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Silk: An Endless Thread (Parts 1 & 2)

Silk: An Endless Thread (Parts 1 & 2) published on No Comments on Silk: An Endless Thread (Parts 1 & 2)

Silk: An Endless Thread
– by Sabrina de la Bere, Guild Minister

Opus Anglicanum -- ApostlesThe more I play with silk thread for historical embroidery, the more I get curious about the history of silk, what was used for the historic embroideries, and the modern equivalents. And of course, part of playing with different silk threads is only an excuse to add to my “stash”.

Silk Basics

While there are a number of different types of silk moths, two are primarily used for the production of quality silk thread – the Bombyx Mori and the Tussah moth. The Bombyx has been successfully domesticated for about 5000 years in China and has lost its ability to fly. The caterpillars’ natural diet is mulberry leaves. The silk they produce is the finest white silk. A number of other types of moths have also been adapted to domestication and are now farmed (“sericulture”).

The Tussah moth comes from India and has not been domesticated. Its cocoons are collected from its natural environs of oaks, where its primary diet is oak leaves. The tannin from its diet causes the silk to have a natural color cast that ranges from light gold to dark brown; it is also slightly less flexible than cultivated silk. Silk produced from the Tussah and other wild species is called “raw silk”.

The silk moth spins a cocoon in its caterpillar state. It is the fiber that the caterpillar creates and forms into its cocoon that is the basis for the silk thread. The threads it exudes are bound together with a glue called sericin. Each cocoon contains between 2000 and 3000 feet of silk thread. If allowed to mature, a caterpillar remains in the cocoon for 22-32 days and then emerges as a moth.

If the cocoon is allowed to mature and the moth emerges, it “chews” through the cocoon and leaves behind the broken fibers. These are then placed in warm water to re- lease the sericin. The broken fibers are then spun into thread.

When farmed, the caterpillar is not al-lowed to mature and is killed inside the cocoon. The cocoons are placed in warm water to release the sericin from the fibers. The fiber is then reeled off in a single filament. The sugas or filaments are then combined and resulting fiber may be twisted or folded to form thread. Fine untwisted silk thread is made from 4-6 sugas.

With early silk, the skeins were dyed. This process included the boiling off of the gum, the weighting of silk and the coloring. The weighting of the silk to add bulk to the thread was done with mineral salts. Raw cocoons were also packed with salt for transport from China. There are warn-ings to western merchants about checking the salt content of early trade goods.

Silk Terminology

  • Boiling – degumming silk threads or goods by boiling in soap and water.
  • Bourette – a yarn; usually heavier weight with bits of extraneous materials occurring in it.
  • Cordonnet – a “cord” made by taking several raw silk threads, doubling and loosely twisting them in one direction. Then 3 of these are joined and tightly twisted in the reverse direction.
  • Denier – a French coin of about 1 /2 gram weight, used for determining the size of raw silk. The number of coins used to balance 450 meters is the “denierage” or size of the silk.
  • Filament Silk – silk that unwinds from the cocoon in an unbroken thread.
  • Floss – a soft silk thread that is practically without twist. Also refers to the loose waste silk emitted by the worm when it first begins to spin its cocoon.
  • Noil – short, lumpy fibers that are left after the combing process in making spun silk.
  • Ply – individual threads combined to form a thicker thread.
  • Raw silk – the silk produced from wiled cocoons that are gathered versus cultivated. Silk that is unprocessed is (confusingly) also called raw.
  • Reeling – the process of unwinding the silk from the cocoon, using a frame or reel. Reeled silk is in skeins.
  • Sericulture – the farming of silk caterpillars to produce silk thread.
  • Staple – broken fibers, waste fibers, and the silk thread spun from them.
  • Spun Silk – the lesser quality silk spun from staple. May contain broken filaments from cocoons where the moth has emerged, remainders of the outside layers of reeled cocoons, or leavings from the floor of the silk workshops.
  • Throwing – the process of taking silk fiber and processing it into usable thread. Includes twisting and doubling until the desired thickness is reached.
  • Tinsel – thread made by flattening wire which is then twisted around a core, frequently silk. Modernly we refer to this as “Jap” or “Japan” gold.
  • Twist – a heavier thread made by taking multiple thread plys and twisting them, usually under tension.
  • Winding – transferring the silk from reeled skeins to bobbins.

Why Silk?

