[Ansteorra] Fwd: [Elfsea] For Mistress Stella, lower grade silk in Rennaisance Europe

klfrench1023 at aol.com klfrench1023 at aol.com
Mon Jan 15 18:17:54 PST 2007

For anyone who wants to document dupioni, this is an excellent source.  I've been dying to get my hands on this book for ages!
-----Original Message-----
From: starstruck503 at hotmail.com
To: elfsea at lists.ansteorra.org
Sent: Mon, 15 Jan 2007 1:19 PM
Subject: [Elfsea] For Mistress Stella, lower grade silk in Rennaisance Europe

Here is what I have; do not know how accurate or authentic, but it looked good... 
The article was written by an SCA member on one of the several lists I belong to. Unfortunately I did not copy his or her name down when copy/pasting this for future reference. However, the book is listed as: Mola, Luca. The Silk Industry in Renaissance Venice. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000 if anyone wants to try and find a copy to check it out. Hope you find it as interesting as I did... *putting this book on Christmas wish list* 
Namaste, Mary Ann (Rua) 
The Use of Lower Grade Silks in the Renaissance 
When choosing fabrics for the recreation of Renaissance clothing, I have always been told that you should never use slubby silk or silk noil. The common theory passed on by numerous respected costumers is that these fibers would have been considered waste products not up to the high standards of silk manufacturers or consumers during the period, and these materials would have never been used to make fabric for personal garments. Although I have not seen documentation to support this conclusion, I accepted it as fact and proceeded to tell others that silk fabrics such as douppioni were not historically correct because of the imperfections in the weave. But recently, I stumbled across a book that gives an abundance of evidence documenting the use of lower grades of silk in the 16th century, and uncovers another side to the story that has largely been ignored. This article is intended to share this newfound knowledge based on Luca Mola's research in The Silk Industry in Renaissance Venice. 
Grades of silk: 
The first step to understanding this issue is to look at the different grades of silk fibers produced during the Renaissance. "True silk", known as seta leale, was the most precious material made from carefully unwinding an intact cocoon in a basin of hot water to form one long, very strong, continuous thread; a process known as reeling. These threads made up the category of first-grade silk, which was the primary fiber used in the luxury silk industry. 
Second-choice silk, or "double silk", "was produced when two silkworms were put too close together in the raisings during their metamorphosis, and so ended up wrapped in a single cocoon." (p. 233) This "double silk", which was referred to in period texts as seta di doppi, did go through the same reeling process as "true silk", but the imperfections and slubs from the tangled cocoons caused it to sell for half as much as the first-choice product, and it had traditionally been used for sewing threads, hangings, trims, and haberdashery. 
Waste silks or spun-silk noil (strazze de seda filada) were obtained from broken cocoons, the fluffy external coverings of the cocoons, or by collecting the waste fibers gathered from the cauldrons or reeling equipment. Because these materials were not made from a continuous thread like first- and second-choice silks, they had to be combed, carded, and spun like other short textile fibers. These waste-silk threads were classified according to their various sources and were valued at the relatively low price of 5 to 10 solidi per pound while "true silk" sold for 124 soldi per pound. (p. 252) 
In an estimate of the different raw materials produced from cocoons in mainland Venice in 1559, "true silk" made up 240,000 pounds, "double silk" accounted for 60,000 pounds, and various waste silks added another 100,000 pounds to the total production. (p. 234) 
Fabric production: 
The luxury fabric trade that brought wealth and fame to Venice and other Italian regions was heavily regulated to insure quality control and perfection in the high-end silk cloths. After 1450, innumerable laws were passed prohibiting the use of second-grade and waste silks in the weaving of drappi da parangon, or cloths for comparison, that included the most luxurious satins, velvets, and brocades. These fabrics were extremely expensive, and they had to pass guild inspections and contain specific colored thread markers in the selvage to signify that they were made from the finest silk threads, dyes, and weaving techniques. Fraud and deception was common in the Renaissance silk market, and the strict laws and regulations were intended to protect the buyers and ensure the good name of the Italian silk industry. If any lesser quality materials or techniques were detected during guild inspections, the silk would be confiscated, and the weavers and sellers would be heavily fined. However, there were other less regulated classes of fabric in the silk trade such as the drappi mezzani, which were medium quality cloths destined for both local and foreign markets, drappi de navegar, cloths for export by sea, and drappi domestici, domestic cloths produced exclusively for local consumers and excluded from trade. (p. 97) 
The drappi domestici was the most ancient of these categories dating back to the 13th century. With these fabrics, "anyone at all could order a cloth from a master weaver with a weft thread of second-choice silk, waste silk, or some other fiber, so long as he employed it exclusively for his or his family's personal use and did not sell it." (p. 165) Mola points out that "this regulation was addressed in particular to the members of the Venetian nobility, who made large use of it, but it was also used by simple citizens or by the setaioli (silk sellers) or artisans themselves to produce the fabrics they needed for making cheap clothes and hangings." (p. 97) So it is not surprising that a large number of garments, coverlets, and hangings made with a weft of waste silk are found in the inventories of Venetian nobles, citizens, merchants, and artisans. (p. 166) These cheaper fabrics were commonly used by the upper and middle classes for less-formal garments and could provide an affordable alternative to the high-end silks that were sold for exorbitant prices. 
