Leizu weaving her magic

The Mother Goddess of Silk

Leizu weaving her magic
The Mother Goddess of Silk: Leizu weaving her magic. Image courtesy of Fine Art America

Since the beginning of time, silk has been one of the most coveted and elegant fabrics in existence. Admired for its beauty and opulence, silk is also valued for its versatility and durability. Silk has been used to make everything from luxurious couture gowns to military parachutes. Most top tier performing arts costume shops use nothing but silk to make everything from a peasant costume to an over the top confection for the star performer.

As a valuable commodity it made its way along The Silk Road into western sensibilities. Examples of silk have even been discovered on Egyptian mummies and on the preserved bodies of Pompeii. 

But the history of silk has some very sacred and mythical origins, where fact and fiction blend to become legend, going back over 5,000 years. And it all began with a woman named Leizu, who is also known as “The Mother Goddess of Silk”. 

The Altar in Leizu’s Temple located in Yichang, China. Honoring the Mother Goddess of Silk. Image courtesy of Barclay Travel Community.

As the legend goes, the Empress Leizu was seated under under a mulberry tree, drinking tea in her garden. Suddenly a cocoon dropped from the tree into her teacup. Leizu observed that the hot water began to soften the cocoon, causing it to dissolve into a long filament cord that she could wrap around her finger. And this was how silk was discovered. 

Not satisfied with having discovered silk filament, Leizu is also credited with having invented the silk reel (similar to the spinning wheel) to create thread from the fiber, as well as the loom! This allows the threads to be woven into fabrics. And that my friends, is how legends are made.

So thanks to Leizu’s ingenuity, silk became the number one commodity for China. So much so, that it became a closely guarded state secret, traded like valuable currency along the Silk Road. Making its way to all the major capitals of the world where it became a highly sought after status symboled for the influencers of the times. In fact, the Romans called the nation of China “Serica” which translates into “The Land of Silk”. 

Serica Silk roman togas
Silk Togas and Stolas were a status symbol in Ancient Rome here worn by the main characters in the 2000 film “Gladiator”. The Roman name for China was “Serica” meaning “Land of Silk”. Image courtesy of Universal/Dreamworks.

Silk togas were a highly valued status symbol among wealthy romans. An excellent example of this was the silken togas worn by the characters in the 2000 film “Gladiator”. Even though the film was wrought with costume anachronisms, the costume designer did get it right when she dressed the characters in sumptuous silks. 

But eventually, the art of sericulture (silk farming) made its way out of China as Chinese craftsmen migrated to other parts of the world. Soon other countries like India, Japan and even the Republic of Venice where producing their own versions of silk. Each region adding its own unique characteristic to this luxurious fabric.

Durability & Flexibility

One particular characteristic that made silk such a valuable commodity was its durability. That is because silk is a monofilament fiber. That means that each cocoon will produce only one thread that can go on for yards and yards. When they are wound together to create a cord for weaving it gives silk a great deal of strength. Until the invention of synthetic fabrics, silk had a number of industrial uses for things like surgical sutures and bicycle tires. 

But perhaps the most curious industrial use was in the manufacture of parachutes during World War II. This caused a shortage for consumers in particular silk stocking industry since manufacturing had to be diverted away from wearable goods to wartime production. But everyone did their part to pitch in for the war effort and patriotic young women gave up their silk stockings and instead painted lines in the back of their legs to give the appearance of wearing them. 

Silk Parachute
A US Marine Corps manual outlining the uses of silk in combat. Image courtesy of USAF/USMC.

This trend went on until the invention of another monofilament fiber: nylon. So silk stockings became “nylon stockings” and parachutes, well you get the picture. And this event gave birth to yet another phenomena in the fashion food chain: Wedding dresses made from recycled silk parachutes! This trend was particularly popular in Great Britain since the British people had suffered terribly during the war and experienced tremendous shortages as a result. So naturally for a War Bride to have worn a dress with such a provenance was a fashion statement that was much political as it was symbolic. 

Versatility is another quality that is attributed to silk.  Depending on how the fibers were processed, silk can be made to look like the most humble cloth or the most luxe textile.

Parachute silk wedding dresses
Necessity is the mother of invention. Two examples of parachute silk wedding dresses from WWII. Credits: (L) Creative Commons. (R) The Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC.

