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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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Mongolian Clothing

Mognolian Clothing

In joining the SCA, the boyfriend and I were trying to determine persona.  This is a fairly common ritual for those who think they may be around for the long haul, and most people have a general idea of where they want to go with their character creation.  Vikings are common, as are 14th and 15 century knights, Elizabethan nobles, even Ottoman and Arabian persona are fairly well represented.  Less represented, at least in the West Kingdom, are Mongolians.  And the boyfriend, wanting to not follow the crowd, decided he wanted to be Mongolian.  And the more I learned about the Great Kahn (Genghis), the more on board I became with the idea.  To learn why I have nothing but mad respect for the “Barbarian Hoards” led by Genghis Kahn, I highly recommend Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford.

But this blog, this site in general, is more interested in textiles.  And in this case, what DID the Mongolians wear?  When the average Mongolian rolled out of bed in the morning, how did he or she dress?  So I set out to find out.  And let me tell you, this was not easy.  Mongolia, while not specifically insular, is not as mainstream as say, Samurai, The Black Prince, or even Sulieman.  But, in researching Mongolian Fashion, I did find some VERY interesting pop culture references.

Traditional Mongolian Headdress
Traditional Mongolian Headdress
Queen Amidala
Queen Amidala…from Star Wars Episode I

So Mongolia, while not traditionally mainstream, clearly has some influence on Hollywood beyond Netflix.

But that still leaves the question of Mongolian Clothing.  Generally speaking, men and women wore much the same thing.  There were differences in Armor and decor, but the style and cut of Mongolian clothing is uniquely suited to the harsh life on the Mongolian plateaus, which makes unisex style garments eminently practical.

So for starters, both wore pants.  Both men and women were accomplished equestrians, and side saddle was literally unheard of in Genghis Kahn’s Mongolia.  And while women could ride in carts, generally, transport by cart was for the sick and elderly.  Everyone else rode or walked.  And since Mongolian winters are brutally cold, with temperatures routinely reaching to -4 to -45 Fahrenheit (-20 to -45 Celsius), pants were a necessity to keep from freezing your lower extremities.

Mongolian warriors would wear a silk undershirt because it was believed to assist in removing arrows that might successfully penetrate armor.  Women would not have necessarily needed such an undershirt, in that there is no evidence they actually went to war with the men.  Not to say they didn’t, but there is no evidence to that effect.  Also not to say they didn’t wear undershirts.  Mongolia, as shown above, is COLD.  Layers would be the order of the say, even in Summer.  So while no extant garments have been found, it is not unreasonable to assume undershirts were worn.

The Deel is the garment worn by both men and women for which Mongolia is known.  Originally made of hemp, as Mongolian culture progressed it came to be made of wool, cotton, and eventually silk.  Of course the reason for this is that Genghis Kahn basically hi-jacked the Silk Road and all tithes and taxes thereof, usually in the form of silk, spices, and livestock, made it’s way back to the heart of the Mongolian Empire, resulting in vast wealth for the Mongolians.  And Silk became a staple of their wardrobe, useful not just in deflecting arrows, but for high fashion in Mongolia.  If the Deel was insufficient for warmth, more layers in the form of vests or additional coats might be added.  But generally speaking, the Deel, carefully woven and lined, provided all the protection Mongolians needed from the rapidly changing climate in Mongolia.

Over the Deel is a long sash, wrapped several times around the waist.  The sash wrapped allows for a pocket to form in the Deel, in which anything from small items to small livestock can be kept, depending on the needs of the moment.

Boots are stiff, heavy leather, turned up at the toe.  Several explanations have been given for the design.  My favorite ties back to the Shamanic tradition of Mongolia.  Tradition says that if the toe is not turned up, it might gouge mother earth, so that the turned up toe is respectful to her, to avoid injury.

And finally, the hats.  Discover Mongolia says there are 400 styles of hat worn in Mongolia, and lists some of the reasons and styles found.  But my favorite example of Mongolian style bleeding over to the west was from Contemporary (to Genghis Kahn) fashion, when women in Europe adopted the Boqta in to the Hennin.

