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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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Dry Clean Only

The Care and Feeding of Silk, Dry Clean Only

How exactly did the dry clean only label come about?  Let’s condense history in to a brief paragraph.  Silk has been around for anywhere from 8500 to 5500 years.  Silk cocoons have been found in a tomb in Henan province China dated to 6500 BCE with a full bolt of cloth located, also in Henan province, dated to 3500 BCE.  Dry cleaning wasn’t invented until 1855 by Jean Baptiste Jolly.  So, from 6500 BCE to 1855 CE, water was used to clean silk.  Water was still used to clean silk until the advent of the washing machine.  How’s that? you ask.  A brief story in merchandising.

Major retailers of fine clothing would sell a silk blouse to a lady.  Or a silk tie to a gentleman.  Then when doing laundry, the silk item would get thrown in with the blue jeans…probably on accident, sorting clothes has been standard process since forever.  Whether accidental or on purpose, the result was the same.  During spin cycle, the zipper on the blue jeans would catch on the silk, tearing it.  This resulted in the blouse or tie being returned to the retailer.  Who would accept the return because, <expletive deleted> you Nordstrom and your “Customer is always right” policy.

The retailers were losing scads of money on damaged returns because people weren’t paying attention.  So they slapped a dry clean only label on it and made damaged goods the problem of the dry cleaning industry.  Fast forward 100 years and everyone is scared to buy or work with silk because it is a dry clean only fabric.

Now let me explain to you why, exactly, except for in rare instances, I would NOT recommend dry cleaning silk fabric.  Chemicals.  Now, I am not someone to whom the word chemical is a scary thing.  I believe dry cleaning is perfectly safe and use the dry cleaner for my wool cloak, and my down comforter, winter jacket.  I do not use the dry cleaner for silk because along with any stains, the chemicals will strip the natural luster from silk, resulting in a decided dullness.

“Silk tends to look dull and dingy after several trips to the cleaners.  In fact, many silks actually look better and last longer when washed by hand. (Parker, p. 61).  How can that be?  The Cleaners are supposed to make sure your garments look the best.  Except for those chemicals which are actually very harsh solvents which strip fibers of any residual moisture. And as we know…silk loves moisture.

Initially, dry cleaning used petroleum based solvent.  Yes…petrol.  As in gasoline.  However, due to the inability to obtain insurance coverage, what with the combination of highly flammable chemicals stored next to highly flammable fabric which had subsequently been soaked in those chemicals, the Dry Cleaning business does what commerce does best.  It innovated.  And by the 1930’s, the industry had shifted entirely to tetrachloroethylene, aka perchloroethylene or perc, as it is commonly known.

This was a wholly good thing, as perc is non-flammable, can be used with most fiber types, and is very stable, which means it can be recycled and is better for the environment.  And while it’s chemical composition won’t hurt silk, it will dull that luster we all love so much.  But for the low low price of $15.99 for Dr. Bronner’s and another $12.49 for the white vinegar to rinse your silk in, you can hand wash all your silk at home.  That $28.48 will last FOREVER…well, not literally.  But I bought my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s well over a year ago and still have half a bottle left.  And white vinegar has other uses than as a silk rinse…it’s an all purpose cleaner!

So save yourself the cost of a dry cleaner and at the same time you will save your silks.  Hand wash them at home.  You can even machine wash them!  Just make sure to separate out the blue jeans first.

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That’s a Moire

That's a Moire

Watered silk.  Moire.  And all it’s variations (moire antique, moire francaise, moire ineraillable, etc….)  According to Wikipedia, Moire was available as early as the Middle Ages. This is certainly possible, as the earliest mangle found has been dated 1444, and was located in Bergen Norway.  Now Norway is pretty far removed from China.  Which logically says that the first moire was probably linen or wool.

This is just supposition.  The Chinese invented everything else so it is not impossible that they invented watered silk, and I just haven’t uncovered the term they use for it.  I was wrong about crepe, I could be wrong about this.  But if China did not invent this technique, and the earliest mangle was located in Norway, than most likely moire was first linen, possibly wool, with silk being discovered by a foolhardy chamber maid who was probably beaten for putting the very expensive silk through a mangle.  Yeah the effect was cool, but what the hell!

Alternatively, the meaning has changed over the years.  According to Fairchild, Moire was “formerly applied to various fabrics of great value and luster.  Gold, silver, and silk fabrics are called moire in 15th and 16th century French documents (p. 393).”

