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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

Persephone Cooper

A V&A/RCA MA History of Design and Material Culture programme graduate, Persephone's academic research focuses on the design and production of handcrafted textiles and their global trade networks during the eighteenth century. This was a period when everyone was more conscious of cloth and the skills required for their production.

Persephone has a first-class honours degree from Edinburgh College of Art in Applied Arts, specialising in textile design. She has many years of experience working as an independent designer in the fast-paced trend-driven fashion and textile industry, collaborating on unique design projects with world-leading global brands. Persephone holds a PGCE in further and higher education and as an educator and facilitator at degree and foundation level. She promotes cross-curriculum collaboration and global transdisciplinary educational partnerships.

Image. Letter requesting orders of cloth, unknown writer, Were & Co. Cloth Order Book, c. 1781-1789. Fox Family Archive, Tone Dale House, Wellington, Somerset.

Persephone Cooper-statement

Persephone’s research builds upon her deep-rooted interest in discovering and preserving historical archives and their fundamental role in uncovering new knowledge of design histories. This has resulted in research that has unearthed unique empirical evidence that adds to the scholarship of eighteenth century woollen textiles. Persephone’s curiosity about the materiality and varied forms of knowledge that grew from of these textiles stems from a career working in the global fashion industry and the many challenges businesses face in society today. As in the pre-industrial world, cloth and clothing are still at the heart of global economies, with a constant demand for new and alternative products. Trends are often considered the driver of the fashion industry, and a mindfulness of this perpetual fast paced trade further motivates her research.

Persephone’s broader practice as a designer and educator expands on her belief that design history plays a critical role in the success of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research to solve a wide range of global issues. Persephone has experience integrating her design history perspective in a range of global collaborative studies. These include the exploration of sustainable circular design systems for the fashion and textile industry. She is also keen to explore regenerative ways to use the physical environment in both its natural form and as an industrial material resource to solve broader worldwide debates, most notably the climate crisis.

Image: Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Flotilla of Fashion.


During the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had mastered the art of woollen cloth production and exploited its global trade networks. However, with the introduction of new materials such as cotton, the technical development of woollen cloth is often overlooked. Similarly, the regional differences between the design and production of woollen textiles are little known. Therefore, this research explores the provincial characteristics of eighteenth-century woollen cloth by using newly discovered archival evidence from a prominent but often forgotten merchant-manufacturer from the Devon and Somerset borders. It explores the design, production and trade networks used during the late eighteenth century, before the industry fully industrialised.

This research builds outwards from an order book kept by local textile producers Were and Co. Evidence of this nature, which combines cloth samples and commercial information, has often been used to foreground the complexity of mercantile activity in this period. I add to this that it provides a point of entry into a much larger community of small manufacturers – dyers, weavers, fullers, spinners, etc. - who were the mainstays of the Weres' success but are much more obscure in historical terms. I argue that the demand for more variety in cloth was led by the firm trying to maintain its global trade networks while at the same time trying to curtail the risk to its business during a time of great turmoil, c 1781 to 1815. Britain was involved in a series of conflicts during this period, many of which were part of its larger struggle for dominance in Europe and globally. Indeed, there was an escalation in the variety of goods made before the woollen industry industrialised that needs to be explained and linked to regional explanations for technical change. This investigation suggests the diversification in cloth design was also linked to the customer or agent's demand for new and better colours and styles of cloth for the new fashion market in regions of Europe. This research has explored ways of illustrating and measuring these findings to identify and understand how this merchant-manufacturer's business constraints in the production and trade of woollen cloth in the late eighteenth century were resolved.

Eighteenth century pattern order book
Were & Co Cloth Order Book, c. 1781-1798Were & Co Cloth Order Book, c. 1781-1798. Fox Family Archive, Tone Dale House, Somerset. United Kingdom
A Thames Wharf. c 1757. Samuel Scott. Victoria & Albert Museum.
A Thames Wharf. c 1757. Samuel Scott. Victoria & Albert Museum.The image depicts London's maritime peak, with bales of cloth in the foreground of the painting.