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Silk in Warfare

The Great Kahn used Silk in Warfare

One of the many myths I am consistently confronted with is that silk is fragile and requires special care.  Part of the history of silk is the history of mankind…which means its a blood soaked history of brutal warfare.  Not just because the Chinese Emperors made the smuggling of silk worms and mulberry trees a crime punishable by death.  But literal warfare.  The Romans were first introduced to silk through warfare when they saw the silk banners of the Parthians in 53 BC.  And to this day, silk painting is a beautiful art form, with silk being a wonderful medium for Medieval recreationsits.

But while the Parthians banners were a peripheral use of Silk in Warfare, there were far more direct uses.  Like Genghis Kahn insisting his troops have shirts made of silk.  This wasn’t vanity or ego on the part of the great Kahn.  Silk, when densely woven, is surprisingly resistant to damage.  In the case of the Mongolian army, it acted in conjunction with the lamellar armour.  If an arrow managed to pierce the plate of the lamellar, the silk undershirt could halt penetration before it got to far, allowing for easy extraction after battle.  Silk is just not that fragile and damn useful overall.

Moving east, the Japanese also utilized silk in warfare.  Not just useful for the Kimono, the Japanese also used silk for Horo.  Essentially, this was a large framework over which was placed silk, which was worn by messengers.  The reason was not just to mark the messenger as a person of importance, because wearing such an ostentatious item surely marked one as a target.  The Horo was designed to deflect arrows shot at the messenger.  The linked video is about 11 minutes long, but if you fast forward to about 9 minutes, you get to see a reproduction Horo in action…it is glorious.  If you watch the whole video, you learn that the translation of Horo…is arrow catcher.

In addition to the east, the west also found a use for silk in warfare.  Namely, parachutes.  Up until the Japanese placed an embargo on the US during World War II, parachutes were made out of silk.  After the embargo, the US still needed parachutes, and fortunately for us, technology had advanced enough that Nylon was able to step in and take the strain.  Once on the ground, there was no expectation of recovering the silk for another jump, but many GI’s would pack it up anyway and ship it home.

Silk has a long history globally.  Not just in fashion, but as life saving measures for military throughout history, and in to medicine.  So when someone says silk is delicate–tell it to the Mongols.

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Rare Commodity

Rare Commodity--the Gorgeous Queen Latifah

I’m talking time.  Time is a rare commodity.  I always think I have all the time in the world, until suddenly, I don’t.  So with Hot Raqs approaching and Miss Fisher Con hot on it’s heels, I have to use my time wisely.  I have to pick which projects to move forward, and which to back burner until after these events.

Now, a subtle part of my marketing is wearing clothes made out of the silks I sell.  Sort of a “This is what I made, what are you going to make?”  To that end, I am set for SCA events.  Those being the first events I vended, I have lots of costumes for them.  I even have costuming I can wear for Hot Raqs, since half my SCA wardrobe are historical dance attire.  So I can make that work.

But Miss Fisher Con.  I got nothing.  I mean seriously.  I am all curves, a la Marilyn Monroe.  So while I love the style of the 1920’s, I am definitely not built for this decade of fashion (although I love, love, LOVE how they styled Queen Latifah in Chicago).  But, on the plus side, I can make the drop waist styles of the ’20’s work for day wear in my day job.  So I go in search of 1920s patterns in my size.

And Voila!  I find Decades of Style.  Now, these are stylish, fun patterns, that will in fact easily convert to day wear for the day job.  So I picked two to make up and start planning my fabric usage.  But, as with all outfits, the fun doesn’t stop there!  Silk, like all natural fibers, is inherently anti-static, due to it’s natural retention of moisture which counteracts static electricity.  What DOES create static cling when wearing silk is undergarments made of polyester and nylon, even rayon.  While rayon is technically a natural fiber, it is so heavily processed that it tends towards static.

So to make my wonderful 20’s fashions elegant, rather than a continuous wrestling match, I also need undergarments of silk.  Not a problem.  I have habotai which is perfectly suited to slips.  And I have a Folkwear pattern which is perfect for the 1920’s fashions.  So, make the outfits from the inside out, and I will be well dressed for Miss Fisher Con.  Just in Time.

