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Britain in the late nineteenth century experienced a revolution in domestic comfort as rising living standards (the consequence of cheap food imports) generated surplus income for ordinary householders which was spent by many on home furnishings.

The Turkey red textile manufacturers, keen to develop their home markets in the face of growing competition abroad, responded to this new demand by creating ‘furniture’ designs in muted ‘tasteful’ colours and patterns and by inventing new printing techniques that reproduced an impression of such expensive fabrics as satin damask or velvet.

Domestic interiors were increasingly complex and cluttered, with reds and dark colours particularly favoured and with a growing use of upholstery and cushions to render furniture comfortable. The best front room, lovingly maintained by the proud housewife, was a prominent feature of new suburban housing and household guides for the later nineteenth century, which were aimed at the middle and working classes, put a stress on domestic hygiene through frequent washing and airing in sunlight. Turkey red cottons, with their fast dyes and easy drying qualities, were favoured for practicality as well as colour in the sitting room or bedroom. 

Turkey red cottons were relatively cheap and they were cheerful and practical. An article in the Girl’s Own Paper in 1902 titled ‘How I furnished my bed-sitting-room for twelve pounds’, described how to incorporate Turkey red cushion covers and swags with bows on basic furniture to give a warm and comfortable appearance on a tight budget.

‘Two red’ fabrics

Some of the National Museums Scotland pattern books contain ‘furniture prints’, with the term ‘two red furniture’ frequently employed by the original manufacturers. The two red process produced two shades of red on one piece of cloth, one being the typical dark red that was associated with Turkey red prints for export, the other a lighter pink. These ‘two reds’ were sometimes used in patterns which also involved white and yellow discharge printing and typically incorporated natural and floral motifs such as British woodland birds, roses, lily-of-the-valley and oak leaves, using similar designs to those introduced by William Morris and other ‘arts and crafts’ producers.

Selling and displaying Turkey red furnishing fabrics

A ‘home sales’ order book that has survived for William Stirling and Sons for 1895 (housed in Glasgow University Archives) shows orders of Turkey red sent out to British retailers ranging from big departmental stores like Wylie and Lochhead of Buchanan Street in Glasgow or Marshall and Snelgrove in London, to local drapers such as Henry Murty of Arbroath. An 1886 catalogue for the G.W. Harding’s linen warehouse in York details Scotch Turkey red table covers patterned with ‘ferns and flowers’ or in the ‘Queen’s household’ style, made up in five different sizes, along with Turkey red damask for sale by the yard.

An insight to the growing emphasis on home furnishings comes from the exhibition stands that the Turkey red manufacturers mounted at the great exhibitions. At the Manchester exhibition of 1887, William Stirling and Sons were noted for their display of Turkey red lace curtains and Turkey red and purple furnishing velvets. In the Glasgow exhibition of 1888, the same firm exhibited chintz velvets for chair coverings. So impressive were these furnishing displays that Queen Victoria, who attended the Glasgow event, purchased Turkey red cottons for use at Balmoral, almost certainly destined for the servant’s quarters.

Turkey red fabric was also available in the Vale of Leven for use in household furnishings when the factories sold off their damaged goods and rolls ends cheaply to the workers, and Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, describes in his autobiography Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (2012) how his father, a dyer in the interwar years, obtained cloth through less legitimate means.

My father occasionally stole from his employer, the United Turkey Red, in whose freezing and dilapidated factory on the banks of the River Leven he laboured much of his life away. I say stole, but it did not feel like that to him or to us. It was more like a covert form of redistribution, a way of evening the odds that were heavily stacked against the workers who earned the owners their profits. He would occasionally wrap around his small wiry body the discarded tail end of a batch of cloth he had been dyeing, and walk through the factory gates at the end of the working day with his raincoat on to disguise his added bulk. Most of it was given away. The contraband would reappear in our neighbour’s houses as curtains or cushion covers or cheerful dresses for the women. It helped to brighten our street, with the added spice that it was also an act of subversion.

  • Red and white stripes with flowers on top

    Red and white stripes with flowers on top
  • Two red birds and flowers

    Two red birds and flowers
  • White stars

    White stars
  • White swallows on red ground

    White swallows on red ground
  • Wine glasses and carafe

    Wine glasses and carafe
  • Yellow fruit and blue leaves

    Yellow fruit and blue leaves

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Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Home markets.’

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