Jude Stewart is the author of the new book Patternalia: An Unconventional History of Polka Dots, Stripes, Plaid, Camouflage, & Other Graphic Patterns. She also has written ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate and Fast Company, and she runs the creative agency Stewart + Company. She is based in Chicago.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: I first hatched the book idea after writing a short article for Print Magazine in 2009. Print’s readers are graphic designers, so the story was a just simple “patterns are back” trend piece – but I kept thinking about it long afterwards.
It had suddenly occurred to me that I could list all these pattern names – herringbone, gingham, houndstooth – but I had zero idea how I’d learned those names, or how those names even originated. My eyes were literally opened to pattern.
Patterns are everywhere, yet they get dismissed as mere decoration. As I write in the book’s introduction, “We literally wear these stories on our backs - and we haven’t yet begun to read them.”
Like my previous book on color, I wanted to see how many things a simple pattern could mean across cultures, disciplines and contexts – and Patternalia is the result of that curiosity.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research?
A: The first and biggest surprise was that nobody else had written a book like this! During my research I found several excellent books devoted to single patterns, like The Devil’s Cloth by Michel Pastoureau on stripes; many books about plaid (or tartan, as it’s properly called); and a whole mini-library of books about camouflage.
But none of these books answered the burning question that I was becoming fixated on: if you could enter, not the keyword “polka dots” but the actual, wordless visual of that pattern into Google search, what interesting stuff might you find?
As for specific surprises, some of the best stories came with patterns I didn’t always admire as visuals. For instance, fleur de lis: I’ve always found that motif a bit stuffy and conservative. But in fact, the history surrounding fleur de lis is extraordinarily deep and fascinating – nearly a millennium’s worth of history!
It also whetted my appetite to learn about medieval heraldry, which is the visual grammar that governs family crests across Europe. I wrote a Design Observer article about heraldry recently – I learned so much juicy stuff that transcended simple patterning, that it couldn’t possibly all fit into the book.
Same deal with camouflage: I didn’t particularly admire the look of the pattern at first, and I found the stack of military histories about it a bit off-putting.
But imagine my delight when I realized that camouflage is a story of inflatable tanks; decoy heads, tanks and cities; magicians sporting colonel stripes; jazzy warships – it goes on and (weirdly) on.
Q: One of the patterns you write about is the polka dot. How did that pattern come about, and why is it called polka dot?
A: I thought you’d never ask! This was the first pattern I researched in depth, as sort of a proof-of-concept for the book project.
Priority number one was to figure out why there were called “polka” dots. The name stems from a craze for polka music and dancing that swept across Europe and America from the 1840s to the 1860s.
Polka music was so intensely popular, in fact, there was tons of money to be made in hawking polka-themed merchandise. So people would buy polka sheet music by the cartload, load up on polka hats and dresses, but also purchase polka curtains and make “polka pudding.”
A clever unnamed marketer dubbed the spotted pattern the “polka dot,” and the rest is history.
What’s equally interesting, though is digging into what spotted patterns mean in cultures outside of Europe – what look to you and me like polka dots but go by some other name.
For instance, take the male initiation rites for adolescent boys prevalent among the Banda tribe of the Central African Republic and the Lega people of Democratic Republic of Congo. They daub white dots all over their bodies and other ritual objects, a sign of supernatural potency.
Other facets of the polka dot’s personality are meditative (in the form of Japanese ensoo, a Zen Buddhist practice of drawing freehand circles) and gangster (the five-spotted quincunx tattoo is surprisingly popular among prisoners across the world, which different symbolism depending on the culture).
Q: Stripes have various connotations, including prison garb. What are some of the most famous striped patterns?
A: The Lines & Stripes chapter delves a lot into stripes as they appear in men’s clothing – because men at every social stratum wear stripes of one kind or another, and indeed stripes often indicate the wearer’s rank in a certain pecking order like the military.
Working-class men have often worn hickory cloth, which is striped because of its durable twill pattern and whose name gives rise to the expression “hick.”
During the French Revolution, rabble-rousers wore red, white and blue-striped rosettes pinned to long coattails in a seersucker-like stripe. These were considered an homage to the humble stripes frequently on servants’ uniforms – so it showed solidarity with the common man.
And of course, striped business ties originated with Oxford university students who intertwined the ribbons from their boater hats to create an ersatz “striped tie” under their chins. By the 1920s, striped neckties had spread throughout England as part of boys’ school uniforms.
Q: You ask whether the fleur de lis was the first blockbuster pattern. Was it, and what are some other blockbusters you found?
A: Definitely a blockbuster! Like the Nike swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches, the fleur de lis became synonymous with French royalty since 1376.
Not only have they maintained this symbol as exclusively theirs for centuries, French royalty also managed to infuse this pattern with a richly varied symbolism that underlined their divine right to rule.
The three petals could symbolize the Holy Trinity; or faith, wisdom, and chivalry in military or secular contexts. One historian argues the three petals represent the medieval social classes of France: those who worked, those who fought, and those who prayed.
A very different “blockbuster” pattern is plaid, or tartan. It was outright banned in 1746 as part of England’s brutal subjugation of the Scottish Highlands. And no sooner was it banned than Britons everywhere were swooning over tartan.
It’s a nostalgic craze similar to the American cowboy – as soon as the frontier closed, American popular culture fell in love with the disappearing cowboy lifestyle. The tartan ban was lifted in 1780, but it persisted as a hugely popular pattern long after that.
A third “blockbuster” pattern is paisley. Paisley shawls originated as royal finery among Mughal princes in what is now India-Pakistan.
These ornate shawls trickled back to Europe, ladies demanded more of them, the British textile industry roared into production (with the Scottish town of Paisley leading the charge), and paisleys dominated European fashion for well over a century. The pattern itself, called boteh, abstracts the same of a mango, leech or date palm – there are numerous explanations.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m mulling a third book about numbers. Much like my feeling that patterns have distinct personalities, I also notice that I have these irrational hunches and feelings about numbers.
How did 13 become unlucky in Western cultures? What’s up with 666 and the devil? That’ll delve into numbers’ symbolism, superstitions, famous numbers in folklore across cultures, and some mind-bending stuff from mathematics, too.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Nope, I think that covers it! Thanks for your interest in Patternalia and for reaching out. It’s always a pleasure to talk with readers who’ve enjoyed the book and want to learn more about the experience of writing one.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb