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Bespoke–not just a word

Bespoke Tailoring...not a synonym for custom.

While wasting time on that favorite time suck, Facebook, an ad popped across my news feed.  The ad promised bespoke pendants for necklaces.  I blinked at the stupid.  I sighed in exasperation and rolled my eyes at the degradation of understanding.  Somewhere, sometime over the years, the word bespoke has come to be seen as synonymous with custom.  It isn’t.

Bespoke, specifically, is a TAILORING term, i.e. sewing.  And not just loose flowing gowns, but specifically a tailored, carefully fitted garment.  Usually refers to men’s wear, although the argument could absolutely be made that women’s wear demands it’s fair share of tailoring too.  Mostly I weep for the lack of knowledge of finer things.  Bespoke Tailoring was once the sole province of Savile Row in London.  And while one can’t argue that shops have the right to make any claim they want, where is the truth in advertising?  How can you claim to sell Bespoke suits, when you really sell made to measure?  Degradation of the language is, sadly, endemic.

While this sad degradation of language and meaning confuses the masses, here is a quick and dirty breakdown of what exactly Bespoke Tailoring is.  A garment cut specifically to your measurements, without using an existing pattern as a base.  Essentially, it is draped from start to finish, giving you a carefully constructed, one of a kind, fitted garment.  Bespoke tailoring will seek to visually correct any oddities in your body.  Have a drop shoulder from scoliosis?  Bespoke tailoring can mask that.  Have a pot belly from too many nights out?  Bespoke tailoring.

This carefully crafted garment is the end result of MULTIPLE fittings.  Not just one where the tailor gets your measurements.  The multiple fittings are required to allow for adjustments based on fabric selection.  Even fabrics of similar weight can wear differently when custom tailored in a bespoke manner.  A Bespoke garment will cost upwards of $1000.  This is a LOW end Bespoke suit.  $4000 to $5000 is not uncommon.  Everything from the service to the materials is top quality.  It is literally a suit meant to last a lifetime.  It is anathema to the Walmart, Forever 21, buy today, throw it out tomorrow, culture which has permeated our world.

Words matter.  Words have meaning.  Bespoke does not just mean custom.  It is so much more than custom made.  Bespoke entails artistry.  It is poetry in fabric, care in construction, hand crafted.  Bespoke means elegance and refinement.  Recognize!

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5,000 Years

5000 Years

Time is so accelerated today.  Technology advances practically at the speed of light.  Micro-chips double in capacity year over year.  The camera on your phone is as good as if not better than the camera’s you buy as separate items.  With the information of the world literally at your fingertips, it’s hard to put in perspective just how advanced silk weaving was for it’s day.  Silk has been found in Henan province dating to 8500 years ago.  And we know clothing for the elite in China has been made of silk for at least 5000 years.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned the impulse buy of 5000 Years of Chinese Costumes.  Which book came in while I was at Hot Raqs.  Then I had to prep to vend at Miss Fisher Con.  So I didn’t really get to sit down and look at until last night.  Now, I am a fairly quick reader, but I have not yet had a chance to actually read the book.  However, I quick glance through shows a wealth of pictures.  Photographs of extant garments.  Line drawings of what garments are believed to look like, based on bronze statues found in tombs or left as relics or family artifacts.

And it is fascinating!  The line drawings almost always have a picture of the statue it was based off of.  And from that one can see the Chinese were exceptionally skilled weavers.  We may have been introduced to Damask by way of Syria, but there is little doubt the Chinese did it first.  They were brocading silks, as early as the Sui and Tang Dynasties (581-618 CE).  Satin is known as such because this weaving technique originated in Quanzhou, and was introduced to the West by way of the Silk Road, and Arab traders who called Quanzhou by the Arabic word, Zayton.

But the most exciting picture I found was on page 120, where there was a photograph of an extant garment.  Labeled as being from Huang Shen’s tomb of Southern Song in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, the garment is an Over-dress made from crepe fabric.  Now, in my post on Crepe de Chine, I had said the earliest reference I was able to find to Crepe de Chine was from the 19th century in France.

I should have waited to write the Crepe de Chine post.  The Song Dynasty was from 960 to 1279 CE.  So my guess was off by an alarming 600 years.  Which is good news for anyone who likes Song Dynasty costuming.  Not so good news for the egg on my face…

I have not yet had time to fully read this book, at this point I am giving it enthusiastic endorsement.  5000 Years of Chinese Costume is an excellent reference and I am excited to see what else I can learn from this beautiful book.

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Silk Noil

Silk Noil

Let’s start with Noil (sometimes spelled Noile).  From Fairchild, p. 415, “Short fibers removed during the combing operation of yarn making…the fibers sometimes are mixed with other fibers to make low-quality yarns or are used for purposes other than yarn making, such as padding, stuffing.  See BOURETTE SILK.”  Huh?  What is Bourette Silk?

Bourette Silk: “A coarse silk yarn spun from the waste that is produced in the manufacture of SCHAPPE SILK…the yarn is lumpy, irregular, and possesses low elongation.  Tufts from the nubs, noils, and other waste are interspersed throughout the yarn…” (Fairchild, p. 71.)

SCHAPPE SILK!  WHY!  WILL THE DICTIONARY DIVE NEVER END!

Ok, what is Schappe silk?  “A yarn made from silk waste that has been degummed, but only partially.  Synonym: SPUN SILK.” (Fairchild, p. 537).  Finally…familiar territory.

Essentially, Silk Noil is produced using the waste by-product of filament reels.  Even carefully unreeled silk is going to have uneven ends.  Those uneven ends are spun into Bourette Silk…or Schappe Silk…or better known as Silk Noil.  For some reason, probably because of the nubby slubs in the weaving, Silk Noil is sometimes mistakenly called Raw Silk.  Raw Silk has not been cleaned of is sericin.  You are closer to raw silk with Organza…or even with Schappe Silk… than you would be with Noil.

Silk Noil is surprisingly soft for a fabric that still has bits of cocoon woven in to it, has easy drape, and works well for tailored blouses, can be gathered, pleated, or tucked at will.  However, it is relatively thick compared to other silks, so too much gathering adds bulk.  Additionally, as it is the product of waste by-product, Noil is weaker than other silk fabrics.  Still stronger than cotton, but not as strong as chiffon, with it’s intact filaments.

As for Noil, when I Googled Noil in Fashion History, I found this wonderful blog by Revival Clothing, tracking use as far back as the middle ages.  More recently, it has entered fashion lexicon as part of Jedi costume, and Haute Couture.  Remember, when looking at the Dolce and Gabbana dress for $532 of silk noil…waste by-product.  Couture if a FASCINATING subject.  And a strong argument to become a skilled seamstress in your right!

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Taffeta–from the Persian

Taffeta

As silk made it’s way along the silk road and down in to Persia, the Persian’s added their own twist.  Literally.  Taffeta is from the Persian word Taftah, meaning “twisted woven,” Taffeta was first woven in the Third Century in Persia (p. 68, Parker).  Taffeta is a smooth, tightly woven, plain weave fabric, created by adding additional twist to the threads during weaving.  This adds strength to the fabric so that this is a very stable weave, with minimal fraying.  It still frays, but not as bad as organza or chiffon would.  Typically, the weft threads are slightly heavier than the warp threads, which also adds the smooth luster and face of this heavy fabric (p. 604, Fairchild).

Taffeta is produced using two effects, already discussed in my post on True Damask, silk pieces can be created by piece dying or by thread dying.  When Taffeta is piece dyed, it tends to have a slightly softer hand.  If it is thread dyed for shot silk effects or for stripes, the fabric tends to be slightly stiffer and have a bit more body.

Regardless of piece dyed or thread dyed, silk taffeta is where scroop originated.  Now, the dictionary definition provides that scroop is added artificially by treatment with dilute acid.  This is true for nylon or rayon taffetas, but scroop is a natural property found in silk (Fairchild, p. 540), and especially noticeable in Taffeta.  That rustling sound is what let Rhett Butler know that Mammy had accepted his gift of a red silk petticoat.  It is that noticeable.

