A History of the Fan

by Gail Cowley

Throughout their history fans have had many uses. A fan can be functional, used in ceremonies, a fashion statement or even a means for advertising.

Fans were used in many ancient cultures, including Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Chinese. Some of the earliest examples include two fans discovered in 1922, inside Tutankhamen's tomb. These were quite simplistic in design, really just single shapes with a fixed handle and were often made from feathers, with the peacock feather being especially popular.

In Europe, Italy became the first fan users in about 1500. This came about because of the trade they conducted with the Orient. As the trade increased, so did the use of fans and in the 17th century the Guild of Fan Makers was established, marking the making of fans as a professional undertaking. Until the mid-17th century fans remained very much a luxury item, made from expensive materials and often bejewelled. The French Revolution provided a source for printed fans, sometimes produced to make a political statement.

The range and diversity of fans increased over the next hundred years and by the 18th century most countries were making fans of some kind, whilst the painting of them had become a recognised art form. By this stage they were very much linked to fashion and changed their design and decoration along with the couture of the day. In the 1920s it was fashionable to use a single ostrich plume and have it dyed to the same colour as your dress.

Fan use began to decline in the early 20th century and those still produced were often used as advertising mediums, with the notable exception of Spain where they became engrained within Spanish culture and were still used for their original purpose of keeping cool.

The most common styles of fan are folding, brisé (made from separate sticks, linked together top and bottom), cockade (opens into a full circle) or a simple rigid shape on a handle. The two outer sticks are described as guards and they are frequently decorated. Tortoiseshell, ivory, bone, mother of pearl, metal and wood have all been used as guards and sticks.

The Fan as a Modern Day Design


The fan shape still seems to hold a real fascination for needleworkers, even today, as fan shapes are recreated in quilting patterns and sewn together as patchwork pieces. They are often the subject of cross stitch and surface embroidery patterns, although the actual making of the three dimensional item itself is not often undertaken, possibly because of the perceived difficulty that many embroiderers or patchworkers imagine may be involved in its construction.


It's debatable why the fan shape holds such a fond place in our hearts - perhaps it's because of the images of the past it conjures up. Ladies sitting at a tea-dance, beautiful dresses, and a time when life appeared to be easier and more decorative than it is today (if you had servants at any rate!). Whatever the reason, fan have remained an enduring and constantly recurring image in needlework, still beloved today, even though the actual item is rarely used in our rushed and air-conditioned society, evoking memories of a more leisurely and decorative past.

Workshops and talks

Gail Cowley offers a range of day workshops and talks on different aspects of textiles and design throughout the UK and abroad.