The reduced cost of the lower grades of silk thread also drew the interest of entrepreneurs who could produce fabrics for a much lower cost that were in high demand with local and international consumers. A law passed in 1475 officially sanctioned the use of waste silk and second-choice silk in cloth da navegar, as long as it had the proper identification mark in the selvage. While still restricted from using anything but "true silk" in cloths da parangon, "the freedom in the use of silk threads for cloths da navegar was widely exploited by weavers and setaioli in the course of the 16th century, as attested by the many trials held to ascertain the quality of cloths produced in Venetian shops." (p. 166) Although the guild inspectors commonly spoke of these lesser fabrics as having thread that was "filthy" or "bad", they could not confiscate it as long as it was clearly marked so that it would not mislead foreign consumers. (p. 166) 
Even the drappi mezzani enjoyed a slackening of standards during the 16th century due to the demand from foreign markets, "first by admitting the use of unboiled silk, then of second-choice silk, then of waste silk, and finally, even of other textile fibers" such as wool, cotton, or flax. (p. 167) Even though the guild continued to protest the use of these lesser-quality fibers, "the use of weft thread made with second-choice silk in the drappi mezzani was officially countenanced by state officials, even though no law was issued on the matter." (p. 169) 
Mixed cloths, a final form of lower quality silk, were the primary types of cloth produced by the East and Southern Mediterranean countries in the early Middle Ages, but regulations from the 1360's onward began to curb this practice in Venice and other Italian regions. (p. 161-162) However, laws were amended once again in the last quarter of the 16th century to allow the manufacture of various mixed cloths made with a warp of silk and a weft created from various combinations of wool, cotton, flax, and waste silk. Venetian weavers petitioned the silk guild in 1575 to be allowed to make these types of fabrics which were produced throughout Europe, and as stated by Pasqualin d'Alessandro, "are continually imported in very great quantities to the detriment of us poor weavers, who are forbidden to produce such kinds of fabric since they are forbidden by law, which laws were issued a long time before the invention of these new types of fabrics." (p. 172) 
The bigger picture: 
Although most of this information on lower grades of silk is specifically based on the Venetian silk industry, the author also covers similar trends throughout Italy, Europe, and the Levant. Mola begins this further exploration by stating that "the Venetian production of low-quality and mixed cloths fell within a general trend that affected nearly all of the other Italian silk industries in the second half of the 16th century. Indeed, one of the principal transformations in the manufacture of silk cloths in Italy during the late Renaissance was the return to the production of fabrics woven with less noble materials, an older tradition that had faded away almost everywhere between the 14th and 15th centuries." (p. 177) 
The author goes on to give numerous examples of the use of these materials in other regions, such as the cities of Genoa, Reggio, Emilia, Modena, and Lucca, who "were accustomed to using waste silk together with first-choice threads in cloths exported to France, Flanders, Germany, Bohemia, and Hungary where they were appreciated for their low price." (p. 177) In one of my favorite antidotes, Mola's research finds that young unmarried girls in Lucca were forbidden by a 1572 sumptuary law from wearing the finest silks, so they avoided this regulation by "avidly seeking fabrics woven with second-choice (doppi) and waste silk," or fabrics made from silk and wool blends. (p. 179) German businessmen bought these lower grades of silk cloth in huge quantities, and in Flanders, the predominant fabric for local production combined a weft of wool with a warp of first-choice, second-choice, or waste silk. (p. 182) 
Many other specific facts are given about the use of these lesser silk fibers in various regions, and all of these findings attest to the widespread use of these material throughout most of Europe during the 16th century. Mola's research seems to suggest that while the finest silks were indeed free of any imperfections and dominated the international luxury fabric market, another world of lower-grade silk materials were able to successfully co-exist with the finer versions, and these fabrics, contrary to modern beliefs, played an important role in the production of garments in the late Renaissance. 
