December, 2007

Sourcing Silk

December 30th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia writes:
My conversations with Bill had not yet come up with a weight of flat (floss) silk to use for the core of the gilt sylke twist. Again all these terms are difficult, there are many ways to measure the size of a silk thread. Tex and Denier are two of the most common. But those numbers aren’t often on the end of a silk tube so we didn’t have any reference points to work with. I figured we would start with an easily available source and then work from there to narrow in on what we needed to use. 

There are two commercially available untwisted silk threads dyed in a range of colors that I am aware of. One is the fantastic line sourced by the Japanese Embroidery Center in Georgia and the other is the Soie Ovale line from Au Ver a Soie in Paris, France. Since we were already using Au Ver a Soie threads on the project, it was a natural decision to try their version first. At least we might not have to involve another continent in the transatlantic engineering fun!

A problem appeared right away, the Soie Ovale line is dyed in the color set for Soie d’Alger and Soie Paris.  But we were working with Soie Perlee on the project.  So we couldn’t just translate the colors one-to-one.  UGGG.  There are technical reasons why this is – but this is not a place for that discussion. Needless to say the color matching was one more challenge to overcome! But before that, we needed to figure out if the silk could be used at all. So a call to Lamora Haidar at Access Commodities (the exclusive distributor of Au Ver a Soie in the USA) was required. 

Not many of you know Lamora, but if you love fine embroidery, you may owe her a debt of gratitude. Lamora is a passionate lover of fine historic embroidery and will often extend her business in ways that are truly irrational to save or re-establish a source for fine materials. I have truly appreciated her collaboration in the past to import materials I wanted to use and teach with and put them out there in easier-to-use packaging and US pricing.

I called Lamora as I knew from other ‘secrets’ we had been discussing, that she would be a willing partner in this folly. Lamora was excited and hopeful that my experiments with Bill would be successful. We also started the discussions – otherwise known as ‘horse trading’ that would be necessary to get this off the ground. Without going into extreme detail, you should know that business is business, no matter how ‘cool’ remaking something will be. If you haven’t ever manufactured something and gotten it through customs and figured out how to package it, well, you may naively think it is easy. 

So we needed to think about "IF" it worked, who would buy the silk? How much would be manufactured? Would dyeing runs be made? Timing? Who would reel the finished silk off onto little spools?  Would it go commercial? Would it be too expensive? Would there be a market for it??? Or should it just be a special run just for the project? Horse trading. 


How Much?

December 28th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia continues the story:

This is a question I still don’t have the greatest answer to, although with the record keeping we are doing on the project, we will at the end. So how to estimate the amount of thread you need to make of each color on a project of this magnitude. Wow. We had anticipated this at the beginning when I did the time trial. I kept a record of the length of thread I used for the trial and what stitch I was doing and where. 

So I had the beginnings of a database that I could use to estimate amounts. I entered this data into a spreadsheet and then took our master pattern and estimated area of each color on each motif. Using the data, I could calculate the amount of thread per inch of detached buttonhole. Then this number was imputed as a multiplier for the estimated area of each motif as a function of color. (At this point I usually smile, and nod, and hope she doesn’t think I’m a complete idiot. – jmh) 

Phew. Is that enough math talk for you??? (Yes.) Instead of doing it for each and every color, I chose the most prevalent color and estimated that. This would form a maximum that we could manufacture against. I assumed I could make good use of extra thread (i.e. Stash!) After all this data crunching, I came up with a minimum of 500 meters of each color would be needed. Now that’s not trivial and got Bill’s attention.

For the number of colors, I had to go back to Susan North (Costume curator at the V&A). Susan was very kind and took the jacket out of storage and went over it to answer my questions. I gave her a list of what colors I thought each motif was worked in and if I thought it was a wire wrapped silk or not. She verified and corrected my list. She also surmised from the look of the wire that it was silver. We don’t know for sure as it hasn’t been analyzed, but it does make sense as it would have been a nice contrast to the gold stems. She also thought it might be a round wire and not a very thin strip of metal (a flattened wire). I have seen both in the past. 

We came up with eight colors that needed to be made. Red, pink, yellow, cream, white, blue, dark blue, and green.  (In the end we made seven for the jacket and one fun color that wouldn’t be used on the jacket. We decided mid-stream that we would not make both white and cream.)