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My other Love

My Other Love

So, if you open your mind beyond Facebooklandia, it turns out you really can learn something new every day.  While I have been All Things Silk for about two years now, my other love is Raqs Sharqi.  And since I like to blend my passions to cut down on confusion, I thought I’d see when silk first hit Egypt.

Now, there are references to it in travel literature, that dancers wore Silks, mostly plain woven, but with accent pieces of satin or crepe (Fraser, 197…a most excellent read).  So definitely by the 19th century, silk was in Egypt.  But silk was EVERYWHERE by the 19th century, so that really isn’t much of a leap.  China has had silk for 8500 years.

The Silk Road has been around for 2200 years and was a major trade route across all of Asia, and certainly had contact with Persia and Rome.  But Egypt ALSO has a long and storied civilization behind it.  Egyptians were active traders and conquerors.  Surely they must have had some notion of China and the wonders of silk.  So I Googled it.

And had two rather surprising hits.  The first was a letter from 1993, response it seems, to an inquiry about some fibers located in a mummy.  It references Cleopatra and it would not be surprising to find she had access to silk, given her contact with the Romans and we know the Romans certainly had silk by the time Cleopatra reigned.  However, the letter reveals that scanning determined the fibers were in fact silk filaments, from China…and they had been found on a mummy dated to 1000 BCE.  This puts silk, in Egypt, 1000 years earlier than initially believed.

The second was a New York Times article, also dated from 1993.  This article begins by commenting on the letter about silk filaments found on very old mummies, but also includes references to silk being excavated from 7th century BC graves in Germany and 5th century BC graves in Greece.  So we know silk was a tightly controlled commodity by the Chinese prior to the Byzantines stealing it.  But even tightly controlled commodities can get out to the general market…if the price is right.

The NYT article concludes by guessing that border guards bribed nomads with silk.  I contend it could just as easily have gone the other way.  Maybe the border guards were offered incredible sums of money for silk.  Either way it happened, silk was likely in Egypt 3000 years ago.  And certainly available for Raqs Sharqi costuming when that dance hit the stage.

And so this happy little book worm is delighted at the successful marriage of my two passions…Silk and Dance.

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On Failure

On Failure

Yesterday, I wrote about Success.  But what about failure?  Statistically, any business or venture is more likely to fail than to succeed.  But really, it depends on your definition of failure.  If you take the dictionary definition: an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful.  All told, that’s a pretty nebulous definition, given that success means different things to different people.  For one, success may mean being able to cut your day job to part time.  In which case, enough sales to supplement your day job would count as a success.  For another, being fully self-sustaining so you can QUIT the day job…in which case, only enough sales to supplement the income would be a failure.

But again, is it?  In a more nebulous sense (meaning NOT the dictionary definition) failure is a state of mind.  You only truly fail when  you fail to learn from mistakes.  Did you overspend on marketing, cutting in to your operating budget?  That’s a mistake to learn from, and not even necessarily fatal.  It’s just something to learn and move on.

Did you not practice as much as you could have, leading you to not even placing in the competition?  Or what if you practiced til your feet bled, but the first place winner just had that extra spark?  How you react in that situation determines whether or not you are a success or a failure.  You can scream about how unfair it was, how much you practiced, how you feel robbed of your opportunity.  Or you can acknowledge that today was not your day.  Go home, do more, try harder.  And maybe next time it will be your day.

Failure is very much a state of mind.  You can let life’s set backs hold you down, you can rail and scream about what went wrong.  Or you can acknowledge it happened, dust yourself off, and move forward with plan b….c…d…and plan e.  However many plans it takes for you to reach your personal definition of success.  You’re only a failure when you quit trying.

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Crepe de Chine

crepe de chine

We already discussed Crepe, but how is Crepe de Chine difference from Crepe?  Obviously there is a difference, words matter, and they each carry a unique name.  Surprisingly, Julie Parker was not as helpful as usual, listing the major difference between the two as Crepe de Chine is French for Crepe from China.  But good old Fairchild was supremely helpful (p. 157):

“A fine, lightweight, plain weave silk fabric woven with a silk warp and a crepe-twist silk filling alternating 2s-2z…more ends than picks per inch.”

