A century of Textiles on Film

Reel-to-reel: with its restless looms, vibrant colours and rich textures, Britain’s textiles industry offers cinematic pleasure by the yard

All about Witney Blankets image 1 (1919) by BFIBritish Film Institute

The fabric of British society

Since the end of the 19th century, film has been weaving an extraordinary visual record of our nation’s history. Much of it is preserved in the vast archival collections of the British Film Institute (BFI). Textiles on Film explores one of Britain’s richest industrial stories as captured by generations of filmmakers. Explore the fascinating timeline which takes you inside the Mills in Scotland, fashion week in London and back on the street with the Punks on King's Road. 

All about Witney Blankets image 2 (1919) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Textiles in the early 20th Century

Witney, in Oxfordshire, was a long-established centre for woollen blanket production with the proud motto “Witney blankets cover the world.” Their glory days waned with the rising popularity of duvets and central heating - the last mill closed in 2002.

All about Witney Blankets (1919) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1919: All About Witney Blankets

This in-depth look at the blanket-making process from the middle of film’s silent era is a visual treat: from the washing of sheep in the Windrush River to the folding of the finished blankets.

Weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland image (1926) by BFIBritish Film Institute

A splash of colour

The Open Road, originally filmed in 1925-6, is a groundbreaking travelogue by colour cinematography pioneer Claude Friese-Greene, documenting life on the road from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He visited Kilbarchan, a village central to the weaving industry, capturing three generations of weavers in one scene.

Weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland (1926) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1926: Weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland

Wool production drove UK trade from the middle ages, while it was British textiles that triggered the Industrial Revolution, with great cotton and silk mills dominating the Lancashire landscape.

Meanwhile, the looms provided employment and created lingering cultural traditions.

This footage of Weavers in Kilbarchan, Scotland is taken from Claude Friese-Greene's The Open Road (1926). (1 min 16 sec)

Masculinity in Modes image (1931) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Parisian couture

By the time we reach the French capital in the 1930s, the style had evolved. Paris dominated the fashion scene, dropping its prices after the Wall Street Crash without sacrificing glamour.

Masculinity in Modes (1931) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1931: Masculinity in Modes

Women wear the trousers: sample the latest Parisian couture with this pretty stencil-coloured piece from Eve's Film Review. (33 sec)

Fashion Fantasy image (1946) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Fashion under austerity

The War might have been over, but the second half of the 1940s was all about belt-tightening. But some fashion-conscious ladies still craved a touch of glitter...

Fashion Fantasy (1946) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1946: Fashion Fantasy

Social change is a major theme of the archive, in this case aligned to fashion as personal expression, especially during the time of post-war austerity. (7 min 37 sec)

Air to Wear image (1957) by BFIBritish Film Institute

An advert for Aertex

Aertex, a fabric that had been invented in the 1880s, was marketed with a campaign claiming that it was “cool when it’s hot, warm when it’s cold”. It was the subject of an advert by the short-lived in-house animation unit of cinema advertisers Pearl & Dean. Aertex still prospers and has been worn by figures as diverse as Bobby Moore and Kim Kardashian.

Air to Wear (1957) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1957: Air to Wear

As full of holes as his Aertex shirt, Uncle Jeff’s tall tales are captured in crayon in this animated cinema ad. (30 sec)

Everything but Everything in Bri-nylon image (1959) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Bri-Nylon fantasy

Kitsch abounds in fashion-forward promos from the 60s. In one particularly fabulous film, a woman dreams of a husband and home clothed entirely in Bri-Nylon. 

Everything but Everything in Bri-nylon (1959) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1959: Everything but Everything in Bri-nylon

Fifties fashion meets carpet kitsch in this futuristic fantasy of domestic bliss courtesy of Bri-Nylon. Don’t miss the eye-popping parade of models in frilly nighties and stretch Nylon slacks ‘Twisting’ their way across the dance floor on the couple's strikingly 21st century looking wall-mounted TV monitor. (3 min 4 sec)

Wake up to Wool image 2 (1967) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Wool in the 1960s

Take a trip into the kaleidoscopic world of 1960s fashion in Wake up to Wool (1967), where poodles and their glamorous owners sport matching outfits. Many films capture much more than surface detail, exposing the prevalent attitudes of the time, which might be eye-opening to some.