Because it is a plain weave silk, it will crease, pleat, and gather, beautifully.  It drapes fantastically, and is relatively easy to work with, when compared to satin or lightweight organza.  And if the scroop bugs you too much?  Wash it in warm soapy water.  Missing the scroop.  Return it…with dilute acid!  From Julie Parker “…soak it in a solution of 5% white vinegar and water. (p. 68).  Huh….I guess dilute acid does add the scroop!

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Cartridge Pleating

Cartridge Pleating

No, not *another*  how to on Cartridge Pleating.  There are literally dozen’s of how to’s for this particular technique.  What I wanted to know, was where does it come from?  Wikipedia has it popular during the 15th and 16th Centuries and making a resurgence in popularity during the 1840’s.  Which is all true, as far as that goes.  But not really helpful in explaining this:

Close up of what appears to be Cartridge Pleating…
…on a Yuan Dynasty Robe, Mongolia

Images are from the SCA China Facebook page, where an enquiring seamstress wanted to know if her eyes deceived her.  And all of the skilled seamstresses present agreed that that very much appears to be what we call Cartridge Pleating.  On a 13th or 14th century Mongolian Robe…no where near Renaissance Europe, you might note.

Now, my time machine is in the shop, so I am unable to ACTUALLY confirm with the original tailor that that is, yes, cartridge pleating.  And what every single one of those tutorials above lists is how cartridge pleats are made:  Run two or more rows of evenly spaced basting stitches parallel to each other, then pull them up to create the gather before hand stitching them to the waistband. Which sounds an awful lot like: “Two rows of tightly-sewn stitches hold these pleats in place, and then the bodice is connected to the upper stitched line.”  That description is from a book called Traditional Korean Costume, and is describing a men’s coat excavated from the tomb of Yi Hwang.

Now, for those who dislike following links, Yi Hwang was a Confucion scholar who lived from 1501-1570.  This is certainly falls within the 16th century zone when cartridge pleats were known to exist.  But there is no smoking gun connecting European tailoring techniques to Asian tailoring techniques.  Silk and other textiles were widely traded on the silk road.  But it was the uncut goods that were traded, not finished garments, like we have today.  If we can believe Korea had cartridge pleating the in 16th century, is it impossible to believe Mongolia had it in the 13th century?

Even if you don’t believe the Mongolian hordes are capable of great refinement, they were certainly capable of raiding it from other cultures which they defeated and then folded in to the Mongolian Empire.  Which became the Yuan Dynasty upon Khublai Kahn’s inheritance of the title of Great Kahn.  Yet the hubris of mankind has all of us who do European costuming believing that cartridge pleating was the sole provenance of Europe.  I’ve even heard that the name Cartridge Pleating is from pleating the fabric over a bullet casing or cartridge.  However, there is a SERIOUS flaw in that logic.  Cartridge pleating existed in the 16th century.  Yet the first actual Cartridge for firearms wasn’t invented until 1845.  Paper cartridges existed for muskets as early as the 14th century, but would have been VERY expensive and not likely used in tailor’s shops.

But wait!  How can you know paper cartridges wouldn’t have been used in tailors shops?  Because paper cartridges were filled with gun powder.  And why would you want something easily combustible, a hot military item, closely controlled by the government, in a shop filled with flammable cloth?  One slight accident and you lose EVERYTHING.  Who would risk that?  A more likely explanation is that gauging was in use for many centuries.  When firearms became the hot new thing for up and coming nobility to own, enterprising tailors everywhere began calling the technique cartridge pleating to cash in on the military fervor of the day.

Again, my time machine is broken, so this is all speculation.  But it’s my belief that any method of gathering large quantities of material was widely available to tailors the globe over. Much like many cultures simultaneously figured out the art of spinning and weaving, they all figured out gathering quite handily.  And gauging pleats were a lovely way to show off a tailor’s craftsmanship and technique.  At least, that’s the way I’m going to tell it.