16th Century engraving -- silk caterpillarWhen you look at a piece of embroidery with silk you see a wonderful luster and sheen. The colors appear to be deeper and more vital when compared to other fibers including “synthetic silk”. This is what drew me to using silk – and then I fell in love with the feel.

16th Century engraving -- silk cocoonHow the luster and sheen happens has to do with the natural properties of silk. When it is high-quality reeled silk it reflects light so well that it almost looks like it is the source of the light. This is due to the almost translucent outer cellular layer. It also has a special cellular construction that allows it to receive and hold dyes well. This gives it the deeper saturated color with the strong reflective quality.

Silk also has very high tensile strength. It is said that a single silk filament is stronger than an equivalent steel filament. This strength along with its imperviousness to mildew and bugs has resulted in some wonderfully preserved pieces of fabric and embroidery.

16th Century engraving -- silk moth hatchingDepending on how the silk is processed, it can have a very smooth surface and is extremely flexible. When processed to maintain the native luster, it maintains a smooth and reflective surface. Hence the wonderful feel of silk threads. Even when the lowest quality of silk is spun and worked, it still has the suppleness and “silky” touch we associate only with silk.

Quick History of Silk


  • 3000 BC – Chinese discover silk thread.
  • 2200 BC – Chinese trade silk with India.
  • 400 BC – China trades silk with India who in turn trade with the Persians who in turn trade with Rome and Greece – in Greece imported goods are unraveled and the silk threads rewoven.
  • 140 BC -silk worms smuggled to Khotan
  • 27 BC -silk becomes common place in Rome for the elite and is used in trim bands on garments
  • 1st C. – China develops silk velvet
  • 200 – sericulture in Japan and Korea and shortly there after India
  • 3rd C – limits on silk wear and purchase in the Roman Empire as the cost was prohibitive being more than gold, pound for pound
  • 300-700 – Persia (Sassinid) and Byzantium dominate the silk trade and silk weaving
  • 400-600 – silk reeling, Chinese silk techniques and the Bombyx Mori brought to India
  • 5th C – Sassinads develop compound weft twill silks
  • 550 AD – sericulture in Byzantium spreads to N. Africa and Spain, and from Greece to Sicily and Italy. The spread and development continues with the Crusades and unsettled times on the Italian peninsula and Sicily
  • 8th C – Chinese develop silk satin, but it does not come into heavy use in Europe until the 13th C.
  • 800 – Central Asian silks (Byzantine) used as dalmatic fragments in England
  • 8-9th C – silk woven in England, on drawlooms, with a weft faced com-pound twill known as “samite” that shows off long weft floats of the silk. There are also weft faced patterned tabby weave silks with geometric pat-terns. The drawloom may have been brought back by the Crusaders from Damascas.
  • 12th & 13th C. – increased usage of met-al thread in woven silk cloths.
  • 1251 – silk manufactured (from imported cocoons) in England – noted in accounts of the wedding of Henry III’s daughter where a thousand knights wear silk garments
  • 13th C. – Lucca becomes the major silk weaving export center in Europe for luxury cloth. 1349 silk weavers form their own Guild in Lucca. Silk production centers in Genoa, Venice, Bologna, and Lucca.
  • 1400’s – silk velvet woven in Venice; including the development of the gold pique velvet – cross influences between painters, embroiderers and weavers in designs
  • 15th C – shot taffeta and sarsinet developed using reeled silk with little or no twist
  • 15th C – cotton velvets of Bursa (Otto-man) – usually cotton foundation with silk pile
  • 1500’s – sea routes between Italy and India & China open – “silk road” begins its decline
  • 1546 – House of Tussah (weavers versus traders) opens in Lyon France
  • 1562 – Guild of silk throwers formed in Spitalfield, England
  • 1598 – Elizabeth I presented with ma-chine knitted silk stockingsBibliography
  • A Stitcher’s Guild to Silk Thread. Published by Kreinik Manufacturing Co. Inc. 2001.
  • “A Fine Quality Embroidery from Llangors Crannog, near Brecon”, by Hero Granger and Frances Pritchard. Published in Pattern and Purpose in Insular Art, edited by M. Redknapp, N. Edwards, S. Youngs, A. Lane, and J. Knight. Oxbow Books. 2001, ISBN 1 84217 058 9.
  • “Textile Finds in the People’s Republic of China” by Hsio-Yen Shih. In Studies in Textile History, edited by Veronika Gervers. Published by Royal Ontario Museum. 1977. ISBN 0-88854-192-9.
  • “The Development of the Textile Crafts in Spain.” Articles by A. Wittlin. Ciba Review 20. April 1939.
  • A Pictorial History of Embroidery, by Marie Schuette and Sigrid Muller-Christensen. Published by Praeger. 1964.
  • Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian Art, 1300-1600, by Rosamond E. Mack. Published by University of California Press. 2002 ISBN 0-520-22131-1.
  • Flowers of Silk & Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroidery, by Sumru Belger Krody. Merrell, in association with The Textile Museum, Washington DC. 2000. ISBN 1 85894 1059.
  • Silk, by Jacques Anquetil. Published by Flammarion, 1995. ISBN 2-08015-616-X
  • Textile Conservation and Research, by Mechthild Flury-Lemberg. Published by Schriften Der Abegg-Stiftung. 1988 ISBN 3-905014-02-5.
  • Textiles and Clothing: Medieval Finds from Excavations in London 4 c. 1150-c. 1450, by Elisabeth Crowfoot, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. HMSO. 1992 ISBN 0 11 290445 9.
  • The Book of Silk, by Philippa Scott. Published by Thames & Hudson. 1993. ISBN 0-500-28308-7.
  • The Conservation of Tapestries and Embroideries: Proceedings of the Meetings at the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique Brussels, Belguim September 21-24, 1987. Published by The Getty Conservation Institute. 1989 ISBN 0-89236-154-9.
  • “The Conservation of Embroideries at the Intitute Royal du Patrimoine Artistique” by Juliete De boeck, Vera Vereecken, and Tatiana Reicher.
  • “The Restoration of a Twelfth Century Liturgical Sandal at the Musee Historique des Tissus in Lyons” by Marie Schoefer and Denise Lestoquoit.
  • The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice, by Luca Mola. Published by Johns Hopkins University Press. 2000. ISBN 0- 8018-6189-6.
  • The Story of Silk and Cheney Silks, by H.H. Manchester, A.B. Published by Cheney Brothers. 1924.
  • Here are a few dates and notes on some particularly outstanding historical examples of embroidery in silk.Embroideries in Time
    In these barrows on the Danube, Chinese silk is used for embroidery of Celtic patterns on woollen garments – the silk probably courtesy of Greek traders.*