Now for the silk source…


Hand Twisting Silk

December 26th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia writes tonight about the process of hand twisting silk for embroidery, with pictures.

Just a few pictures to give those who haven’t seen anyone twist flat (floss) silk by hand an idea of how it is done. We didn’t take pictures of the entire process, but in brief:

- you unreel the silk around an awl or peg. (In this case there was one length of silk on each side of the peg and a length of wire on each side.)
- you make a special knot around the peg to secure the silk
- one set of thread is taken up in your right hand and placed in the lower palm. The left hand strokes it up the palm so it twists and this process is repeated until the silk has your intended amount of ‘undertwist’ in it
- the twisted thread is kept under tension in your teeth while you repeat the procedure with the second set of threads
- the two undertwisted threads are tied together with an overhand knot at the end
- the tied end is placed in the bottom of the left palm and the right hand strokes it up the palm to twist the two plies together. This is repeated until the desired ‘overtwist’ is put on the thread to balance out the undertwist.

Once this procedure is done, the silk can be cut off the peg and knotted. The silk end that was in your hands gets cut off and placed into the needle. This technique is still practiced by Japanese embroiders and can be quite useful. In a few weeks, I’ll try to show you photos of a different set of experiments we did which proved to us that the 17th century English professionals were using this technique in their workshops to twist their own silk (without metal).

The silk thread made by the above process is a Z-twist. To make an S-twist, you use your left palm for the undertwist and right palm for the overtwist. Here is a photo of the silk with wire that I made in these pictures. It isn’t what we were looking for – but stitches really nice!


More Experiments

December 22nd, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia continues:

Last night I talked about the experiments I was doing in January trying to find a solution to the composite thread we needed for the jacket. Well, a few weeks went by and I realized that the bullion was a “s” twist and the silk was a “z” twist thread. What does that mean? Well, if you pull out a thread and look at the diagonal that the twist in it makes – either it is in the direction of the long diagonal of an S or Z.

Why would this be important? Well, as a thread is stitched, you put twist into it or it untwists. So if the silk was twisting while stitching, the spring would untwist because they were opposite and become loopy on the surface. So I needed to try a S-twist silk thread. Looking at my collection, and trust me, my stash of silk is sizable; I found that they all were Z-twist. Therefore, I would have to make the S-twist silk myself.

I have taken Japanese embroidery since I was a teenager and so I am familiar with the Japanese technique of twisting flat (untwisted) silk into two-ply threads to use for embroidery. I also have a supply of flat silk. Two types in fact (ample stash comes in handy, I always tell my husband!). So I made a 4 into 1 S-twist thread and then expanded the purl on it. It looked nice. Then I embroidered with it – see the gold wire/cream silk photo. While nicer looking, it still didn’t have the look of the historic pieces.

At the same time I was hand making some threads using the same base as used in Army uniforms and very, very thin copper wire. (Don’t ask about my day job – suffice to say it is very interesting). So I tried adding the copper wire to my 4 ply (flat) into 1 (twisted) silk when I made it. Then I stitched this detached buttonhole sample. It stitched like a dream, but again it didn’t look right.

Well – now I knew that all these methods failed. Important – sometimes you need to know what doesn’t work so when someone asks you why you know your solution was the one they used in the past, you can say why with conviction. I’m pretty confident that in the past the wire drawers and spinners were making this thread.

Unfortunately, now I needed to call England again….

Do You Speak English?

December 21st, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia writes tonight, continuing the thread development story. Check also her comments in answer to other comments, on twist direction and thread availability.

An old adage in my field is to fail often to succeed – you saw the proof of that the last few nights.  Now to convince Bill to make the threads that I now knew he had to make!

I swear that I must have spent a few hundred dollars in phone calls and many emails talking to Bill and trying to understand his requirements for the colored silk which would form the core of the thread.  In my ‘other life’ I design threads not too far off this for some very unusual new technologies, so I knew what was possible technically.  Bill kept insisting that we needed "floss silk" and I kept trying to understand how many twists per inch he needed in the base silk and what denier (a unit of measure of yarn size) so I could go off and try to source raw stock.  I hadn’t even thought about dyeing yet! 