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Shot Silk

Shot Silk

No, this is not another reference to Silk in Warfare.  Shot silk is a specific effect which is created when the warp threads are one color and the weft threads are a second, complimentary or contrasting color.  Most commonly found in Taffeta’s, shot silks require a bit of forethought to manufacture.

Now, the reason for the forethought isn’t just what colors do I want to use.  Typically, when a length of fabric is woven, the looms do their job, and the end product is then dip dyed in a large vat, to produce an all over color.  Or in cases of calico prints, they’ll be sent through the printers to have the design printed on them.  But in shot silk, the threads must be dyed before weaving can commence.  This requires calculation at the manufacturers end.  How much thread will actually be needed in each color to make the ordered yardage.  And then that much thread must be dyed in separate vats, then placed in mordants for the dyes to set.

Then the weaving commences.  The result is pure iridescence.

Purple on the Warp, Blue on the Weft

Today this effect is called shot silk.  However, historically it has been called changeant, changeable silk, and shadow silk.  Now, this effect is by no means a 21st century innovation.  The wikipedia article on shot silk reports a 12th century description of liturgical vestments from the 7th century of purple and yellow.  So this technique dates back to the middle ages, at least to the 12th century, and as far back as the 7th, if the article is described accurately from that time.

It was unquestionably fashionable in the 19th century, as shown in this image from The Met.

Changeante Silk 1840s

And there is reference to changeante silk throughout many books on 18th century dress.  I suspect that much like all things, the trend comes and goes.  So while shot silk is referenced in the 12th century clergy wear, it’s popularity waxed and waned over the intervening centuries, sometimes en vogue, sometimes not.  Such are the vagaries of haute couture.  As Heidi Klum would say, one day you’re in, the next, you’re out.  Auf Wiedersehen!

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Learning new things

You think you have the idea for your next post.  Just a quick blurb about the thing.  Then you start to do some light research on the thing.  And realize, like Jon Snow, you know nothing.  Now, this is not inherently a bad thing.  It can be a VERY bad thing if you proceed to write on what you know nothing about.  If you’re smart, you’ll slow your roll, figure out how to pivot the idea.  I’m trying to be smart.

I’m already certain I will be re-visiting several of the blog posts I’ve written during this trek.  Updating them with more current or accurate information. Among the things I actually DID know, is that fashion in Asia changed as dramatically and rapidly as fashion in Europe did.  Why wouldn’t it?  Now to prove it.  And there in lies the bulk of what I don’t know.

While I want very much to learn about the various dynasties, a simple Google search revealed just how challenging this could be.  Being all about silk is fantastic, if you’re of European descent and you want to know all about Italian Silk, or French Silk, or Spitalfields Silk.  But when you are truly obsessive, when you want to track it back to the source, and the source is something you know nothing about…like, say fore example, China…out comes the old college research ability.  Skills I thought I didn’t need anymore.  Like the humbling time I confessed to my dad that yes, I did in fact need algebra.  And he laughed at me.  Because he’s my dad.

I know Nothing
Yep….that’s me!

So I return again to the Google cave, having randomly selected the Song Dynasty to start with.  And immediately hit upon a Fantastic Blog.  Which happily is a jumping off point.  Oh, and so is this $99 book.  Which I found through bookfinder.com for the bargain basement price of $78.  But, when one quests for knowledge, one hits the books.

I learned!
All that college learning…

And hopefully comes out the other side having learned something useful.

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Silk Knit

Silk Knit Sweater

When people think of knits, they think of wool sweater, or cotton knit athletic wear.  But much like any fiber can be woven, any fiber can be knit, including silk.  Silk knits range from very fine, single filament knits, to four or more ply strands available for home knitting.  Well, technically I guess you COULD knit at home with filament thread.  But even a rank novice knitter like myself knows that it would take a devilish amount of thread to knit a sweater from filament.

The Met lists this as a 17th century Silk Knit Sweater

Silk knit fabric is usually listed as Silk Jersey, so if you want to buy a silk knit, jersey is the best Google search term.  For Silk Yarn for knitting at home, many yarn shops will have this in stock.  Again, rank novice knitter here, but make sure the yard you purchase will work for the pattern you intend to knit.