Now, what does all this mean?  Well it means that language is a living thing and meaning changes over time.

Conversely, Calendering is when a piece of fabric is passed through a calender, a machine with two or more cylinders which touch.  As the fabric passes through, heat and/or water is added, creating stretch and pull along the grain line of the fabric.  This creates a rippling, embossed, effect on the fabric surface.  This effect is not permanent unless specifically set using heat or chemicals.

Which is why this is one of the few fabrics I recommend for dry clean only.  If you don’t want to dry clean (because, hey…who does?) then make very sure you wash a test piece first.  Verify that the calendering effect is permanent.  If it’s not, then your options are to dry clean. Or make very sure it’s not going to rain the day you wear your dress.

 

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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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In Search of Duchess Satin

I felt the need to write about Duchess Satin, alternatively known as Duchesse Satin, or just Duchesse.  I felt this calling for several reasons.  First, if one Googles Duchess Satin, you will be led to several websites offering Duchess Satin for $4.98/yard. Or for $6.95/yard.  These are polyester satins.  Nothing wrong with polyester, but it shows the corruption of the language.  Duchess, in English, is high nobility, usually of royal blood.  How often do you think Royals wear poly satin?

Even more alarming, was when Vogue Fabrics provided that “Duchess Satin is a soft, full bodied, polyester satin used in evening wear and special occasion garments.”  Or NY Fashion Center provided a silk/nylon blend for $111.99.  One Hundred Eleven Dollars!  It’s not even 100% silk!  And yet I know that 100% silk duchess satin exists because it was among the samples sent to me from my manufacturers.  Burn tests confirm, 100%silk.  In my searches, I saw one well known website (not cited here for discretion) that said duchess satin was silk satin, with no further disclaimer.

While it is certainly true that duchess satin can and is silk satin, that definition falls woefully short. We sell silk satin, and while it is certainly luxurious, it does not have the heavy hand of true duchess satin.  So, how do the two differ?  Back to Fairchild, “A highly lustrous, smooth silk or rayon fabric with a large number of ends per inch, made with an 8- to 12-end warp satin weave (p. 199).”  As we learned in my post on Crepe de Chine, a large number of ends per inch means there are more threads on the warp than on the weft.  8- to 12-end warp satin is HIGHLY technical, but for a good breakdown of what that means, I refer you to this blog.

In layman terms, it simply means that this is a very thick satin weave, with a very lustrous face and a firmer hand than typical satin.  So yes, duchess satin is silk satin, but not all silk satin is duchess satin.  Duchess Satin is very suited for heavy beading in wedding gowns and other formal wear.  This is because of the density of the weave and the firm hand it imparts.

How to tell the difference between duchess satin and regular satin (both in silk):  It’s all in the hand. Duchess Satin simply FEELS thicker and more luxurious.

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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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Organza

Silk Organza

Organza, that crispest of crisp fabrics.  Organza is a plain, very light weight, basket weave fabric.  There are no special twists in the yarn, although they are tightly twisted.  What gives Organza the body we all love is the sericin, or silk gum.

When the bombyx mori start to spin their cocoons, they don’t just tightly spin the fibroin around themselves.  They also produce sericin, which is the gummy component that allows the fibroin to maintain it’s cocoon shape until the bombyx mori crawls out of it’s cocoon.  Or until the cocoon is harvested for silk filaments.  If you’re a true blue Buddhist, you might want to skip cultivated silk.  Lots of bugs die in the making of it.  Don’t worry, there is always Ahimsa Silk

Typically, once the cocoon is harvested, it is dropped in a vat of boiling water to remove the sericin as part of the processing to create the filaments for silk threads and yarns.  But if the intended product is silk organza, most of the sericin is left on.  This natural silk gum leaves the threads stiffer and is what creates the crisp, stiff, body of silk organza fabrics.

Organza is good for decorative embroidery work, as an over skirt, or to flat line a fabric that needs a little more body.  Because of it’s natural crispness, this is not a curve hugging fabric.  Even on a bias cut, organza would be hard pressed to do anything other than fall in folds away from the body.  It can be gathered, pleated, shirred, puffed, and bouffanted.  It is genuinely versatile.  Organza makes an excellent sew in stabilizer or facing fabric.  However, given that it is a sheer fabric, seams need to be finished.  Generally, I use french seams or flat-felled seams when finishing sheer seams.  Or if I’m in a hurry and feeling lazy, I’ll serge them.  But french seams look the nicest, especially on fabrics where the seams are definitely visible.

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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.