Translation:  There are more warp threads, which hold the tension on the loom, than there are weft threads.  The warp threads are silk filament.  The weft threads alternate two rows of s-twist filament and two rows of z-twist filament.  This creates a very smooth smooth face, a firm hand, and a lustrous, slippery surface.  Crepe de Chine has a smoother surface than Crepe.

Like all silks, Crepe de Chine is easily dye-able and when a solid color is fully reversible; however, given that it has a considerably smoother surface than Crepe, it can also be printed on with a fair amount of ease.  In that case, watch for whichever side is brighter, that’s your primary.

As for when Crepe and Crepe de Chine made it’s appearance, the earliest references to date are 19th century France.  This is not to say these weaves did not exist prior to this point in history.  But so far, no references to them have been found, so use caution with historical sewing and crepe.  But as usual, if you are a cosplayer, go for broke.  Crepe de Chine is lovely, and elegant, lightweight, and sleek.

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China Silk

Processing China Silk, painted on silk

Ahhh China Silk.  How it all began.  5500 years ago, the secrets of silk were discovered in China and once the cocoon unraveled, China began weaving it.  The result was the original, plain weave, one over one under, China Silk.  Soft and lightweight, easy to work with, pleats like a dream, with a fine hand, this alluringly flowing fabric is usually found in 5mm to 10mm, but can be woven in any weight.

The ever fabulous Fairchild (p. 119) provides the following definitions for China Silk:
1. A plain weave, lustrous, lightweight, very soft silk fabric produced in China and Japan from irregular yarn

or

2. A raw, white silk yarn of superior quality from northern China.

The Original Weave is graceful and elegant, used commonly for slips, lining, lingerie, and blouses.  Because of how very lightweight it is, China Silk is frequently semi-sheer; however once you get in to 12mm or higher, the silk becomes more opaque and can be used for dresses.

Another frequent use for this fabulous fabric is veiling for Raqs Sharqui, with 8mm being the preferred weight.  And because it is 100% silk, China Silk soaks up and holds a dye in any color or combination that one can dream of.  Truly a versatile weave with wide applications, China Silk is reversible, and easy to work with.

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Batiste de Soie

Going alphabetically, batiste de soie is the way to start with silk weaves.  The Fairchild Books Dictionary of Textiles lists Batiste de Soie as “a sheer silk fabric, plain or figured, resembling silk mull (p. 48).”

Batiste is itself a weaving technique, named after the 13th century linen weaver Jean Baptiste.  Batiste pulls directly from his name, with this particular fabric translating as “batiste of silk.”  Batiste was originally a very fine, diaphanous fabric, most commonly these days woven in cotton or poly/cotton blends. But it can be found in silk!  In All About Silk, author Julie Parker says “it is similar in weight and hand to china silk, but authentic batiste is more tightly woven, more lustrous, and of better quality (p. 14).

Here, I disagree with Ms. Parker.  My disagreement is a wholly practical matter, having to do with history.  Fragments of plain woven silk have been found in Henan Province, China, dating to 3500 BCE.  Frankly speaking, China had a jump start on European silk weaving of nearly 4000 years.  It was another 800 years after that (the 13th Century) before Jean Baptiste even invented his light weaving technique.  To say that the French weave silk better than the Chinese simply because they are French is, to me, illogical.  Simply put, the Chinese do their cultural heritage (silk weaving) better than the French do.

Now, this is not to say the French don’t weave some gorgeous silks (hello….Lyons? The 18th Century?)  But for a plain weave silk, I do prefer China Silk (and not just because we sell it.)  It’s that the differences listed in Parker’s book are superficial.  She lists that China silk is “available in a wide range of colors, while Batiste de Soie is bleached white or dyed pastel shades.”  Truly, if handed a piece of 8MM Batiste de Soie and 8MM China Silk, both in white, you would not be able to tell the difference…well, possibly with a microscope.  Both are light weight, plain woven, and reversible.  And ultimately, there is that 4000 year head start on the rest of the world when it comes to silk weaving that leaves China as the true king of this craft.  And quality is so often a matter of opinion.