FINALLY I sent over some emails with drawings and we realized that we were being confused by each other’s terms.  Not only was I using textile terminology used in industrial textiles (high performance fibers such as ballistic fibers) and he was referring to terms used for historic textiles/home textiles – but the words for some of the same items are different in British English versus American English.  Thank goodness for the internet and drawings!  Apparently Floss Silk = Filament Silk = Flat Silk = Tow of Silk.  Wow, now we had something I could try to find and send him samples for sizing evaluation. 

Bill had lots of questions for me too, every manufacturer has to evaluate an opportunity to see if it will be worth the effort.  In this industry there are many more requests than he can fulfill and most of the time when the question ‘how much do you need’ comes up – the answer is ‘a few feet’.  So he asked me how much and how many colors.  Really good questions and ones I didn’t have any answers for except – A LOT.  So I would need to figure this out along with finding a silk source in order to convince him to spend the time.  And the time was ticking down to the start of the stitching! 


Experiments in Thread

December 19th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia resumes the thread of the story (pun intended):

I was so excited with a possible solution that night that I took the silk gobelin I was working with and ‘made’ a wire wrapped thread by expanding a purl on the silk after threading the two. I placed my fingernails on the first spiral and pulled out the rest of the ‘spring’. You can see the expanded spring on the thread here.

Next, could it be embroidered with? This picture shows a small rectangle of detached buttonhole worked with this homemade thread. Exciting as it glittered in my lamplight. But it doesn’t quite match the historic photos. (Note: we can’t put any historic photos up as we would need to pay royalties on the number of times people visit this site – please visit the V&A website to see close-ups of the jacket). In the historic photos, the metal stayed wrapped around the silk tightly when it was stitched. In my sample, the metal wire seemed to detach and stick out.

I wondered if this was because the threads weren’t the right scale, maybe I needed a thicker thread in the center. So I got out some green soie perlee. Again I expanded a purl on the silk and then stitched with it. As you can see here, it wasn’t much better. So what was the problem???


The Usual Work

December 18th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Here are Penny and Shaina, carrying on the usual winter work of the Colonial Wardrobe department. I took this during the December session last week. I think here they’re trying to decide whether that shirt is worth saving or is ready to be recycled as a rag.

Behind Penny you can glimpse one of the several racks full of washed clothing awaiting mending.Penny and Shaina, aided by our valiant volunteers and Paulette and Norah (that second picture is Norah, who has also been doing a little jacket embroidery this week, after a tutorial or two from Tricia last week), our December helpers from the Colonial Interpretation Department, have been doing a record quick job of washing and mending. This is especially important this winter as we’ve got so much else going on, including four embroidery sessions in January alone. I’d like to thank them all for their hard work and good humour and wish them happy, restful holidays.

Across the Pond

December 17th, 2007 by Jill Hall

Tricia continues the story of the research & development that led to the production of gilt sylke twist.

At the time we were starting this project, I was aware of only four authentic western style gold thread makers in the world: one in Spain, one in France and two in England. I am now familiar with one in Germany/Italy. I had regularly been working with the two English companies and had recently collaborated with Golden Threads to remake some threads for some of my teaching projects. 

I contacted both Benton and Johnson and Golden Threads and explored if they would be amenable to remaking this thread. If you want to get a better idea of what the thread looked like – check the close pictures of the jacket on the V&A website. While Benton and Johnson was understandably hesitant, Bill Barns (Golden Threads) was willing to talk. Bill pointed out to me that the gilt wire wasn’t that much of a problem to source, but the silk thread base was something that he couldn’t source. 

Understanding that, I set to thinking about the problem. About this time, I was working on a project using the gilt purls (also called bullions) that these companies make. These are small springs made with very thin gilt wire. I was stitching them down to the project by threading a silk thread and needle through the center of the purl. Well, sometimes the wire end catches on the silk and well, stretches. 

Sometimes when you have a ‘problem’ you are working on, a happy accident will show you a way. This was one of these times. When the purl stretches along the silk, it looks like the thread I was trying to convince Bill to make. Hmmmm….could that be a solution? It would certainly be much easier to buy a lot of gilt purl and then thread a thick silk thread of whatever color we wanted through the middle and then stretch the purl out over the silk. Each stitcher could make their threads 12-14 inches at a time. It could solve our silk sourcing problem and would be an economic solution too!

Next time – the experiments.


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