European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Designers

The Dignity of Design: William Kilburn


Is the Designer an Author? Meet the man who campaigned for design copyright – in 1787.

William Kilburn was born in 1745 Dublin. Since a very early age, he demonstrated to his family and above all his father, the architect Samuel Kilburn, a passion for engraving and drawing.  After moving to London, he became known in the artistic world as illustrator of the ‘Flora Londinensis’, a book that visually described London’s flora of the mid 18th century, published by William Curtis in 1777.

He was also a talented designer and printer of calico. While he was working as calico printer at Wallington, in Surrey, he noticed that a London warehouseman used to sell his original designs to a firm in Lancashire. There, his designs were copied and printed on cheap fabrics. Actually, it was very common to proceed in the way: the trade was in fact carried out in the same way in Carlisle, Aberdeen and Manchester.

This led Kilburn to lead a campaign to grant designers the protection of the authorship of their work. In March 1787 he appeared as chief Petitioner in front of the Parliament, asking for design copyright protection in the textile industry. After his petition, the House of Commons proposed a Bill to control plagiarism. This infuriated textile manufacturers, who protested fearing the end of their thriving businesses. However, the bill was passed in May 1787. It was titled: “An Act for the Encouragement of the Arts of designing and printing Linens, Cottons, Callicoes and Muslins by vesting the Properties thereof in the Designers, Printers, Proprietors for a limited Time.”

The bill was only effective for a ‘limited time’, that is, two months after the first release of the design. Nevertheless, this was one of the first step in the recognition of the originality of the work textile designers did, and a clear affirmation of their profession and authorship within the realm of production.

The V&A holds hundred of designs by William Kilburn. Why don’t have a look here?