Real homes: Life's rich tapestry

Antique textiles, long confined to country estates, are suddenly appearing in Habitat houses. MARY ROSE THOMPSON reports

Coming from an interior designer it is a shocking admission, but Alidad, voted best interior designer by Elle Decoration, House & Garden and The World of Interiors in 1997, has not redecorated his Mayfair flat for 15 years. This isn't a question of laziness or even, God forbid, lapsed taste. Rather, it's testament to Alidad's enduring love affair with antique fabrics. "I just love textiles," he says. "I love the colours and textures, so I not only have them on the floor, I take them up the walls as well by hanging a 17th-century velvet instead of the Old Master that I can't afford."

It's not the sort of decorating people have traditionally thought of doing - musty old carpets and heavy curtains feel destined for a Jacobean mansion rather than a modern house. But while you may feel your studio flat would look rather odd decked out in wall-to-wall tapestries, people are starting to realise that a bit of decorative textile can go a long way. Leading by example, Alidad - formerly Sotheby's youngest ever head of department, working with Islamic art and textiles before setting up his own business at 30 - has gone the whole hog in his voluptuous apartment.

Imagine you have just stepped out of a gondola on the Grand Canal, climbed up some gloomy stairs and entered the brilliant luxury of a Venetian palazzo, decorated with the weathered opulence of old velvets and brocades. His fabrics are like hidden objects in a puzzle. An 18th-century silk embroidered panel hangs from a mantelpiece; an antique Indian hanging of silk velvet covers a table; a swathe of Italian woven silk and linen covers a bed; pieces of old rug are flung over doors or upholstered on to ottomans; 18th-century French silk pelmets are used above modern curtains. When imagination runs thin, a piece can always be turned into a cushion.

It sounds impossibly grand, and Alidad wouldn't deny the luxury of it. But look at the bottom of that ottoman. Isn't the carpet a little, dare one say it, faded? And that piece of embroidery on the fender, yes, it is most definitely frayed. Alidad beams, thrilled you have noticed the enhancements of age.

"All my rugs have holes in them, and because I love them and don't want to change them I just put another rug or kilim on top of the holes." Besides, restoration is painstaking, time consuming and expensive. But what do his rich clients make of these imperfections? "Sometimes the condition is terribly important," he concedes. "But for myself I like the worn-out torn look."

Peta Smyth's shop in Moreton Street, Pimlico, is a good starting point for those interested in exploring the world of antique textiles. She deals in all kinds of mainly 17th to 19th-century European work, from tiny silk tassels for a few pounds to Aubusson tapestries worth thousands. She finds a lot of pieces for Alidad, but she is welcoming to the non-expert. "Every collector was once just a browser who discovered how wonderful an old piece of cloth can look hung on the wall above a bed," she says.

A pair of 18th-century needlepoint cushions in mint condition can cost pounds 500, but there are cheaper ones. Peta also sells fragments rescued from larger pieces for as little as pounds 20 which can be converted into cushions.

Old curtains are another good buy for those with sewing skills. However, the disadvantages are that you may not find what you like when you need it, and that it may not match your decor - there are no samples, remember. No problem, says Alidad. "If you are not afraid of colour - I'm not talking about obviously clashing ones - they will blend in. Give them two weeks and it will be all right. That's why I never, ever match colours."

Sophie Jennings, a student, was recently seduced by her first piece, a birthday present from her mother. It is an Afghan hanging made of radiant silk squares, some embroidered, which are patchworked together by strips of coarser linen on to which have been appliqued silk diamond shapes. "Imagine the work! I think it was part of a bride's dowry. My mother paid about pounds 125 for it in an antique shop in Suffolk. We don't know if she was ripped off, but I don't care."

Fabrics from Africa, India and the Far East can look particularly striking in plain modern settings. Joss Graham in Eccleston Street, London SW1, has a stunning collection of ewe cloths from Ghana and Nigeria. These are woven with personal motifs in narrow strips that were then sewn together into fabulous gowns. Phulkaris, Indian wedding shawls, cost from pounds 200 to about pounds 600 and an embroidered toran (doorway hanging) from Gujarat is pounds 85. He now also stocks contemporary ethnic fabrics and artefacts. As at Peta Smyth's, everything is in good condition.

Meanwhile, Alidad wants to produce new fabrics but with the same scale of pattern and texture as the old ones. It would be a mammoth undertaking - making new looms, teaching weavers old skills. Certainly it will leave no time for redecorating the flat.

Alidad features in 'The Antiques Show' on 4 May at 8.30pm on BBC2.

MATERIAL GIRLS

Local antiques fairs are usually good hunting grounds for antique textiles. Today is the last day of the Decorative and Antiques Textile Fair at the Marquee, Battersea Park, London SW11. The next Summer Olympia Fine Art & Antique Fair is 3-13 June.

! Textiles placed in full light will fade and fibres will be weakened. Alidad believes gentle fading is part of the romance of age, but it will reduce the sell-on value if that is important to you. Equally, extreme humidity can cause mould and smell; excess dryness makes fibres brittle and easily torn.

! Modern detergents can distort old dyes; mop up spills with paper towels. The Museum and Galleries Commission (0171 233 3683) has a Conservation Register for any queries.

! Peta Smyth Antiques: 42 Moreton St, London SW1 (0171 630 9898); Joss Graham: 10 Eccleston St, London SW1 (0171 370 4370).

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