Silk is a fabric that delights the eye and, particularly, the sense of touch. Run your fingers over a piece of silk—smooth, luscious, sensuous. And slightly baffling, too, in the way it can be so very tough while seeming so fine and fragile.
Silk seduced me the first time I saw it. I loved the jewel-like colours that the magical fibres can take. The ones shown above will make Thai silk. Aren’t those colours sumptuous? (Which makes me think, in passing, of Sumptuary Laws and the prohibition on the wearing of materials like silk by “inferior persons”. Possibly a topic for a future blog?)
Sewing silk: joys and pitfalls
When I was in my teens and early twenties, I made a lot of my own clothes. A friend who was an air stewardess offered to sell me a dress length she’d brought back from Thailand. I couldn’t resist. The silk was mostly ruby and garnet coloured, with a paisley-type pattern, with hints of sapphire and amethyst. Gorgeous. (The pattern was something like the one shown here, only much, much nicer and without the orange.)
And then I had to decide what to turn it into. There wasn’t really enough of it to make a long dress, but long dresses were all the rage. I determined to do it, somehow.
Eventually, I succeeded.
I made a cheongsam out of it. I did have to leave out the sleeves and reverse the nap on part of the bodice in order to have enough material. The great thing about a cheongsam is that the skirt has slits up the sides without any fullness at all. So it takes less silk than you’d imagine.
And I loved it to bits. I thought I still had that dress but I’ve been unable to find it, so, sadly, I can’t show it to you.
But I do still have a vibrant red Chinese silk evening gown with pintucks down the front that had me tearing my hair out as I sewed. Never, never, try to put parallel tucks into fine, slippery Chinese silk. It might work with Thai silk, which is often thicker and easier to stitch, but really fine silk is a nightmare to sew. If you look closely [click to enlarge], you can see all those nightmarish pintucks. But I hope you’ll agree that the figured silk is both delicate and beautiful.
Sophie reminded me about silk this week when (courtesy of @AStitchinTime13) she tweeted a link to a Swatch Book in the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. It dates from 1764. A salesman (a middleman) would have used it to display wares to potential customers. Each sample has a code so the salesman knows where to buy it but the customer does not. Sneaky, eh?
These silks would have been used to make extraordinary gowns such as this mantua from the 1760s. The silk is French but the V&A’s notes say it was sewn in England.
The swatch book contains hundreds of images of the silks and scrolling through them is an engrossing way to spend an hour or two. Do have a look. Having been protected from light inside the book, the colours are vibrant. You’ll find more like these gems:
Silk weaving in Lyon
Lyon was the centre of French silk-making and contains a fascinating museum, the musée des tissus, with many displays about the silk industry. It’s definitely worth a visit if you love silk.
In the old city, weaving used traditional hand looms like the one shown left. The more automated process perfected by Jacquard used very tall looms that couldn’t be accommodated in the houses of the old city. So new houses were built on the northern hill of La Croix-Rousse with high ceilings to accommodate the new machines and their punch-card mechanisms. This illustration (from later in the 19th century) shows quite a small machine; they could be much bigger.
Apparently, Napoleon realised the potential of the Jacquard loom to help France compete against Britain’s industrialised textile industry. He and Josephine visited Lyon in April 1805. Three days later, he granted the patent for the loom to the city of Lyon. Jacquard himself didn’t lose out. He got a pension of 3,000 francs and a royalty of 50 francs on each loom sold. This print seems to commemorate Napoleon’s visit.
Silk and Lyon: and The Aikenhead Honours series
When I was writing about The Hundred Days and my brotherhood of noble spies in The Aikenhead Honours quartet, I couldn’t resist using the old city of Lyon as a setting in book 3 and, especially, book 4 which is a true Lyon love story.
The background of my first self-published cover for book 4, left, is a print of the old city. The current cover, right, shows some of the old silk quarter. This is the much longer book that is intended to provide a more complete and satisfying story than the original short novella. I loved having the opportunity to be able to write it and to give my hero and heroine a proper rounded story of their own.
