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by Gregory Mele

The question of raw silk (“silk noil”) is a tricky one. It's one of those pieces of “general knowledge” amongst many sewers of medieval costume that “it wasn't used” much as many will say that cotton “wasn't used”. Of course, reality isn't black and white, it is many shades of grey. Working from incomplete records, a handful of surviving samples, purchase rolls, etc., is like trying to view the world blind in one eye and with a cataract partly obscuring the other. It's enough to drive you crazy - or to provide years worth of fun playing detective, depending on your temperament!

The issue of how much silk was used, whether it was first, second or third grade silk (also called “silk noil”) or blended silks (without even touching what sorts of blends and what they looked like), varied greatly from century to century and place to place. Even more importantly, it depended not only on the intended customer and their use for the fabric, but on the strength of the local weaving guilds in that time and place and their ability to protect their rights through enforced legislation. Thus what might be true in Flanders might not be in Aragon. In a place like Italy - the makers of fashion in the late 14th century and throughout the next century this means that what might be true in 1360 might not be by 1375, revert back to the first standard in 1400 and have changed again by 1450. At times what might be true in Venice might not be in Florence, etc.

This being said, we can establish some pretty broad patterns. There is an excellent, fairly new source called
The Silk Industry in Renaissance Venice, by Luca Mola (Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000) that looks at the use of silks of a variety of grades, mixed grades and silk blends in the 14th -16th centuries, and much of what follows comes from this source. This gives the data something of an Italian slant, but as the principle silk center for central and Western Europe, the data is still fairly safe.

In the 12th and 13th century mixed fabrics (comprised of any combination of the three grades of silk) seem to have been quite common, and even garments of plain third grade silk (our friend silk noil) seem to be clearly documentable. So no problem there. In the 14th century, this becomes a trickier issue. Second and third grade silk were being used in their own right, and more commonly in silk blends through the first half of the 14th century. In the second half of the century, the Italian cities began to increasingly legislate fabric quality. Their first goal was to make sure that these lesser silks” were not being used in the weaving of luxury fabric such as brocades, satins and velvets. These expensive fabrics were a key component of the fabric trade and were aimed at a wealthy clientele. It seems fairly clear that the Guilds jealously protected the purity of their fabrics until standards began to relax in the 16h century.

However, there was both a middle grade of trade fabric as well as a “domestic” grade (“drappi domestici”) which were not intended for export. These could be second grade silk garments as well as mixed garments with a weft of noil or another fiber. This cheaper fabric would have been used by the lower parts of the upper class and the middle classes for less-formal garments. It allowed people to wear silk garments without paying the exorbitant rates attached to first quality fabric. Luca Mola gives fairly substantial evidence of these fabrics being used in the garments of Venetian citizens ranging from artisans to nobles, with data ranging from the 14th -16th centuries. He is careful to point out that the practice of widely exporting these fabrics died out in the second half of the 14th century until the 16th, but remained a common practice domestically.

Unlike the blended export fabrics the Guilds were specifically banning, wherein the rougher fibers were generally hidden, some of these fabrics seemed to have had a nubby quality that would have been wholly unacceptable in a fine fabric, but was suitable for the day wear of noble, or the attire of an artisan. There are some surviving examples of this sort of fabric in the Victoria and Albert's fabric collection as well as in Ferrara.

So we have historical evidence of the use of a wide variety of silks and silk blends in the 14th century, although the Italian Guilds themselves tried to prevent their export. (On the other hand, as was pointed out in Olga Sronkova's “Gothic Woman's Fashion” the continual passage of new legistlation and fines prohibiting the practice in cities such as Lucca, and records of multiple seizures of fabrics being shipped out of Genoa to various parts of Europe suggests that the ability to prevent the export of “domestic fabrics” may have been somewhat limited.) But as you can see there are plenty of areas where the exact details are unclear, and we are forced to make guesses.

I hope this somewhat tangled history has at least given you an idea of what our historical data is. In choosing to use modern raw silk in our garments, we looked at the historical provenance of the fabric, as explained above - the nature of the garments - the dress of the middle classes, gentry or day wear of the lesser nobility. We then had to measure this against the financial reality of offering a line of “off the rack” clothing and try to chose a fabric that was a reasonable compromise for the domestic mixed silks that would have been available. We do not know with a certainty how many of their silk noil fabrics matched the noil fabrics being woven today, nor how common the nubby mixed fabrics were. Indeed the challenge for any professional costumer is to balance the choices of fabric (type and weave), machine stitching (how much? Can it be hidden?), and fittings (are they to be cast of an historical original? Of what material?) and to balance that against what the customer can afford. In our silk cotte we have tried to produce a garment that is clearly designed after historical sources, has no visible machine stitching other than its buttonholes, has buttons cast from a surviving period original, and is made of a fabric with an historical counter-part.


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