And it’s for this reason that performance arts organizations use silk as their fabric of choice when it comes to building their costumes. This is because, say, for example Raw Silk or Tussah Silk can be used to create a simple peasant or workers costume and as another example, Silk Satin could become a stunning evening dress or Silk Velvet can become a sumptuous cloak for royalty. All from that one little boiled larvae! 

Parachute silk wedding party
A precious legacy: Another example of repurposed parachute silk, this time for the entire wedding party! Image courtesy of Tim Collins @timcollins

Again, durability plays a huge factor for silk being the fabric of choice for costume productions.Because of its monofilament structure, self has the ability to absorb dyes very effectively. This is why silks take on such rich vibrant colors and can survive year after year even after undergoing the punishments of a theatrical or film performance. Afterwards the pieces are recycled for the next season or film. 

Cleanser of Choice
My cleanser of choice: Nowadays most silks are sent to the dry cleaners, however hand washing is the best way to go and Dr Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap is my cleanser of choice!

Finally, some of the least known but most important characteristic of silk is its insularity. This means that it keeps the wearer warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Its washability is another forgotten property, but yes, under the right conditions silk may be gently washed with a mild soap, such as Dr Bronner’s Castile Soap and cool water. Nowadays though, most silk garments are dry cleaned. 

My Fabric of Choice

Silk has always been my first fabric of choice when it comes to designing a costume. The fact that it can be processed to look like almost anything makes it an ideal material for costumes. When presented with an idea, if it can be made from silk then that’s what I am going to use for the build. I would like to share with you know, some of my past projects utilizing silk so that the reader can truly appreciate this “Goddess of all Fabrics”:

 

“Raw Silk” or “Silk Noil”

Cosplay costume made from Silk Noil. Click on the image for more about this costume.

Can you believe that coat is made of silk? The deep navy fabric is known as “raw silk” or “silk noil” and it derives its name from the silk making process because it comes from the first rendering of the boiling process. A bit like “virgin” olive oil is rendered from the first pressing. Unlike its Italian counterpart though, it is not held in the same value as the subsequent filaments that the cocoon gives up. 

This first rendering is generally scooped up and used to make a very rustic and organic fiber that is woven into the above mentioned fabric. Unfortunately since it doesn’t yet have the monofilament qualities of regular silk, it can only be woven with a very narrow loom. The usual width of this fabric hardly ever goes past 35” as opposed to the 45” and 60” standard with of most silks. 

Since most silks are now produced through mass automation, this extra step of sustainability is no longer deemed practical by the manufacturers. So that initial step of scooping up the first rendering is no longer done and its simply discarded. Making this fabric very difficult to find. According to my suppliers, this type of silk will soon be a thing of the past. 

Silk Brocade

Here are two examples of silk brocade upholstery fabric. Prior to the Industrial Revolution of the 19cc, there was no differentiation between garment and home furnishing fabrics.

These two costumes where actually made from silk brocade upholstery fabrics. Upholstery fabric is an excellent choice for making period costumes from the Renaissance to the Baroque.

That is because back then the same material could be used to upholster your furniture or your body. There was no differentiation between one or the other. So using upholstery, in particular if it’s silk upholstery, gives the garment a touch of authenticity. The costume on the left is also trimmed with silk lace that has been blended with gold thread. As is her Mop Hat too.

Silk Velvet

With the exception of the shoes and wigs, every fabric in this picture is some variation of silk.

This 18cc costume, with the exception of the wig and shoes, is made completely from silk. The jacket is silk velvet, the pants are silk peau de soie, the vest silk brocade, the chemise silk noil, hosiery mercerized silk, the lace and gold trim-you guessed it- silk. Even the bows on the shoes are made from silk! Such is the variety and versatility of silk.

Silk Faille/Moiré

Black silk and in particular, black silk Moiré, is a very popular staple for Victorian window’s weeds.

This is a very unusual finishing for silk called “Silk Faille” of “Silk Moiré”. It was very popular in Victorian times and then experienced a brief revival in the 80’s but is rarely used today. Hence the lady in the widows weeds made popular by Queen Victoria. This silk starts out in life as a “Faille”. The process of creating Faille is achieved by having the spindle on the loom skip over a few threads as it weaves the fabric, giving it a “wide whale” similar to corduroy. In order to create the “moiré” watermark, the fabric is steamed with an acidic component and then pressed with pressed with rib rollers to create that watermark effect. Click on the image to see the web post where you can see the original Victorian upon which this designed was based. 

