Tucked inside two early Georgian townhouses in the Greenwich area of London, the Fan Museum opened in 1991 “to promote awareness and appreciation of the diverse history, culture and artistry of fans and fan making,” according to its website.
And on a recent sunny Saturday in the museum’s trompe l’oeil-painted Orangery, its founder, Hélène Alexander, 90, was describing the history of fan making to four women and a young girl who were seated around a table covered with paper and other materials. (“Fans are as old as hot weather,” she told them.)
The visitors were there to make their own fans, with the guidance of Caroline Allington, a fan specialist who also has done such sessions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Wallace Collection, both in London, as well as the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
In interviews by phone and email, Ms. Allington, 69, talked about the history of fans, some artists who have made them and her own first purchase. The discussion was edited and condensed.
How did you get into fan making?
I am the daughter of an engineer — later a commercial airline pilot — and an art teacher. I grew up knowing that we make, mend and fix things. We had fans that my father brought back from trips to Hong Kong and so on, and at age 16, I bought my first fan from a junk shop.
With incidents of extreme heat, more people might be tempted to carry a fan. But they’re hardly a new accessory, are they?
We don’t know exactly where the oldest ones came from but there is an Egyptian tomb painting that shows a cat fanning a mouse. Fans were imported into Europe from the East, along with luxuries such as silks and velvet, and for a long time were only for the rich. In the East, both men and women used, and still use, fans. It is only in the Western world that they are primarily a female accessory.
What are the basic types of fans?
“Fixed” fans tend to be made of rigid or semi-rigid materials, such as palm leaves, or have what’s known as a “leaf” of fabric or paper stretched over a rigid frame. These tend to be the oldest examples, from places like China or India.
Folding or collapsible fans tend to have rigid sticks made from material such as wood or bone, with flexible leaves of fabric, lace or paper. Brisé fans are folding fans made of just sticks, often of wood; cockade fans, also called circular fans, can either be brisé or have a leaf made of paper, fabric or woven fiber of some sort.
On fans, the outer sticks are called the guards and are usually thicker, sometimes made of ivory or mother-of-pearl, to protect the softer, more delicate parts of the fan when it’s closed.
What skills are involved in making fans?
Just about every art and craft can be found in fans, and fan making is usually the result of many craftsmen and women’s work: weavers, paper makers, carvers, gilders, artists, lace makers, embroiderers, metal workers, jewelers and so on. In the West, well-known jewelers such as Fabergé made fans for the very rich. In the East, artists such as Hiroshige of Japan designed fan leaves. Cheaper fans for the rest of us were mass produced using cheaper materials.
Do you have a favorite style of fan?
I like fontange fans of the 1920s and ’30s. That’s a fan where the guard sticks are shorter than the paper or fabric leaves so the fabric comes up in a curve. They tend to not last very well. But they’re fun and they’re really effective.