Let’s have gateaux in peau de soie

Fabrics of the past were named somewhat like plants, except the second half was usually French. Tulle, chiffon, crepe, peau de soie and faille could all be silk. These second names referred to the weave or the effect of the fabric.

On the rack, we have fewer choices, usually cotton, silk, linen, wool, polyester, nylon, rayon, or some combination. Clothes are more complicated in the design. Even every-day wear has to be distinguished to look “new” (our yardstick for stylish), and usually that is in the “cut.” Fashion does what culture and the economy dictate. Now it is the style (for a grown woman) to be non-comformist. Recently, the higher priced lines have had asymmetrical hems or pockets in funny places. Bargains might have no pockets at all. Lots of jackets tight now so not have buttons.

In the 1950s, when my paternal grandmother was my guide, the idea was to look “well-dressed,” which really meant having a few skirts, blouses and sweaters of good quality. They lasted long enough that it made sense to have collars monogrammed. You didn’t try to stand out (except my mother who, in the “little black dress” craze made her own long, brown, taffeta gown with a bustle).


I preferred to look like the other girls. My four best friends and I would go annually to buy new bathing suits, and one year three of us bought “boy coats” together. All but one of our crowd wore strapless prom dresses by then. In retrospect, the dance dress I like best is one Mother made me out of felt, halter style with a big circle skirt decorated with satin roses.

In the 1950s, a prom dress and its scarf might be made of silk chiffon. The scarf was a gesture toward modesty, but could serve the same flirty purpose as a fan did at balls in the 17th century. Compare that with the 1960s. “Put your Pucci in your Gucci and go,” is a line associated with the Jet Set. A Gucci, of course, was a stylish handbag. A Pucci was a very short dress made by an Italian designer who was praised for bringing out crushable fabrics in bold, bright patterns. These could be packed into a handbag along with a bikini, by young women who could be, at the mere suggestion, headed for the Riviera.

For the masses, political and economic realities always have forced changes in clothing and costume, including where fabrics are made. Think about how lacemaking spread from France to the Netherlands and ultimately England with the Puritans. It took skills not everybody had or whose circumstances (religion included) disallowed it. More than one king has proclaimed dandyism or anti-dandyism.

Every name has its own story. A material named shantung is named for Shandang Province in eastern China. It is a heavy fabric first made with silk fibers. Silk is famously from China. Silk shantung later was copied in cotton and synthetics. It is the weaving method more than the material that makes it what it is. Another desirable silk confection was dupioni, a word that in Italian (doppio) means double, describes the making of the thread. Two different silkworms spinning their cocoons close together make tangled fibers that contain bumps and irregularities. Dupioni is attractive but also takes dye well and is easy to sew. It also resists wrinkles. There are synthetics that substitute for the wrinkle free aspect, but may not be as colorful, or as absolutely reversible. Dupioni has one big disadvantage: it does not stretch; there is no margin for error. Therefore, seamstresses must be very careful in cutting the pattern to perfection. An added drawback to dupioni is that the edges can unravel.



Taffeta is an interesting name for another fabric used more formally. The word is Persian for “twisted woven.” Shot-silk taffeta was a most desirable cloth for colorful Byzantine robes in the 5th century. The silk producers were in China, and thus we have the Silk Road. When finally a Chinese emperor gave up the secret of silk, it became one of the major Byzantine (Roman) Empire enterprises. Until its “fall” in 1453, Constantinople was the first significant silk-weaving center in Europe. In those days, fabrics woven from China’s raw silk were used officially, as a means of payment and of diplomacy. Eventually, silkworms were smuggled into the Empire and the manufacture and sale of silk became an imperial monopoly, and sold only to authorized buyers.

After the Fourth Crusade (1204), the Italian silk-weaving industry became established. Silk taffeta was a stiffer material that was produced in in both Italy and France, right up to the 1950s. China was still producing silk taffeta into the 1990s. Today most raw silk taffeta is from India and Pakistan, where many revered “British” textile traditions derived, such as paisley. Other countries in Southeast Asia and the Middle East are producing lesser quality materials. The most “deluxe” taffetas are from France, the UK, and, surprisingly (to me at least) Russia. Although we associate taffeta with pretty skirts, it actually is used in corsetry, wherever that is still needed, probably only on the fashion runways, to help other fabrics hold shape. It has also been used experimentally in very early balloon aircraft, and has been used to make modern blood vessels.

The care required to keep some of the old fabrics have forced them off the runways except for bridal and ballroom fashions. Some are more commonly associated with household decorations today. Think of a white tablecloth with a shiny floral pattern. Damask originated in an Islamic weaving center. In the Middle Ages it was one of five basic weaving techniques. Medieval damasks could be silk, linen and even wool. The last suggests other uses, perhaps the curtain around a canopy bed. Damasks became hard to find after the 9th century except in Spain, but by the fourteenth century were being produced in Italy on draw looms, handlooms that had to be operated by two people. Damasks now are woven on Jacquard looms – which are interesting in themselves as documenting swift changes to the textile industry.

The Industrial Age also made fortunes in lace. Lace-making originated as a noble skill and then became a home craft, and soon a cottage industry to supplement family incomes. Many women lost their eyesight from this tedious work under poor light. Then someone organized groups of women to weave on larger looms installed in glass-roofed attics. Meanwhile, weaving machines were being improved for such mundane products as socks. These inventions evolved machines built for Nottingham, England lace factories. These became so sophisticated they could copy prestigious hand-made designs made famous in France (Jacquard). Nottingham thus became the world capital of lace-making, thanks to some ambitious capitalists. Sadly, until many new work laws were passed, their success further ruined the health of many women and children.

Except for the damage to human beings, lace reminds me of cheese. Cheddar, originating in Cheddar, Somerset, England, is made wherever there are dairy cows. It has no European Union PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, the way most wines do. Legend has its origin in a cave near the sea. A dairymaid left pails of milk until they turned into something else so tasty the locals decided they could produce and sell it. No one knows exactly when this occurred, but a document proves King Henry II purchased 1000 pounds of the stuff in the 12th century.

What makes it cheddar?  It is sharper than other cheeses, according to its age. “Cheddaring” became the verb for changing the naturally pale white substance into orange by adding annatto or paprika. Today cheddar is made in various English cities, in Ireland, and has become a staple of Vermont, Wisconsin, and Canada.

Getting back to the main subject, fabrics, I have one more observation. I remember the name “georgette” associated with my maternal grandmother’s wardrobe in the early 1940s. I suppose I learned about her clothing because she was an invalid most of the time, but would get dressed for Sunday dinner when my parents and I were there, and I would help her. Georgette is a sheer, lightweight, and draping fabric, lovely, feminine, and might be silk, nylon or rayon. It has to be handled carefully in sewing, but it is strong and durable. It is very easy to understand why it would be popular during World War II. I’m guessing that synthetics surpassed it in all these categories because of ease of care. Georgette has to be hand washed or dry-cleaned.

Delicate fabrics also had to be very carefully ironed. No one I know now has time to iron. We take things to professional cleaners. Nonetheless, I set out one day last year to find a “real” iron, one that would be heavy enough to make a difference on cotton or linen. Department stores had models promoted as lightweight. I zeroed in on the largest ACE Hardware in town, and looked for the oldest female clerk. She took me right to the Black & Decker “Classic.” It cost a fraction of the prices of streamlined irons.

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