Tussah Silk

Fantasy costume with cape made from Tussah Silk. Sarong is Silk Noil and cape appliqués are made from silk Dupioni.

Here’s another example of a variety of silks used for one costume. The cape is made from Tussah Silk which has its origins in India. It has a heavy hand and wide “slubs” which are irregularities in the weave of the fabric, giving it a rich textured look. Thanks to this weaving process, the fibers can absorb dyes with maximum saturation. The sarong is made from silk noil while the cape appliqués are made from Silk Dupioni. Last but not least, her bodystocking is embroidered with our silk thread. 

Silk Dupioni

Luxurious Silk Dupioni fabric saturated with vibrant jewel-toned colors

Silk Dupioni is also referred to as “Thai Silk” because most of its production takes place in Thailand. However, China, India and even Italy manufacture this gorgeous silk. Like the aforementioned Tussah silk, it also is considered a “slubby” fabric however, the weaving is more delicate than Tussah. This also allows it to absorb colors at high saturation as you can see from the rich texture of the costumes. Dupioni works great for renaissance and other period costumes because the organic weaving patterns give the costume a touch of authenticity. Almost as if it had been hand woven on a loom. 

Some other interesting details about these costumes: On the left, her cape, her purse and her hat are also made of silk; silk chiffon and silk velvet respectively. On the right: the coat is made from Dupioni, however her skirt is also silk chiffon. The two toned effect is called “sharkskin” weave and its created when two different colored threads are used in the the warp and weft during the weaving process. As the wearer moves the fabric shifts colors in the light. “Sharkskin” weave can also be used with different types of fabric and was very popular thigh mens suits in the 1940’s and 50’s. 

Silk Chiffon

Italian Silk Chiffon that has been enhanced with innovative weaving techniques giving the materials an almost liquid appearance.

Expanding on the silk chiffon theme from the previous post,  here are two more examples of silk chiffon being pimped up with unusual weaving effects. These two costumes where made from an Italian silk chiffon that was woven with gold (left side) and silver (right side) threads in a herringbone pattern barely discernible to the human eye. The interesting thing about this fabric is how photogenic it is. It turns into pure liquid on film.

Silk Charmeuse

Beautiful bias-cut Silk Charmeuse wedding dress for a lovely bride!

Silk Charmeuse is the “free spirited cousin” of Silk Satin. They are both woven in the same manner however, because the thread count is thinner than Silk Satin the fabric has a delicate weight but still has the high lustrous sheen. That makes it a perfect choice for 1930’s style bias cut dresses like the wedding gown in the picture. 

“Duchesse” Silk Satin

King of the Mardi Gras Krewe! His Majesty is wearing an elegant uniform made from this special type of Silk Satin.

This is a costume for a Mardi Gras King made from  Duchesse Satin. This satin woven silk has a heavy luxurious hand, making it the perfect material for wedding dresses, evening gowns and military style royal costumes like the one above. The military embellishments were specially ordered from England and were of course, also made of silk! Click Here to learn more about the tragic Emperor who served as an inspiration for this costume.

Masks!

Waste not, want not! Here silk scraps have been repurposed to create elegant, one of a kind masks. Click on the image to be directed to the Mask Gallery.

And what do we do with all those leftover scraps of silk? They are used to make Venetian style carnival masks, of course! The scraps are stretched out on the bias over a a canvas that has been lightly coated with craft glue and allowed to dry. Then it is reinforced with milliner’s wire and covered with leftover ribbons, beads, jewels etc. Waste not want not! Oh yes and the lilac fabric used as a drape on the left and right pictures is, guess what? You got it! Silk. It’s actually a “sand washed” silk , which is as the name implies, a process of washing the silk with a small amount of sand. This gives the fabric a slightly distressed look and a semi-matte finish.

I hope that you enjoyed this literary and visual journey through the world of silk. I’m sure that Leizu would be proud of how far her invention has gone so far. From helping to win a war against Facism to gracing the most upscale runways of Paris. Silk is one of those immortal fabrics that will never cease to fascinate us.

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