    2nd -1st c. BC: CHINA
    Chinese embroidery in silk – chain stitch, satin and plain line stitch.

    1st c. AD: CHINA
    Chinese embroidery including stem, satin, chain, and long & short stitches. Also “jap” gold (thin metal strips around a silk core) is traded from China to Rome, primarily for weaving

    4th c. CHINA
    Chinese silk embroidery used for trade – chain stitch in blue, crimson, sand and brown primarily.

    Legend recounts that the first silkworm eggs came to Europe as a gift to the Emperor Justinian from two monks who concealed them in a cane walking staff.

    9th c. MAASEIK PANEL
    Anglo Saxon panel, now in Masseik Belgium. Worked in silk thread, couched gold and seed pearls. Design of arches, birds, animals, and monograms, believed to be church furnishings. Said to be one of the first silk embroidered pieces in Europe.

    10th -11th c. EGYPTIAN EMBROIDERY
    Peacock stitched in silver, gold and silks on linen (Abegg collection).

    LATE 11th c. CHINA
    Chinese embroidery in silk – needle loop stitching.

    Red and gold silk embroidered and appliquéd, and sewn with pearls and set gems. This embroidery from Palermo is in an Islamic style and bears an Arabic inscription blessing the owner and identifying the city and year when it was produced.

    Colored silks and gold thread on a sky-blue silk; kufic inscriptions and roundels of animal and human figures. Example from Almeria of workshop pieces from Spain with Central Asian influences.

    12th c. PERSIAN TIRAZ
    Embroidered bands, silk embroidery on cotton-silk fabric – worked in “crewel” and split stitch, with couched gold thread (gold wrapped silk thread). Some bands have kufic letters, animals and trees. Silk colors include blues, green and red.

    English embroidery primarily done for the Church and nobility in embroidery workshops – primarily silk split stitch and couched (underside) gold thread. Examples: the Grandson Antepedium, the Tree of Jesse Cope, etc.

