Silk and Taffeta

Silk and Taffeta

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 – which 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, 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, 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 3000 years. China cornered the market in silk production and it was the staple of their economy, spreading to all parts of Asia… until 300 AD.

Alas, good secrets eventually squeak out, India managing to steal the recipe. The Byzantine Empire, during the time of Justinian in 550 AD, obtained silkworms smuggled into Constantinople. Roman emperor 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, all efforts to corner the market and control the secret of sericulture eventually failed. 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.

Derby Silk Mill on the River Derwent

James I of England tried to establish the silk industry in both England and the Americas in the early 1600s. There was 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 silk industry in England managed to prosper to a degree by importing raw threads and a few cities blossomed in the trade, notably Manchester, Dublin, Spitalfields, and Derby. The latter would not be a surprise, if you have read Loving Mr. Darcy. Mixing historical fact with fiction, my Mr. Darcy invests in the Derby Silk Mill, the oldest silk mill in all of England, which stands to this day.

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 supplanted by cheap synthetics like nylon.

Fun Fact: the stunning gown worn by Keira Knightley in the movie Atonement was made entirely of silk.

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 of the word dates to 1325-75, Middle English taffata from the Turkish tafta and the Persian taftah meaning “silken or linen cloth,” related to Persian taftan meaning “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!”

Shakespeare also has a quote in Henry IV where Prince Hal compares the sun to “a fair hot wench in flame colored taffeta.” Considering Matthew Macfadyen played Prince Hal on the London stage, I love this reference! According to the Judiciary of England and Wales, taffeta has been one of the designated fabrics for judges’ robes since 1635. The creator of human flight in a hot air balloon, Joseph Montgolfier, used taffeta for his balloons in 1782.

The first free ascent of a hot-air balloon with human passengers, on Nov. 21, 1783


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I’m not sure I’ve ever owned anything made of pure silk! In the sixties my Mum made me a fabulous dress made of multi coloured silk (vibrant red, orange, purple, yellow and green) I absolutely loved it but I doubt it had ever been near a worm!
How these things are discovered totally amazes me! I can understand how animal skins were first used as clothing but who first had the idea of spinning a sheep’s fleece into yarn for weaving or knitting? Luckily people weren’t relying on me for these ideas.

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