Comparison to modern textiles: 
Although this information opens up some exciting new possibilities for authentic garment construction, it is still difficult to say which modern fabrics can or cannot be used in the recreation of period attire. Second-grade or "double silk" is described almost exactly the same way in period texts as modern fabrics such as douppioni (whose root comes from the same source as doppi, the Italian Renaissance term for double silk fibers). Modern silk douppioni is defined as having uneven and irregular threads that are reeled from two or more entangled cocoons. Our modern tastes have grown to appreciate the slubby textures of fabrics like douppioni, Shantung, and pongee (which are also made from double silk), and lower grade fabrics such as Indian douppioni tend to emphasize these imperfections. On the other hand, 16th century buyers would not have appreciated these flaws within the weave, and slubby silks probably would have never been used for the nobility's finest clothing. However, lower grade silk fabrics that might possibly resemble modern douppionis or Shantung seem to be within the realm of possibility for less-formal wear. 
Waste silk is even more difficult to match up with modern counterparts because of the wide variety of fibers and weaves associated with this material. Modern silk noil and spun silk, once again, are defined in the same way as waste silk of the Renaissance, but it is difficult to ascertain from the text whether or not low-grade silk fabrics of the 16th century would look anything like the spun silk fabrics we are accustomed to seeing today. In fact, the production of fabrics with either second-choice or waste silks in the 1500's often hid these fibers beneath the complicated weave of satin, velvet, or brocades, so they might look more like modern silk brocade (which typically uses lesser quality fibers in the weave) than nubby silk noil. But there are also period descriptions of plain weave fabrics that used waste silk threads, so it is just impossible to know for sure. However, I feel that modern spun silk fabrics should not be entirely ruled out simply because they are made with short fibers, since this book gives abundant evidence that waste silks were used in the production of fabric from the that period. 
With this being said, I still feel the need to point out that most of the research presented in this book deals with lower grade fabrics that retained a warp of true silk. The use of waste silk for the long warp threads would reduce the strength of the cloth and impair its durability, and most of the laws permitted the use of lesser fibers for the weft alone. Douppioni and some finer spun silk materials still use the higher quality reeled silk threads in the warp, so this would not be an issue with those fabrics, but most of the modern silk noils use waste fibers for both the warp and the weft. Mola's research rarely discusses fabrics made with a warp of waste silk in the 16th century, except when it was combined with other types of fibers (for example, the Flemish silk-wool blends mentioned in the previous section), and the only example I could find of 100% silk fabrics made with a warp of waste silk was from a 1335 Florentine law permitting its use in light cloths, but this practice was later overturned in the 15th century. (p. 179) Although it appears that using a warp of waste silk was not unheard of in the Renaissance, fabrics resembling modern noil with both a warp and weft made of waste silk were probably extremely rare. 
And finally, mixed cloths made from a combination of silk and cotton, wool, or flax are also documentable, especially before 1350 or after the first half of the 16th century, but the availability of these fabrics would probably vary depending on the location and exact date. This also does not account for the types of weave, which would need to be carefully researched if you are looking for complete authenticity, but it does open up a nice range of silk blend fabrics that could be considered for the construction of historical clothing. 
I realize that this information goes against some of the common knowledge espoused by Medieval, Renaissance, and Elizabethan costumers, but I was completely thrilled when I found this new source of documentation, and I encourage anybody who is interested in this subject to read this book and see the evidence for yourself. I have attempted to condense an enormous amount of information into a fairly brief article, but there is much more wonderful research on this topic as well as information on dyes, weaving techniques, sericulture, centers of production, the silk guilds, and the socio-economical impact of the silk industry in Venice and other regions during the Renaissance. It's not exactly a light read, but the research is astounding and you could spend weeks just going through the 150 pages of glossary, notes, bibliography, and appendixes! As always, if you have any comments, questions, or additional evidence either supporting or refuting the use of lower grade silks in the Renaissance period, I would love to hear from you! 
Mola, Luca. The Silk Industry in Renaissance Venice. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000. 
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