Student Development Fund Report: Learning to work with ‘too much’ information

Jonathan is a textile historian and tapestry weaver studying at the University of Glasgow. He is applying his knowledge of weave-structures to research the design and manufacture of mass-produced carpets, using the archives of the Glasgow-based firm, James Templeton & Co. Ltd.


Is too much a bad thing? Discussion with colleagues suggests that a common part of the PhD learning experience is finding a way through too many sources, too much literature, too much information. A research visit to the National Archives, Kew, funded by the SGSAH Student Development Fund, prompted me to think about when the sheer mass of information can itself be part of the educational message.


My project uses the archives of James Templeton & Co., the former Glasgow-based carpet manufacturers, to reveal the relationship between weaving technologies and the changing styles of mass-produced carpets that influenced the look of interiors in Britain and across the world. The company archives, held by the University of Glasgow, include thousands of carpet design drawings but few of these are reliably dated to the nineteenth century. I’ve been able to use the ‘Board of Trade Representations and Registers of Designs’ at the National Archives, Kew, to fill this gap by examining dated designs that Templeton registered for copyright in the second half of the nineteenth century.


Volume of Carpet Designs

Figure 1: One of the volumes of carpet design representations, BT 43/115

Following the Ornamental Design Registration Acts of 1839 and 1842, manufacturers were able to protect their designs against piracy by rival firms by submitting what were known as ‘representations’ to the Board of Trade. Carpet weavers, along with the makers other woven and printed textiles, relied on novelty and the reinterpretation of popular styles to keep ahead of their competitors, and copying was endemic. They used the design register enthusiastically, registering over seventeen thousand unique designs by 1900. The representations they submitted were usually line drawings on tracing paper, which were pasted in to sixty-five intimidatingly large bound volumes. The multitude of drawings make each volume over thirty centimetres deep and they are heavy enough for me to have needed manual handling training to consult them.


Rather than explaining the technique of sorting Templeton’s designs from this mass of visual information, I’d like to focus on the experience of seeing the carpet designs in such quantity. Mass is a pertinent word. The manufacturing technologies that I am studying from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as Templeton’s patented Chenille Axminster process, were ingeniously designed to produce multiple copies of a design. They made carpet weaving faster and cheaper than ever before, mass-producing goods for mass-consumption by a growing middle-class mass-market.


Design Pattern

Figure 2 Templeton representation BT 43/128/149905, 10 March 1862.

The purpose of the register of Ornamental Designs, however, was not to represent an undifferentiated mass of production, but to make explicit the individuality of each design. Each representation is individually numbered and unique. As a consequence, the register also anthologised designs into a more concentrated form than ever before. Turning the pages, I encountered in a short space of time many hundreds of floral chintz, ‘oriental’ and geometric drawings; more than in any catalogue or individual company archive. Counter to the register’s organisational intent, the experience became one of a disorientating, continuous patchwork of pattern.


The boundaries of carpet patterns can be difficult to define. Although the drawings are relatively small, many represent the ‘design unit’ of patterns that could be extended through repetition beyond the bounds of even these huge books. The looms on which the carpets were woven had technical limits that restricted the dimensions of pattern-repeats, but these limits were pushed back by constant technological innovation. In the late nineteenth century it was most common for the repeating patterns of carpets to be bounded by border strips in a complementary pattern to make what were called carpet squares, but these were superseded in the twentieth century by growing popularity of ‘close-covering’ and wall-to-wall fitting. Patterns were then only confined by the dimensions of the room, albeit the smaller rooms of post-WWII suburban housing. In our imagination though, the repeating pattern of carpeting can run continuously across the surface of an indefinite floor plan, foreshortening to a room-horizon.


Digital Reconstruction

Figure 3 Digital reconstruction of pattern repeat from BT 43/128/149905.

The surreality of unbounded, domestic repeated pattern is reflected in its evocation in film and literature. The low-angled camera view travelling over the geometric carpet of the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, mimics the young Danny Torrance’s mental disorientation. Or the indefinite extension of repeating pattern into three-dimensional space in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, as conceived through the trauma experienced by the story’s heroine. Too much pattern can clearly be dangerous and, back in the National Archives Large Documents Reading Room, I was grateful to be able to close the volumes and return the designs to their ordered place in history.


With these archival records, as with so much of the material we encounter as researchers, ‘too much’ is part of the message. The massing of information in the design registers communicated to me an aspect of the commercial scene of carpet manufacturing in a visceral way that individual examples never could. Practically, I also improved my own strategies for rationing my time and attention, and for recording information. Part of my training as a researcher is to experience the potential boundlessness of things and apply parameters: selecting, reviewing and ordering. The experience of multiplicity focussed my mind on the relationship between the individual item and the mass from which it emerges, and by extension the wider context of objects, systems and lives to which it relates.


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