Tag Archives: Bath costume collection

Sexy, seductive silk—and sexy, seductive IN silk

Silk is a fabric the 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. Colorful threads of Thai silk

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

Paisley pattern silkWhen 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.)

girl in red and gold cheongsamAnd 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.

red chinese silk evening dressBut 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.

Selling silk

1760s mantua © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1760s mantua © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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.

Weaver at loom making silk brocade in Lyon, FranceJacquard machine for silk weaving 19th centuryIn 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.Napoleon visits Jacquard in Lyon 1805

Silk and Lyon: and The Aikenhead Honours series

Cover of His Silken Seduction by Joanna MaitlandHis Silken Seduction new coverWhen 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. replica silk evening gowns from Pride and PrejudiceStyles 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's return from Elba 1815

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.

Selection of Thai silkSuzanne 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 😉

Ballerina leaps surrounded by silkYou 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!

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, silk lover (and sometime dressmaker)

Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse

  1. Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?
  2. Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle
  3. Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage
  4. Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown
  5. Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?
  6. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?
  7. Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?
  8. Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse
  9. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down
  10. Designer Stubble: the Bane of Regency Book Covers
  11. Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers
  12. Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags
  13. An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion
  14. Historical Costume : 1800-1831 Royal Jewellery to bling it up
  15. Historical Costume 1800-1850 : the Lady’s Riding Habit
  16. A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)
  17. Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men
© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

1819 pink velvet pelisse trimmed chincilla © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

It’s winter. Dark and gloomy. Though, here in UK, it’s still quite warm. Or at least not as cold — yet! — as winter sometimes can be.

We have houses with central heating and double-glazing to keep out the cold and the draughts. Back in the Regency, they weren’t so lucky. Though, to be honest, I remember a house we bought in the 1970s that was incredibly draughty. I used left-over curtain material to sew a draught-excluder in the shape of a snake for the gap under the sitting-room door.

And I grew up in a non-centrally-heated house with a draught screen as part of the standard furnishings, about six feet high and with four brocade-covered panels. We had draughts and we definitely needed it. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

  1. Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?
  2. Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle
  3. Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage
  4. Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown
  5. Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?
  6. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?
  7. Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?
  8. Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse
  9. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down
  10. Designer Stubble: the Bane of Regency Book Covers
  11. Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers
  12. Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags
  13. An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion
  14. Historical Costume : 1800-1831 Royal Jewellery to bling it up
  15. Historical Costume 1800-1850 : the Lady’s Riding Habit
  16. A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)
  17. Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men

1807 white muslin wedding dress © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Regency gown might not be so simple?

1807 wedding dress asymmetric embroidery on front

A Regency gown might look simple but the wedding dress shown above clearly is not. Mainly because of the hand-embroidered muslin, rather than the fairly standard design.

That stunning dress was worn by a seventeen-year-old bride, Mary Dalton Norcliffe, for her marriage to Dr Charles Best in York on 11 June 1807. It’s made of Indian muslin and the V&A suggests the embroidery was done in India, too. Not only is there beautiful embroidery all round the hem and train, there is asymmetric embroidery across the front of the skirt, recalling the classical toga. You may find it easier to see the white-on-white embroidery in the close-up, shown left. Continue reading

Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle

  1. Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?
  2. Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle
  3. Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage
  4. Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown
  5. Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?
  6. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?
  7. Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?
  8. Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse
  9. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down
  10. Designer Stubble: the Bane of Regency Book Covers
  11. Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers
  12. Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags
  13. An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion
  14. Historical Costume : 1800-1831 Royal Jewellery to bling it up
  15. Historical Costume 1800-1850 : the Lady’s Riding Habit
  16. A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)
  17. Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men
White evening gown, 1800, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Regency evening gown, replica, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Detail does matter. The Regency lady going to dinner, or going to a ball, wanted every detail of her appearance to be perfect. Especially if her aim was to attract a potential husband. (She might, of course, have been a married lady looking for a little diversion with a new lover.)

Did the gentlemen in question notice these details? Possibly they did, because most of the details on these gorgeous gowns were around two areas of the female body that drew the masculine eye — the low-cut neckline exposing much of the lady’s bosom, and the naughty ankle, glimpsed as the lady walked or danced. Continue reading

Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

  1. Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?
  2. Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle
  3. Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage
  4. Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown
  5. Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?
  6. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?
  7. Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?
  8. Historical Costume 1800-1820: Keeping Warm in a Pelisse
  9. Historical Costume 1800-1820 : Parasols Up and Down
  10. Designer Stubble: the Bane of Regency Book Covers
  11. Historical Costume, 1790-1830 : Shoes, slippers
  12. Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags
  13. An improper blog : embroidery and the pains of fashion
  14. Historical Costume : 1800-1831 Royal Jewellery to bling it up
  15. Historical Costume 1800-1850 : the Lady’s Riding Habit
  16. A Close Shave (or the gentle art of Pogonomotomy)
  17. Historical costume pics: gowns, petticoats, dolls, even men
white gowns worn by Bennet sisters in BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice

BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice

Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.

By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.

Continue reading