A His­tory of the World Wo­ven Through Silk

Since its an­cient be­gin­nings in China, the sto­ried tex­tile’s mys­tique and majesty have en­dured. Now, we’re trac­ing its ar­ti­sanal his­tory av cer­roasns­d­sae as and civ­i­liza­tion s to its colorful 21 st-cen­tury evo­lu­tion.

Veranda - - CONTENTS - PHOTOGRAPH­Y BY Pamela Cook • PRO­DUCED BY Dayle Wood • WRIT­TEN BY Meg Lukens Noonan Tassi­nari & Cha­tel Jardin d’hiver in Saphir; scala­man­dre.com

A look at the re­gal tex­tile’s stylish trek across con­ti­nents, cul­mi­nat­ing in its most strik­ing 21st-cen­tury pat­terns, tex­tures, and tech­niques.

THE AN­CIENT STORY GOES that a teenage em­press was sip­ping tea un­der the gnarled boughs of a white mul­berry tree when a co­coon dropped from a branch into the hot liq­uid in her cup. To her as­ton­ish­ment, the co­coon be­gan to un­wind, slowly re­veal­ing nearly a mile of soft fil­a­ment. The em­press then used the thread to weave a mag­i­cal, shim­mer­ing fab­ric called silk. His­to­ri­ans, of course, dis­miss the tale as myth. But most agree that some­time around 2570 BCE, the Chi­nese in­deed dis­cov­ered that the lar­vae of the na­tive Bom­byx mori moth pro­duced a gos­samer, nearly un­break­able, lightre­flect­ing fiber. So strik­ing was the fine­ness of it that China’s rulers in­sisted on ut­most se­crecy, even threat­en­ing death to any­one who re­vealed the ap­par­ent wealth they were lit­er­ally grow­ing on trees.

In its ear­li­est days, silk was re­served for em­per­ors and other no­bles (which only added to its mys­tique). Chi­nese women mas­tered ser­i­cul­ture—the com­plex art of rais­ing silk­worms, cul­ti­vat­ing white mul­berry trees to feed them, and un­reel­ing their pre­cious co­coons—and learned to weave re­mark­ably com­plex pat­terns like bro­cades and damasks. Later, they cre­ated colorful cer­e­mo­nial robes from the new tex­tile and dec­o­rated them with sym­bols from the nat­u­ral world. Im­ages like dragons, lions, birds, the sun, and the moon de­picted their own­ers’ ranks.

By the 1st cen­tury BCE, China was ex­port­ing raw and wo­ven silk, send­ing it by camel car­a­van to Per­sia and Rome along the moun­tain and desert trade routes that would be­come known as the Silk Road. Oa­sis towns blos­somed as the pre­cious cargo was handed off to mid­dle­men on the 4,000-mile east-west jour­ney. With each ex­change, the price in­creased and the leg­end of silk grew. Elites lusted af­ter the shim­mer­ing, sta­tus-con­fer­ring cloth and hun­gered for knowl­edge about its ori­gins. (Ro­mans, for ex­am­ple, be­lieved silk grew on trees in mys­te­ri­ous Seres: “land of the silk peo­ple.”)

“Silk has al­ways been held on a pedestal,” says Trini Callava, au­thor of Silk

Through the Ages. “It’s been val­ued as a lux­ury for 5,000 years and has trav­eled or­gan­i­cally. Every cul­ture has em­braced it and fused their own ways of life into it. And that di­ver­sity has only en­hanced it.”

The Se­cret Gets Out

It wasn’t un­til the mid­dle of the 6th cen­tury that the Chi­nese lost their do­min­ion of the trea­sured fab­ric. That’s when a pair of monks re­port­edly used hol­lowed walk­ing sticks to smug­gle silk­worm eggs (or pos­si­bly young lar­vae) out of China and into Con­stantino­ple, the capi­tol of the east­ern Ro­man (Byzan­tine) Em­pire. For the next sev­eral hun­dred years, Byzan­tine weavers too crafted vi­brant, homegrown silks, the finest of which were, once again, re­served for the rul­ing class. Neigh­bor­ing Per­sia, mean­while, also caught wind of cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques and com­peted with Byzan­tium for trade. Both used gold-wrapped threads to cre­ate in­tri­cate pat­terns of­ten fea­tur­ing mir­ror-im­age ea­gles, lions, and winged griffins en­cir­cled in ron­delles. So taken were Chi­nese mak­ers with the ex­otic im­ages com­ing out of the West dur­ing the Tang Dy­nasty (618-907 CE) that they mim­icked the de­signs, and in­spi­ra­tion for the fab­ric trav­eled back in the di­rec­tion whence it came.

In 1453, Ot­toman Turks got a chance to put their mark on the trade when they seized Con­stantino­ple (re­nam­ing it Is­tan­bul) and in­her­ited weav­ing op­er­a­tions there and in nearby Bursa. Sul­tans and the op­u­lent Top­kapi Palace were draped in metallics and vel­vets crafted by im­pe­rial work­shops. The bold Ot­toman de­signs fea­tured large-scale, styl­ized flo­rals, in­clud­ing tulips, car­na­tions, and es­pe­cially pomegranat­es, a sym­bol of fer­til­ity and abun­dance in many an­cient cul­tures.

Europe Catches On

Some 300 years be­fore the fall of Con­stantino­ple, con­quer­ing Arabs in­tro­duced ser­i­cul­ture (in­clud­ing the pome­gran­ate mo­tif) to Si­cily. From there, the silk in­dus­try mi­grated up the Ital­ian penin­sula to Lucca, Florence, Genoa, and Venice. It was in this re­gion that the tech­nol­ogy leapt for­ward: Ital­ians be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with dye­ing meth­ods and fab­ric con­sis­tency, pro­duc­ing a di­verse range of threads with daz­zling ef­fects in plain silks and in com­plex bro­cades and lam­pas. They also ex­celled at mak­ing weighty, fig­ured vel­vets in­cor­po­rat­ing gold and sil­ver threads.