My silk weavers weren’t using Jacquard looms, but the older, narrow hand looms to make their silks and velvets. Of course, the silks that my characters wove would have been different from the ornate floral patterns so common in earlier decades. Styles in the 1810s were flowing and clinging. A lot of the fabric patterns were very simple, like the ones used to make these replica ballgowns from the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (shown in the Bath Museum).
My heroines, Marguerite and Suzanne, are sisters whose father is dead and whose mother has early dementia. The sisters are valiantly trying to keep their silk business going by hiding the death of their father and doing both the weaving and the selling themselves. Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 and the return of King Louis seem to herald a new era of prosperity for their royalist family.
And then it all goes pear-shaped…
Napoleon returns to France. And, worse, the sisters have spies hidden in their house.
The family’s precious silks and velvets are kept safely in a windowless room upstairs, with Marguerite’s bedroom on one side and Suzanne’s on the other. Each bedroom has a door into the silk store. By book 4, Marguerite and Jack have left for Paris and England.
Suzanne stays behind, in charge of the business. She’s also taking care of Ben, the fourth Aikenhead Honour, who’s recovering from a bullet wound. And he’s hiding in Marguerite’s room, just through the connecting doors via the silk store. All that’s keeping Suzanne away from Ben, the man she fell in love with at first sight, is a couple of doors to which she holds the keys. She tells herself he’s too weak and ill to be a threat to her virtue, even though she’d rather like such a threat to materialise 😉
You won’t be surprised to learn that it does, though you’ll have to read the story to find out exactly how. I can tell you, though, just to whet your appetite, that the encounter takes place in the silk store and involves a great deal of draping of wonderful, sensuous fabrics. Mutual draping, too. And mutual lessons in how to be sexy and seductive IN silk.
Sadly I have only an image of an ecstatic female dancer surrounded by flying silk. Perhaps imagine Nureyev leaping across the stage in Romeo and Juliet, trailing one of those dramatic floor-length silk cloaks? That would certainly do it for me. You?
His Silken Seduction
The ebook of His Silken Seduction is available here. And I promise it contains a great deal of sexy, sensuous silk as well as the HEA. Or, if you prefer, the whole Aikenhead Honours series is here and free on Kindle Unlimited. Enjoy!
Lovely post, Joanna. I agree there is something very special about silk.
Years ago I saw a fabulously strange Japanese production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre at the National Theatre. When the characters crossed the sea, two actors stretched a length of blue silk across the stage and twisted it so that it seemed to ripple like waves and even turned into a storm.Together with the strange (to my ears) tones of the flute, it was both completely convincing and other-worldly.
I can still see that silk, shimmering, billowing up, then settling to a gentle calm. Gorgeous stuff.
That sounds magical, Sophie.
I too think silk can be magical but your story tops any of mine.
Loved the blog, Joanna. It seems extraordinary that they built new houses to accommodate the looms in Lyon rather than moving into a factory setting. It sounds more civilised, but working in room without windows doesn’t sound that great!
As I understand it, Liz, silk was still relatively a cottage industry and stayed that way until well into the 19th century. There’s some interesting info about how it was organised here. Conditions were pretty bad (and led to uprisings later) but they did have windows. They needed light to see their weaving.
The room without windows was only a silk store room in His Silken Seduction. It had no windows partly to protect the finished silk from light damage and partly for security. Sorry if I confused you about that.
Fascinating post. Silk is absolutely magical. I have seen the sea done in the theatre as Sophie describes, but not in that particular play. It is very convincing.
That swatch book is absolutely gorgeous. Perfect research material. I have saved the link and will download some potential images when I have time. Thank you for this. Loved it.
Glad you enjoyed it, Liz. Possibly worth following the twitter account that produced the swatch book. The link is in the blog. The tweeter sounds right up your street (also mine)
Fabulous post. I’ve seen the sea done that way as well. Mesmerising.
Thanks, Jan. Glad you enjoyed it. I haven’t seen the sea done that way though I have seen silk used for the blood at the end of Madama Butterfly and it did work. (A bit too well, one might think.)