The Forgotten History of Bourne and Allen’s Mid-Century Textiles

DITCHLING, England — Bourne and Allen, a British textile company active in the mid-1900s, produced iconic woven fabrics during its heyday. Yet this mid-century textile powerhouse nearly vanished from cultural memory. 

Helmed by Hilary Bourne and Barbara Allen, partners in life and business, the company’s creations blend forward-looking modernism with traditional craft techniques and natural materials. They often used plant dyes and wools sourced from around the United Kingdom. Top department stores and design houses — Liberty of London, Heal’s, and Fortnum and Mason — carried their woven scarves, tweeds, and furnishing fabrics. And their fabrics took the spotlight during major theatrical and film productions of the era. They designed enormous stage curtains and furnishing fabrics for the Royal Festival Hall in London, built for the Festival of Britain in 1951 — a national event surrounded by fanfare that drew millions of visitors. And they produced 52,000 yards of custom-woven fabric to costume 452 actors and 25,000 extras for the hit film Ben-Hur.

A retrospective at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, titled Double Weave: Bourne and Allen’s Modernist Textiles, seeks to write Bourne and Allen — both the textile company and the queer couple who ran it — back into design history. The exhibition tells Bourne and Allen’s personal story and underscores the ways their inventive craftsmanship helped define British modernist design.

4 Double Weave Photo by Julie Smith Schneider
Press materials for the film Ben Hur and a recreation of a costume that Bourne and Allen made from brown Brora wool warp with red white and dark gray weft stripe. 

Based on archival research by a team of 10, the show explores the duo’s work, lives, and 40-year relationship. Sections highlight their weaving techniques, materials, globetrotting sources of inspiration, personal backstories, and career highlights. The displayed fabrics — a mix of swatches and longer lengths — showcase Bourne and Allen’s particular aesthetic and approach. Bright primary colors dyed with indigo (blue), madder (red), and weld (yellow) pop against natural shades of undyed sheep’s wool. Lurex glimmers against dark yarns. Alluring textures emerge from varied weaving techniques: plain weave, double weave, chenille, ikat, and floats of thick hand-spun yarns sometimes traverse the surfaces. 

The exhibit locates Bourne and Allen within a women-centered community of craftspeople in England beginning before World War II. Covering a wall near the entrance, a display titled “Map of intimacies: Women’s networks of love, friendship, and textile practice” (also sold as a pamphlet) traces the exchange of skills and knowledge, as well as the collaborative and intimate bonds of the friends, lovers, companions, business partners, and sisters who populated Bourne’s and Allen’s lives and shaped their work. 

To expand the scope of Bourne and Allen’s relevance through time, the show places commissions by two contemporary artists — Poppy Fuller Abbott and Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings — in conversation with their work. Abbott, a weaver from Sussex, made a piece from indigo-dyed linen with silk floats forming squares across the surface, inspired by the midcentury designers’ techniques. She also wove a collection of textile samples that recreate Bourne and Allen’s fabrics, which visitors are encouraged to handle. A film, playing in a dedicated viewing room, shows Abbott’s weaving process in action.

Mudawi-Rowlings’s site-specific installation, titled Drawn to the Light (نور), fills the gallery by the museum’s entrance with long swathes of silk, dyed with plant materials (madder, indigo, buckthorn, buckthorn, coreopsis) and printed with personal symbols and imagery (cowrie shells, buildings, camels, crescents, poppies, lettering). “One thing I aim to express in this work is our interconnectedness to each other, our intertwined histories and environments,” the British-Sudanese textile artist writes. “This personal investigation is made all the more essential for me with current events in Sudan, devastating a homeland and disrupting a diaspora to which I belong.”

Meditations on love and loss, home and land, wind through Double Weave. This telling of Bourne and Allen’s nearly lost story echoes the process of their chosen craft. To weave is to tug at the long threads of traditions that crisscross time and place, and carry on conversations through generations, in fabric form. 

8 Double Weave Photo by Julie Smith Schneider
Bourne and Allen, pair of indigo ikat curtains (c. 1950s)

Double Weave: Bourne and Allen’s Modernist Textiles continues at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft (Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, East Sussex, England) through April 14. The exhibition was co-curated by E-J Scott, Jane Hattrick, Shelley Tobin, Veronica Issac, Jane Traies, and Suzanne Rowland.

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