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by Bill Jackmann 
courtesy of
antiquexplorer | The magazine for the antique world | October 2005 |

Thomas Stevens established his weaving business in Coventry in 1869 amidst mass
unemployment in the silk mills. This was because economist and statesman Richard
Cobdem had opened the flood gates to cheap foreign imports nine years earlier. 45 per
cent of the population of Coventry earned their living from manufacturing silk products
at this time and had done so for the previous 150 years. The situation was so bad that
over 9,000 skilled people emigrated to find work elsewhere. Thomas Stevens was an
exception and for reasons unknown, decided to stay.

Stevens had been apprenticed into the weaving trade as a boy where the French
Jacquard loom, invented in about 1790, particularly intrigued him. He stripped the 
loom down and adapted it to manufacture a new silk with deeper images that stood 
out in a fascinating and new way, rather like a
modern 3-D effect.

However, Stevens was not the first person to produce pictures from the Jacquard
loom. Earlier black and white pictures had been produced. For example, James Hart
produced pictures of Queen Victoria and Napoleon but the modifications that Stevens
made enabled him to produce superior pictures in glowing colours. He christened his
handiwork 'Stevengraphs' and his name is now used for all silk weaved pictures and
bookmarkers manufactured in the UK at that time.

His new technique required the manufacture of cards with thousands of perforations
which were fed in sequence into the loom. A bookmarker only 13 inches long might
require as many as 5,500 perforations.

The designs were by Welch and Delton, not Stevens himself. First a drawing of the
design was made and coloured - this could take one man 14 days of constant work. When it had been approved it was manually enlarged onto card and sketched in pencil.
Then every strand of silk to be used in the picture had to be carefully drawn in and
coloured. This operation took a further 14 days. The enlarged card was then checked 
for accuracy and new cards were cut for every colour used. This was difficult work
which placed great strain on the artist. Next the cards were laced together and laid out
on the loom in the order of printing of each colour.

It was the bookmarkers that made Stevens his fortune as they were inexpensive to buy
and covered a wide variety of popular subjects. By 1862 he had nine different book-
markers and each one represented weeks of painstaking work.

He was an astute businessman and used the press to his advantage. He sent them 
free samples and very quickly became a household name. The popularity of his work
was such that soon others were copying them; Messrs , Mulloney & Johnson of
Coventry were successfully prosecuted by him and fined 5 with costs. Stevens did
permit other manufacturers to copy him under license and after 1862 his name woven
into the back edge of all his bookmarkers, usually at the bottom.

Stevens also promoted himself on cards attached to the bookmarkers. Firstly in the
1860s with the company name and logo then, after 1870, he embossed them and added
the many awards he had won and the word 'inventor'. These now scarce and fetch up 
to 150 each.

Later he boasted of over 900 different designs of pictures, calendars, birthday silks,
ladies neckties, fraternal orders and bookmarkers, but there is some doubt as to the
accuracy of this figure. He certainly did produce a huge range of bookmarkers depicting
famous people of the day such as John Knox, Bunyan, Shakespeare, Robbert Burns
and Wesley. There was also a series of 12 with music on them which proved very
popular as presents for christenings, birthdays and weddings. At the time a great many
bibles and prayer books had his bookmarkers in them.

Luckily for the collector, because his designs were so ruthlessly copied, he had them
patented so the authentic Stevens designs are catalogued. Registered designs have a
diamond shaped stamp containing a series of letters and numbers on a discreet corner.
These disclose when the pattern was registered, but not when it was made.

By carefully peeling back the pointed end of a bookmark you should see Stevens
name. If it's not there then the chances are that either the bookmark was made before
1862 or more likely it isn't genuine. They should also come complete with tassels.

These simple strips of woven silk gradually lost their appeal over the years and in the
1930s there were huge stocks of them lying unsold in the factory warehouse; they lay
there until a decade later Hitler's bombs destroyed them. Despite this, it's not too late to
start collecting, even if the ones you find are not actually by Thomas Stevens they are 
all wonderful intricate objects, rich in history and of great beauty.

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