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Where Do Patterns Get Their Names?

A few months after the launch of ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I’m already hot-footing it on book #2, a freewheeling cultural history of graphic patterns like polka dots, stripes, camouflage, fleur de lis, and a zillion others. Gearing up on early research, I wrote a history of polka dots for Slate and a multi-part series on camouflage for The Believer. More recently I blogged the backstory of Sillitoe tartan’s name—that’s the black-and-white checkerboard print British policemen wear. Along the way I got to wondering: Where do all these names for patterns come from?


Take Tattersall. It’s a boxy, refreshingly summery print now associated with men’s dress shirts. Was there indeed a Mister Tattersall? Pattern fans, allow me to tickle you with the answer: yes! It originates with Richard Tattersall, who founded the bloodstock horse auctioneers of the same name in 1766 in London’s Hyde Park. The telling print used to grace the thoroughbreds’ blankets, explaining both its mannish provenance and its whiff of the outdoors. Now “Tatts” sells 10,000 thoroughbreds at 15 auctions globally.

What about the Plimsoll mark? OK, let’s backtrack to perhaps the original question: What IS the Plimsoll mark? A circle bisected by a horizontal line, this simple grapheme shows the maximum loading weight of a ship. If the Plimsoll mark rides about the water, your vessel is safe from sinking; if not, you’re not.

Plimsoll by Llosatras on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jameva/9981560535/

I can’t improve upon this explanation of Mister Plimsoll from 99% Invisible, in partnership for this episode with Humans in Design’s Tristan Cooke:

The load line was named after the crusading British MP Samuel Plimsoll. The advent of insurance in the 19th century created an incentive for ship owners to purposely sink their own ships and collect the insurance money. This grim practice became so widespread, and killed so many merchant seamen, that the over-insured, overloaded vessels became known as “coffin ships.” Samuel Plimsoll (“the sailors friend”) fought for sweeping merchant shipping regulation that led to the adoption of the load marking that bears his name.

 Grey toes by eek the cat on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eek/9642554/

Here’s a delicious addendum: Plimsoll shoes describe a canvas-topped shoe with rubber bottoms, a category that includes Vans slip-ons, Tretorn sneakers and Converse All-Stars. As Interwebs apocrypha would have it, the name stuck because of an apt comparison with the Plimsoll mark on ships: if the shoe got wet below the line where the rubber and canvas joined, your feet stayed dry; if not, then not.

Gorge by Michael Mandiberg on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/theredproject/3872931522/

Remember last summer’s Roy Lichtenstein exhibit that toured the US? He’s perhaps the best-known wielder of “Ben-Day dots,” that delicate stippling of dots used in newspaper illustrations, comic books, and the like. Invented by—wait for it—Benjamin Henry Day Jr, the technique consists of tiny, overlapping dots that optically blend to produce shadow effects or nuances in color. They differ from their cousins, halftone dots, in that Ben-Day dots are always equally sized and distributed; it’s only their relative positioning that produces a sense of gradation, volume and shadow.

However, not all pattern names stem from some enterprising gent, shrouded in the mists of time. The Palestinian pattern keffiyeh derives from the Latin word cofea, for head covering. Originally a neutral folk cloth, wearing it took on a political tone in 1936 when every Palestinian chose to wear keffiyeh to camouflage the anti-Israeli rebels hidden among them. Today that political symbolism has firmed up: Red-patterned keffiyeh indicates a socialist-leaning or Hamas Palestinian, while black stands for a Fatah allegiance.

Keffiyeh B&W by Bethany Khan on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bethanykhan/4030690968/

As past and future heroes of pattern emerge in my research, I’ll be sure to keep you posted. For now, picture me vanishing in a sulphurous puff of camouflet. A practical joke dating to 16th century France, a camouflet started by lighting the tip of a hollow paper cone and holding its smoldering end under someone’s nose while they slept. As they inhaled a noseful of smoke, they’d bolt upright, awake (and presumably fairly ticked off). The term camouflage also stems from the French verb camoufler, to make oneself up for the stage.


Want more colorful insight from Jude Stewart? Check out Color Palettes & Patterns. In this download, you’ll discover the history of color, how certain colors have gained and lost favor over the years, and explore the backgrounds of different prints and patterns. 

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