    Another type of German embroidery. Meaning “wiles of women”, these embroideries draw from stories of classical antiquity and the Bible, and focus on “resourceful women thwarting powerful men.” These embroideries are not from workshops, but from the hands of patrician and burgher class women, and are based on woodcuts, with the characters in contemporary dress. The embroidery is worked in silk, wool, and metal threads on linen and the stitches are primarily satin and split stitch.

    13th c. ITALY
    Silks completely covered with gold and silk embroidery are produced in Sicily and Southern Italy, such as the 5-meter-long drape for the funeral of St. Francis of Assisi.

    Sorting of silkworm eggs before incubating

    1303: PARIS
    The Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Hangest, implements regulations requiring that anyone doing gold thread work must sew with silk. Similar quality control regulations called “verleger” are implemented throughout Europe.

    LATE 14th c.
    Rows of running stitches in silk thread on fine wool[?] twill – decoration on every-day garments of other than noble classes. Also examples of silk used on buttonholes.

    1600: INDIA
    Under the Moguls, cut and voided silk velvets with silver and gold embroideries are made as floor spreads and canopies. Quilted silks and cottons are embroidered in silk chain stitch for summer carpets, hangings, and screens.

    S , Z , &Flat Silk: Types of Thread & Historical Examples

    Silk that is able to be “reeled off” from the cocoons is most often made into a “flat” or untwisted silk thread. This is the most ex-pensive type of silk thread but also the strongest and most luxurious looking. Other silk threads may be spun from shorter silk fibers, and may be S- or Z- spun depending on which way they are twisted. Single threads may also be plied, and again this may be in the S or Z direction. Historical silk embroideries may use one or a variety of thread types.

    One early example of flat silk is the Maaseik embroidery already mentioned, also known as the Chasuble of Saints Harlindis and Relindis, from 850 AD. Flat silk is used to couch gold and to work satin stitch in red, blue, yellow and green.

    In the Langors panel (800’s) from Wales, the silk embroidery is very fine, in the same size thread as the ground linen, 25 threads/cm. The silk thread is reeled silk. Some of the silk has a slight S twist and is not plied, and some has a slight Z twist and is S-plied to form a 2-ply thread. The stitch is a counted-thread stem stitch, worked 3 threads over and 1 back.

    In a 12th c. liturgical sandal in Lyon, the gold embroidery thread is made of gold strips twisted in an “S” formation around a silk core. The gold is couched down and outlined with stem or split stitch in red silk. There are a number of examples of 14th c. buttonholes, done with a buttonhole stitch in the London archeological finds. The silk is 2-ply: Z-twisted, S-plied. This is the type of thread primarily used for stitching in these finds.

    In Schuette’s book there is mention of a Westphalian cushion of the 14th-15th c. embroidered with untwisted silk floss. The stitching is brick stitch. The colors of silk used are green, yellow, red and white.

    In the Altar Frontal from Middelburg, circa 1518, the gold threads are laid two by two and couched in silk. In both the Or Nué technique and the laid-and-couched silk sections, the silk used has no twist. The metal threads have an S-twisted silk core.

    In Bursa and other Turkish silk centers, the most highly prized silk was the tightly spun. This was earmarked for the weavers, and the unspun or less twisted was set aside for the embroiderers. Most of the Ottoman (14th-17th c.) embroidered textiles were done with a 2-ply silk thread. Both Z- and S- plied threads were sometimes used on the same textile, as were loosely plied and tightly plied threads, to give dimension to the embroidery. The met-al wrapped threads are predominately Z-twisted, although there are some examples of S-twisted metal threads. The color of the silk core was chosen to enhance the intended effect of the metal.

    In the mid-1500’s there are regulations in Italy regarding the importation of thin and thick silks. “Thin silk,” which was very fine, was costlier, and preferred for making fine garments. The different sized threads also meant different workmanship, different fabric types, and greater differentiation between the silk producers and producing areas. In addition, sometimes the threads imported from different areas were combined in the production of both cloth and threads to achieve various effects.

    Parts I and II of this article, and a list of modern silk embroidery threads and sources, are also available together in booklet form from the author.

    Engravings illustrating this article are from “Strandanous Vermis Sericus,” engravings depicting the stages in the manufacture of silk in 16th c. Italy, found at:

    Copyright of each article belongs to the original author.Reproduction rights are not given by virtue of their appearance here.

    If you wish to reprint any of these articles, in whole or in part, in any medium, you must first get permission from the the author. Please contact a Guild Minister or the Guild Webmistress, who will forward your request to the appropriate party and respond to you.

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