As for sewing with silk knits…it can be devilishly hard.  Silk is already a very slippery fiber in general.  Knits are ALSO very slippery by nature.  But, this fabric is particularly luscious, clinging to curves, gathers beautifully, and the drape is pure sophistication.  On the flip side, knits in general are prone to shrinking.  A lot.  So either buy extra and make sure you pre-shrink before cutting, or determine ahead to dry-clean only the finished product.

Now, as for styles, like any knit, Silk Jersey is excellent for clinging styles and close fitting garments.  Also like any knit, Silk Jersey is not good for structured garments.

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True Damask

True Damask is fully reversible

What is a True Damask weave?  The original luxury weave for silk, Damask is “a rich silk fabric with woven floral designs made in China and introduced into Europe through Damascus, from which it derived it’s name (Fairchild, p. 170).  The introduction to Europe was by way of Crusader’s returning from the crusades by way of Damascus, Syria.  More commonly known as Jacquard due to modern damask is woven on a Jacquard loom, damask is a combination of satin and twill, or satin and plain weaves, to form a pattern.

So that is the simple explanation, But simplicity often needs more explanation.  In an earlier post I explained what is satin, plain, and twill weave.  When they are combined in to a single piece of weaving, they create damask.  Like this:

Acanthus Scroll Silk Damask
True Damask

So in the above picture, the plain weave is predominant, with the satin weave creating the design.  But the beauty of a true damask is that it is one hundred percent reversible.  So that the flip side of THIS design, looks like this:

The other side of Acanthus Scroll.

So here, the satin weave is predominant with the design being in plain weave.  Both images come from the same bolt of fabric…Acanthus Scroll Silk Damask.

Silk Damask is fairly easy to work with, will crease beautifully when ironed, gathers well, pleats well, is soft and draping and simply elegant.  And while it can be woven in one color, it can also be two-toned.  For two-tone damask, the warp threads are one color and the weft threads are a second color.  Two-tone damasks are thread died first.  This means the warp threads are dyed the first color, and the weft threads dyed the second color, prior to weaving.  The effect is less subtle than monotone damask but can be very dramatic.

Over the years, Damask has come to be synonymous with any scroll design with a vaguely eastern flavor.  Which is plainly inaccurate.  True damasks create this tone on tone design in the weaving for subtle elegance or dramatic effect.

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The Humble Caftan

8th Century Caftan

So here is a garment that is as old as time.  With origins going back to Mesopotmia, this simple garment constructed entirely of squares was originally cotton.  When silk found it’s way to the middle east,  it quickly became a favorite textile for the Caftan.  So how did this humble, ancient garment, survive from antiquity to present?  By being eminently practical.

Originally, the Caftan was the outermost garment worn by men throughout the middle east; however, in Morocco it is traditionally a woman’s garment, and even today enjoys a special place in couture of Morocco.  While worn throughout North Africa and the Middle East from Mesopotamia to present, the Caftan did not make the leap to Western fashion until the 20th century.

Between  November 14 and 26, 1894, Czar Nicholas II married the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, Alexandra Feodorovna.  The new Czarina was photographed wearing the traditional, Orthodox dress of Russian nobility…a heavily embroidered caftan.

Czarina Alexandra in Russian Orthodox Finery

This photograph sparked continued interest in the exotic east, and a love affair with the simple caftan was born unto the Occident.

Starting in stage productions in the 1910’s, this simple robe appeared in ballets, in movies, plays.  And even then, where theater went, fashion followed.  By the 1950’s to 1970’s, couture houses from Dior to Yves Saint Laurent to Halston were walking the simple cut garment down the isle as the next big fashion movement.  And it remain popular as a housecoat, as outer wear, as re-creationist costuming.  Caftan’s, while humble and straightforward, are popular BECAUSE of the simple cut, which allows adornment or even luxurious fabrics, to truly shine.  Simplicity is beautiful.  And the Caftan is simply elegant.