Screen Stars: Tillett Textiles

Four generations of Tilletts have created beautiful fabrics for the home, using time-honored screen-printing techniques and a fresh perspective on pattern and color.

Text by Regina ColePhotography by Lesley Unruh

In Sheffield, Massachusetts, a small town in the Berkshires, Tillett Textiles maintains a screen library. Part of a rambling manufacturing building, the space measures some 8,000 square feet and holds innumerable screens. “We have screens that date back to the 1950s,” says Patrick McBride, who represents the family’s fourth generation producing screen-printed fabrics for the design trade.

Having that archive was to the company’s advantage when Hollywood came calling. The 2016 movie Jackie, a biographical depiction of Jacqueline Kennedy’s life shortly after President John Kennedy’s assassination, was filmed on sets replicating the Kennedys’ Sister Parish-designed White House living quarters and their home in Hyannis Port. The First Lady, who used Tillett Textiles for both her decor and her dresses, was a fan of the bright, casual, yet sophisticated patterns. When the filmmakers wanted accurate set materials, it was just a matter of going to the library and pulling out the appropriate screens. “In the Hyannis Port house, the dining room drapery was made from our Chrysanthemum pattern,” McBride says. “Jackie’s White House bedroom used our Daisy fabric for the headboard and the curtains. About 50 percent of the movie takes place in that bedroom,” he adds, smiling at the happy product placement.

It all started with McBride’s great-grandfather, who pioneered silk-screen printing in England. “It was actually a less expensive, more streamlined printing process than block printing,” McBride explains.

“Then, in 1932, my grandfather, Leslie Tillett, and his brother went to Mexico, where they launched the family business.”

Patrick’s grandmother, D.D. Doctorow, was a photojournalist sent to Cuernavaca, Mexico, by Harper’s Bazaar to shoot a feature about the brothers and their graphic, colorful fabrics. She and Leslie fell in love; she quit her job and joined the silk-screening operation.

McBride talks about his groundbreaking grandparents with special fondness. “I can always tell if it was my grandmother’s pattern,” he says. “She was prolific with florals.” The best-selling Chrysanthemum, one of her designs, has never gone out of production. “Everything she created has a hand-drawn quality to it,” McBride adds. “My grandfather’s patterns, on the other hand, are much more precise.”

In the 1940s, D.D. and Leslie moved to New York, where their globally influenced fabrics came to the attention of chic trendsetters. Their daughter, Kathleen, and Patrick’s father brought the business to the Berkshires in 1969. For the past twenty-eight years, the company has continued in its present location with four employees and a far-flung clientele. McBride, who took the reins in 2010 after heading up the company with his mother for twelve years, is the natural heir to the tradition. “I always liked to go to the factory to play when I was young,” he says, “My siblings avoided it.”

He has grown the company so that its fabric is in more showrooms, including at Webster & Company in the Boston Design Center.

Tillett employs traditional techniques of the trade, such as hand-striping, a method in which a worker uses a shoe-box-shaped tool to apply pigment to a long length of fabric spread out on a table, while walking backwards.

McBride also likes to push the envelope a bit, producing old patterns in new colorways on different fabrics. For example, Tropical Floral, originally printed in vibrant greens and yellows, takes on a new personality when printed on linen in soft blues. “People respond mostly to color; it’s one of the most reliable indicators of any specific period,” he says. “So, when we take an old pattern, re-color it, and print it on different fabric, it takes on a whole new life.” Today’s fabric choices are mostly linens and cottons, he adds. “It used to be wool, then polished cotton and cotton duck, then chintz.”

While the company still uses its historic designs, new ones are created constantly. “We have released twenty-five new designs in the last sixteen months,” McBride says, including Sierra Flora and Barcelona, inspired by Spanish tile, as well as a line influenced by irregular African wood blocks. He has also developed his own fabric line, T4 Textiles, named in homage to four generations of Tilletts. “T4 is our way of trying different things,” he says. “We use the line to discover new aesthetics. For us, it’s the fun part: exploring what to do next.”

Tillett Textiles & T4
Sheffield, Mass., (413) 229-8764
t4fabrics.com

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