By the 15th cen­tury, King Louis XI was pin­ing for a silk in­dus­try of his own and sum­moned Ital­ian weavers to France. They set up work­shops in Avi­gnon, Nîmes, Tours, and even­tu­ally Lyon, which be­came—and re­mains—the epi­cen­ter of French silk pro­duc­tion. Re­spond­ing to chang­ing times and trends, they crafted lighter silks in fem­i­nine, styl­ized flo­ral prints—many fea­tur­ing me­an­der­ing rib­bons, lace, and swags—as well as moiré, a pattern with a rip­pled, wa­tery ap­pear­ance achieved by us­ing heat and pres­sure rollers, and ikat-like warp prints they called chiné a la branche.

But be­fore long, even the French took their silk-mak­ing skills on the road. The 1685 re­vo­ca­tion of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted rights to French Protes­tants (Huguenots), spurred a large pop­u­la­tion to re­lo­cate. Many set­tled in Spi­tal­fields, an area of east Lon­don, not only es­tab­lish­ing the town as an im­por­tant maker of dress silks but also set­ting up France and Eng­land as de­sign ri­vals. English de­sign­ers, in gen­eral, took a sparer ap­proach to flo­rals. For in­stance, in the mid-1700s, the pro­lific English pattern drawer Anna Maria Garth­waite gained a fol­low­ing for her sig­na­ture de­signs fea­tur­ing sprays of smaller flow­ers on a light back­ground that were based on ac­tual botan­i­cal stud­ies.

In High Demand

The mid-18th cen­tury also marked the peak of in­ter­est in chi­nois­erie. Euro­peans had be­come ob­sessed with what they viewed as the ex­otic East, and tex­tile artists re­sponded in kind with faux Chi­nese and East Asian de­signs fea­tur­ing fan­ci­ful pavil­ions, dragons, birds, and blooms. The craze spilled into ar­chi­tec­ture and fur­ni­ture. All over Europe, gar­dens sprouted pago­das and boudoirs were awash in floor-to­ceil­ing Asian-in­spired decor.

Mean­while, the no­to­ri­ously la­bor­in­ten­sive silk in­dus­try took a step to­ward mass pro­duc­tion. In 1804, French weaver Joseph-marie Jacquard in­vented an at­tach­ment that be­came known as the Jacquard loom. Us­ing a se­ries of punch cards that, in ef­fect, pro­grammed the loom to weave com­plex pat­terns (in­clud­ing pho­to­graph-like por­traits), the revo­lu­tion­ary de­vice elim­i­nated the need for a weaver’s as­sis­tant. So even as ar­ti­sans pushed for­ward with new de­signs like hand-em­broi­dered tex­tile suzani pan­els (from the Per­sian suzan, mean­ing nee­dle) and bril­liant ikat prints (cre­ated by re­sist-dye­ing yarns be­fore they’re wo­ven), in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion was tak­ing hold. Tra­di­tional ser­i­cul­ture col­lapsed in Europe, wars dis­rupted trade, and syn­thetic fab­rics were added to the mix. And yet, through­out the up­heaval, silk main­tained its sin­gu­lar al­lure. Noth­ing could out­shine its beauty or its ver­sa­til­ity—and noth­ing could top the tale of its re­mark­able, em­pires-span­ning jour­ney.

“The story of silk is the story of lux­ury,” says Callava. “Across cul­tures, it has brought a sense of no­bil­ity to all who have em­braced it.”

THE EAR­LI­EST AR­TI­SANS A Song (Sung) Dy­nasty (960-1276) silk paint­ing de­picts Chi­nese court ladies iron­ing a newly wo­ven tex­tile.

LEFT TO RIGHT: A 1777 silk scroll paint­ing of Chi­nese Em­press Xiaox­ian. A re­gal em­broi­dered silk robe stud­ded with coral and pearls and lined with silk damask. Silk ap­pliqué fan de­pict­ing cranes un­der a peach tree from the Qian­long pe­riod (1735–1796). THE FINE ART OF THE FAR EAST A BOLD SHIFT In­dian (top) and Turk­ish pat­terns were more graphic, fea­tur­ing whim­si­cal an­i­mals and styl­ized flo­rals.

WEAV­ING IN BROCADE The high-lus­ter fab­rics, like this 18th-cen­tury upholstery, are crafted with a raised flo­ral or fig­u­ral de­sign made with col­ored or metal­lic threads. Madame de Pom­padour, Louis XV’S chief mistress, had an affin­ity for chiné, a warp printed taffeta. POM­PADOUR TAFFETA

Pretty Warp Prints 1. Tassi­nari & Cha­tel Salon des Jardins in Fond Crème; scala­man­dre .com. 2. Chevron Bar in Berry; brun­schwig.com. 3. Taf­fe­tas Chiné Menuet in Cream; prelle.fr. 4. Soleil in Opale; brun­schwig.com. THE SILKS OF SPI­TAL­FIELDS At the end of the 1600s, the Lon­don parish (far left) es­tab­lished it­self as a West­ern mar­ket­place for silks, giv­ing rise to a del­i­cate new style of flo­rals. At left, a pattern by English de­signer Anna Maria Garth­waite.

THE “NEW” LOOM French weaver Joseph­marie Jacquard rev­o­lu­tion­ized the ar­ti­san in­dus­try with a punch-card de­vice that opened the door to more com­plex, so­phis­ti­cated pat­terns.

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