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Silk is a natural fiber, some forms of which can be woven into textiles. The highest quality silk is obtained from the cocoons made by the larvae of mulberry silkworms – Bombyx mori – and are raised in captivity in a process called sericulture. Other caterpillars produce ‘wild silks’ that do not have the same shimmer that true silk does and are very difficult to harvest and impossible to artificially cultivate. The use of these silks, as well as those produced by spiders and other insects, has always been rare and commercially unprofitable. If interested in this part of the process, Wormspit.com is the site for you!
It was the Chinese, over 4000 years ago, who first cultivated silk and created the sericulture process. Originally only worn by the Emperors, sericulture was a well-kept secret for over 30 centuries! China cornered the market in silk production and it was the staple of their economy, spreading to all parts of Asia, until 300 AD. But, good secrets do finally squeak out, and it was India that stole the recipe. The Byzantine Empire, during the time of Justinian in 550 AD, managed to obtain silkworms smuggled into Constantinople and later the Romans tried to keep the secret of sericulture tightly controlled. Julius Caesar forbid the wearing of silk garments to anyone but him, and even after his fateful demise silk remained a royal fabric for many centuries. However, by the 13th century silk was widely grown and traded. The Italians and later the French would lead the Western world for decades in sericulture. James I of England tried to establish the silk industry in both England and the Americas in the early 1600s with fair success in Kentucky by the Shakers, but total failure in England where it was just too damp for the worms to survive. Instead the industry managed to prosper to a fair degree by obtaining raw threads imported and a few cities blossomed in the trade, especially Manchester, Dublin, Spitalfields, and Derby – where, if you have read Loving Mr. Darcy, you know the oldest silk mill in all of England still stands!
Despite the proliferation in the industry and trade relations, silk remained rare and moderately expensive; a fabric for the rich. Even today, although far more available, it is costly and greatly supplanted by cheap synthetics like nylon. The stunning gown worn by Keira Knightley in the amazing movie Atonement was entirely of silk. Anyway, all this is to verify the commonness of silk as a fabric that has been around for millennia and readily available to the masses of England during the Regency, especially those who were fortunate enough to not worry over finances!
Taffeta: -noun 1) A medium- or light-weight fabric of acetate, nylon, rayon, or silk; usually smooth, crisp, and lustrous, plain woven, and with a fine crosswise rib effect. 2) Any of various other fabrics of silk, linen, wool, etc. in use at different periods. Origin: 1325-75, Middle English taffata from the Turkish tafta and Persian taftah> silken or linen cloth; related to Persian taftan> to twist or spin.
Taffeta originated in Persia and was exclusively made from silk. In respect to class and demand for luxuriousness, it was on par with satin made from silk; a ‘high end’ fabric preferred for ball gowns, wedding dresses, and draperies. Even today, although taffeta can be woven from synthetic threads, pure silk taffeta is the best. It has a glossy, polished appearance and can be woven with different methods to be stiff or soft. In the West taffeta gained its greatest popularity during the Tudor years as a favored fabric for the dresses of noble ladies. Detailed descriptions of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe extensively mentions taffeta, especially for the farthingales (hoop skirts). Shakespeare mentions it in Twelfth Night:
“Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal!”
And he also has a quote in Henry IV when Prince Hal compares the sun to “a fair hot wench in flame colored taffeta.” Now, considering Matthew Macfadyen played Prince Hal on the London stage, I am really loving this reference! The creator of human flight in a hot air balloon, Joseph Montgolfier, used taffeta for his balloons in 1782. And, according to the Judiciary of England and Wales, taffeta has been one of the designated fabrics for judges’ robes since 1635.
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