Silk in the Regency and Its Connection to Computing

Inspired by Kristi’s post on wool last week, I set out to choose another fabric popular during the Regency—silk. While researching this topic, however, I ended up down several fascinating rabbit holes. For example, did you know that a silk loom influenced computing? Neither did I, but it’s true.  So while I am going to talk about various forms of silk in this article, I will also take you a few yards—or should I say ells?—down this particular rabbit hole—and maybe one or two more.

Silk Cocoons
Empty silk cocoons. (Wikimedia)

I expect entire books have been written about the history of silk. Many legends exist as to how someone in China discovered that unwinding the cocoon of the silk worm created a soft and lustrous cloth. The Chinese held a monopoly on the product for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years. Then the Japanese, Koreans,  and Indians learned the secret, and caravans carried it west to the Persian empire, the Greeks, the Romans. . .  The Italians were the first Europeans to produce silk in quantity, but Louis XI of France changed that.

By the Regency, France, Lyon in particular, was a leading manufacturer in silk. A couple centuries before this, however, the Huguenots fleeing persecution in France, took their skills to England, and Spitalfield became a center for silk production.

Raw Silk
Strands of raw silk (Wikimedia)

England’s climate is not conducive to silk manufacturing, so it has never become an important center of the fabric manufacture. Likewise, the industry never made inroads in North America either. (One rabbit hole: The wife of a governor of Virginia thought to start a silk industry in the colony, but imported the wrong kind of mulberry tree to support the worms. Now the MidAtlantic region is covered in trees that drop useless and rather nasty-smelling berries every year.)

february 1813 plateMy fashion plates of numerous years during the Regency show that silk was popular for those flowing, filmy gowns so fashionable at the time. This takes us to another rabbit hole—if England and France were at war most of this time, and England didn’t produce much silk, then where did all that fine, Lyon silk come from? I expect many a dressmaker claimed she had stock-piled the stuff before the war, as she would never confess that she had purchased it from the “gentlemen” AKA smugglers.

Now to the different types of silk.

Shot silk suit - 1790 (Wikimedia)
Shot silk suit – 1790 (Wikimedia – click for larger resolution)

Shot silk: This is where the face is one color and the warp is another, so the color shifts with the light.

Chine: This has the pattern printed on the warp before weaving, so the design comes out blurred.

Satin and Taffeta: These are familiar fabrics to us. They were heavier silk weaves, with satin lustrous on one side, so not as popular in most of the Regency.

Lustestring: A ribbed and lightweight silk that would have rustled a lot and been quite lustrous.

Sarsnet: A fine weave silk, light and airy. Sometimes twilled-looking.

Silk gauze: a little heavier than chiffon.

Watered silk dress
Watered silk dress (Wikimedia – click for larger image)

Moiré or watered silk: This is an example of ingenuity of the time. They ran wet silk through rollers with a pattern that impressed that pattern into the fabric.

Brocade and Damask: These are textured silks where the pattern is raised. Sometimes these appeared in linen or wool, but generally brocade and damask meant silk. Brocade only has the pattern on one side; damask is reversible. The patterns are formed using a jacquard loom, which brings us to computing.

Joseph Marie Jacquard
Joseph Marie Jacquard (Wikimedia)

Joseph Marie Jacquard improved on the ideas of Basile Bouchon  and Jean-Baptiste Falcon, who used holes punched in tape and a series of needles to make the pattern. Inn Jacquard’s looms, cards were punched with holes then strung together. Threads were fed through these holes so that hooks on the loom knew ehen to grab a thread to create the pattern. Thousands of threads were often involved, and stringing a loom took days. Creating the punch cards took some serious skill as well.

Charles Babbage used similar punch cards to store information in his mechanical analytical machine in the late 19th century, and Herman Hollerith used punch cards for storing data from the 1890 census. If anyone knows something about computers from before the 1970s, they have seen the old-fashioned punch cards still being used for programming.

This is not the entire list. Each area of the world that produced silk produced its own sorts. These are just some of the ones most common in clothing fabrics of the time.

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