilliance of the designs which is most striking, mixing floral and architectural forms with breathtaking flair in a way that appears startling modern. The Essex Pink and Rosa Mundi are recognisable alongside whimsical architectural forms which playfully combine classical and oriental motifs within a single design. The breadth of James Leman’s knowledge of botany and architecture as revealed by his designs reflects a wide cultural interest that, in turn, reflected flatteringly upon the tastes of his wealthy customers.

Until recently, the only securely identified woven example of a James Leman pattern was a small piece of silk in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. Miraculously, just as the V&A’s research project on the Leman Album was launched, a length of eighteenth-century silk woven to one of his designs was offered to the museum by a dealer in historical textiles, who recognised it from her knowledge of the album. The Museum purchased the silk and is investigating the questions that arise once design and textile may be placed side by side for the first time. With colours as vibrant as the day they were woven three hundred years ago, the sensuous allure of this glorious piece of deep pink silk adorned with elements of lustrous green, blue, red and gold shimmers across the expanse of time and is irresistibly attractive to the eye. Such was the extravagant genius of James Leman, Silk Designer.

On the left is James Leman’s design and on the right is a piece of silk woven from it, revealing that colours of the design are not always indicative of the woven textile

The reverse of each design gives the date and details of the fabric and weave

Portrait of a Master Silk Weaver by Michael Dahl, 1720-5 – believed to be James Leman

All images copyright © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

With grateful thanks to: Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner, Senior Curator of Designs – Dr Victoria Button, Senior Paper Conservator – Clare Browne, Senior Curator of Textiles – Dr Lucia Burgio, Senior Scientist and Eileen Budd, V&A Research Institute Project Manager

You may also like to read about

The Principal Operations of Weaving

At Anna Maria Garthwaite’s House

Anna Maria Garthwaite, Silk Designer

A Dress of Spitalfields Silk

Queen Victoria’s Dress of Spitalfields Silk

Stanley Rondeau at the V&A

Stephen Walters, Silk Weavers

5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 8, 2024

    These are beautiful designs and it is incredible that some fabric has survived. Silk is not the most enduring of materials as it is biodegradable. It is so important that the area’s rich history is preserved and communicated.
    As a bit of a fashionista, I am also interested in the fabric design and the garments made from it. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a working loom was set up to demonstrate the process of weaving? I visited a forge in Devon, run by the National Trust, that allowed visitors to watch the process and to purchase small items made from the worked metal. How wonderful it would be to have a small square of woven Spitalfiealds silk! Although I have Huguenot ancestry, I do not have any artefacts other than my own research, including some newspaper articles as one of them was a union leader. From this I know that he wove Jacquard designs.
    Thank you GA ,and other contributors, for this really interesting post. P.s. I’ve just realised that I have been pronouncing Leman St incorrectly.

  2. Muswellmummy permalink
    April 8, 2024

    Thank you for showing us this remarkable book of silk designs. As you point out, the mix of architecture and botanicals feels so very modern. As someone who loves textiles this was a real treat.

  3. April 8, 2024

    It had not struck me before how very Asian-inspired the designs were, with their flattened perspectives and idealised architectural and botanical themes. But of course! Silk came from Asia. Our ancestors could be very literal at times! But since silk was a luxury, we’d want to emphasize that it was silk, wouldn’t we?

  4. Marcia Howard permalink
    April 8, 2024

    Thank goodness our museums and archives preserve such treasures as these. I love James Leman’s signature too.

  5. Maria Maurio permalink
    April 8, 2024

    I loved reading this and viewing the accompanying photos! As I textile artist and designer who only works with natural dyes, I marveled at the brilliance in color of what are most certainly natural dyes (the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800’s changed the course of natural dyes)! And as a college professor who teaches the history of costume, this is a wonderful bit of traceable history into the silk trade, dyeing, weaving, artistry…..I could go on!

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