Wake Up To Wool (1967) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1967: Wake Up To Wool

Escape into the kaleidoscopic (and speeded-up) world of 1960s fashion, where poodles and their glamorous owners sport matching hand-knitted outfits. (33 sec)

London Line No 373 image (1971) by BFIBritish Film Institute

London Fashion Week

In 1971, magazine TV programme London Line took a glimpse at London Fashion Week through the eyes of Barbara, a Ghanaian student during her second year at the London College of Fashion and Clothing Technology.

London Line No 373 (1971) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1971: London Line No 373

London Fashion Week 1971: the capital’s students strike a pose. (1 min 31 sec)

Surprise Visit image 1 (1974) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Cortaulds in the 1970s

Courtaulds, a major player in the textile industry, was confident it would continue to flourish in the 1970s, at a time when the Lancashire mills were closing at the rate of one a week. The mill proudly offered “jobs for everyone”, with extensive training and welfare provision. This was perhaps over-optimistic – as late as 1988, Courtaulds still had 30 mills operating, but these were eventually sold as textile manufacturing moved abroad.

Surprise Visit (1974) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1974: Surprise Visit

Ideas for trendy knitwear - and promising careers - in this peppy promo film for Courtaulds’ spinning factories. (35 sec)

Who Needs Brown Lisle Stockings? image (1975) by BFIBritish Film Institute

School uniforms in the 1970s

ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries) followed American Dupont in their discovery of Nylon and in the 1940s perfected lisle, a unique thread, which once turned into garments could hold its shape without the need for ironing. Hugely famous in the 1960s, it became a staple for the whole family until slowly falling out of fashion in the 1970s. This might explain why, by 1975, ICI were striving to find new markets for their product, such as children’s school wear.

Who Needs Brown Lisle Stockings? (1975)British Film Institute

1975: Who Needs Brown Lisle Stockings?

School uniforms needn't be dull and uncomfortable thanks to man-made, revolutionary thread Crimplene. (30 sec)

Kings Road punks - Captain Zip image 2 (1978) by BFIBritish Film Institute

Punk and fashion

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s legendary shop at 430 Kings Road led the way in shaping fashion durning the punk era. By 1978 the shop was already in its fourth incarnation, Seditionaries, its anonymous exterior a contrast to precursor SEX and the crooked shopfront of World’s End, which came later and is still open today.

Kings Road punks vs New Romantics (1981) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1981: Kings Road punks vs New Romantics

Politics and fashion often link, and one of the archive’s highlights is the work of Phil Munnoch, aka Captain Zip.

He documented London’s punk scene with an 8mm camera and an eye for striking visuals. In this 1981 film he shows punk’s decline and the rise of a rival moment, the New Romantics, during a time of profound change in British life. (2 min 4 sec. This film is sllent)

Kanga (1992)British Film Institute

1992: Kanga

Early 90s London gets a vibrant dose of African culture in Ian Watts’ mini-odyssey fusing dance, music and fashion. We join a young black couple who, embracing their African heritage, search Brixton market for traditional wedding clothes.

Kanga (1992) by BFIBritish Film Institute

1992: Kanga

Funded by the Arts Council as part of the Black Arts Video Project, Ian Watts' film offers a potted history of African cloth and design (the kanga is a versatile East African garment) and a showcase for stunning outfits by Tanzanian designer Farouk Abdillah.text

Credits: Story

The BFI National Archive holds a magnificent collection of film and television, from the birth of cinema to today.

Explore the Textiles on Film collection on BFI Player to see many more beautifully preserved films.

Curator (BFI National Archive):
Ros Cranston

Additional text:
Harriet Cash
Sonia Genaitay
Simon McCallum
Katy McGahan
Jez Stewart
Sue Woods

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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