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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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Crepe Back Satin

Crepe Back Satin

Crepe Back Satin.  The definition of which needed more research.  Seriously. From Fairchild, p. 156 “A reversible satin weave silk…made with an organzine warp, and a crepe-twist filling.”  What the hell is organzine?

Also from Fairchild, p. 426 “Raw silk yarn made of two or more twisted singles that are then doubled and twisted in the reverse direction on the ply.”  Now, to explain that.  Four filament threads are laid out, two by two.  Two are spun together with an s-twist, the other two are also spun together with an s-twist.  Then those new threads are spun together on a z-twist.

crepe de chine
First two are s-twist, then those two are spun on a z-twist.

These organzine threads are then used on the warp of the loom, with the filling threads the usual s and z-twist crepe filling yarns, woven in a satin weave.

Warp faced Satin

Also from Fairchild’s description of Crepe Back Satin, “There are two or three times as many ends as picks per inch.”  This makes it a sumptuous fabric, with full drape, and elegant movement.  It is full of texture, slinky soft on one side, crinkly on the other.  The texturing is so visible you can use the same yard of fabric to create visually interesting parti-colored clothes, with the texture being the key feature.  As for when it was first created…undetermined.  We know the first references to crepe fabric are from the 19th century.  It probably didn’t take long to experiment with satin weave and crepe yarns.  But when did historical spinners decide organzine was a thing?  Another mystery to be discovered later.

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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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Costume College

Costume College

This is an annual event held in Southern California at the end of July.  I’ve been twice, once just to go, then last year I taught.  And the class was so wonderful and open, I decided to teach again.  So, here is what I am teaching at Costume College 2017.  All three classes are on Sunday, July 30.

9am to 10am What’s in a Weave.  This class is designed to talk about different weaving techniques, specifically silk weaves; however many techniques are universal (plain weave, satin weave, twill). And this class will teach you which weave is which.

11:30am to 1pm From Street to Stage: A History of Oriental Dance Costuming in Egypt.  Called by many the oldest dance, Raqs Sharqi has a long performance history. But what did they wear? While the standard costume is well known today, they didn’t always wear Bedlah when performing. Learn the differences between street wear and stage wear used in this lovely art form.

4pm to 5pm Care and Feeding of Silk.  This is the class I taught last year and in it, I answer all your questions about working with silk.  How delicate is silk? Can it be washed? Can you iron silk, and if so, how? Do you use starch? Bring your questions to Care and Feeding of Silk and I will answer them (if you can’t make it to Costume College, you can always contact me and I am happy to help by email).

So that’s it for what I am teaching.  However, on the flip side of teaching is studying.  And class schedules are set to mail out this week!  And then there are the parties!  Each night holds a different event.  So traditionally, Thursday night is the pool party.  This years theme is Happiest Place on Earth. Now, since the overarching theme is the ‘6o’s, this one is specifically meant for vintage Disney.  But wait!  There’s more!  You don’t have to dress on theme.  And this year, I’m going half theme.  I am going Disney…just not vintage.

Friday morning is Freshman Orientation, for those new to Costume College.  Now, I didn’t go to Freshman Orientation, even when I WAS in college, so I have yet to attend this event.  But it looks to be full of excellent information.

Friday night, is the ice cream social.  The theme this year is Casino Royale, and all spies are welcome.  I am again, interestingly enough, going with a Disney themed character.  Not from the Spy angle, more from the Casino angle.  Hey, I worked twelve years in a casino…I know a little bit about what customer service is like in that dark den of iniquity.

Saturday before entering the Gala party, you get to walk the red carpet in your finest dress.  This years Gala is Dinner at Tiffany’s, a nod to the fabulous Audrey Hepburn’s Little Black Dress.  And here is the crux of my problem. Not quite four months out, and I have no idea what Cinderella (me) is wearing to the ball.  I have ideas…but nothing set in stone.  I know sort of what I’d like to do, but not sure I have time to do it, with my other vending events between now and then.  And the day job.  So I’m working on it.  It may end up being vintage and vaguely couture.  Or it could be fully designed, draped and drafted to me.  It all depends on how well outside forces work with my schedule to make it all happen.  So fingers crossed, I get it all done.

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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.

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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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Silk and Static

Static

Yesterday, I commented in my blog that silk was anti-static.  This bears further explanation, especially as googling “silk anti static” will get you no where.  Or more specifically, it will get you many pages of how to discharge a static charge from your silk.  And it’s all good advice.  I think my favorite was from a physics blog, which shows silk has a moderate charge.

But that’s not the whole story.  If you live in a dry area, like, for example, the high desert of Nevada, than silk tends to be very static-y.  There isn’t enough moisture in the air to prevent a static charge from building up.  Which, yes, will cause a static charge to build up.  If you live somewhere with a bit more natural humidity, like, say, New Orleans, LA, then silk will almost never build up a static charge.  Why is that?

Silk is essentially a protein fiber, consisting of fibroin and sericin.  Like hair, it will go crazy with static in dry weather or when an electrical storm is on the way.  But also like hair, silk is NOT prone to static in high humidity environments, due to the way it absorbs moisture.  So to prevent static in silk, you “water” it.  Water is in quotes, in this instance, because you don’t to actually put water on the silk.  Water won’t hurt silk, but if you’ve starched it, it will leave spots and require re-starching.

So how do you “water” your silk?  With steam.  If you have a steam press, that works.  Provided it does not leak water on a starched garment, you can steam press your silk.  If you don’t have a steam press, you can hang your silk over a humidifier.  Lacking that, hang it in the bathroom, turn the shower on hot, and close the door.  Let it steam for five to ten minutes.  Please note, do not hang your silk IN the shower.  The goal is not to actually get the silk wet.  The goal is to allow the silk to absorb moisture from the air (Parker, p. 42).

Now, if you don’t have time to steam your silk, that doesn’t mean you don’t wear it.  There are other options to discharge the static build up.  Wearing layers, with either a silk or cotton under garment, can prevent static.  Wikihow recommends running a metal hanger through the garment, placing a safety pin in an inconspicuous location, or using a metal thimble, all of which will work just as well.  And the old standby, which works for everything, is running a dryer sheet over your garment.  All of these work to discharge a static build up in your silk.  But to avoid it in the first place, try watering your silk ahead of wearing it.

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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.