Monday, 26 October 2009

History of Looms and Silk

In the last six weeks I have given two talks, one on 'Silk' and one on the 'History of Weaving and Looms'.

A chance remark in the Cambridge History of the Roman Empire 100-300 AD, set all this off about three years ago. The author was talking about Palmyra which is in Syria and is a ruin but was a very great city from 0 to 400 AD as it was at the end of the Silk Road. The book said that Palmyra was dominated by very wealthy merchants and, to make more money, they unwove the silk from China and re-wove it. Really? On a warp weighted loom? So I started investigating because I believe you have to weave on a horizontal loom to get the tension even enough for fine silk. In 0 AD, the Chinese had had drawlooms for 1500 years and been weaving silk for longer. There is  evidence that drawlooms existed in the Sassanian Empire (Middle East after the Romans declined) and it is thought that they must have been in use by 300 AD. My view is that it must have been earlier.

I keep alert to any documentation around and I have been reading two books over the last few days which have ended up in cries of triumph. The first book is 'A History of Mechanical Inventions' by  Abbott Paysson Usher, published in 1929 first by Harvard College. My edition is a Dover publication copy (ISBN 0-486-25593-X). A fascinating book overall but the relevant pages are p258 to 267. He says quite casually (seen it no where else) that Palmyra and its sister cities used the best silk from China which is the whitest and finest in the sense of thinness and evenness but also used wild silk from India  which can be identified and explains why the sums never added up right. In other words, there must have been a lot of Indian silk used because the records show that what came in in the Silk Road caravans was not nearly enough for the known trade in silk with Rome.

The author refers to another book in French ' Textiles de Palmyre' by R Pfister, published in 1934 and I found this in the On-Line Weaving Documents Website . So I down-loaded it and read it. Wow!! It deals with the fragments of textile found in two tombs at Palmyra. One dates to 83AD and the other to 103 AD. There are scary chemical analyses which show the bodies were wrapped in textiles and then smothered with what they think was myrrh so the textiles were preserved. And what a lot of data!

They identified textile fragments in wool which had been dyed with Murex shellfish to get purple. The Chinese did not know about Murex so these must have been done locally. And there are fragments of Han Chinese patterned silk. The photos are dreadful being in black and white. So the next question was 'where are the actual fragments now?' and the answer is in the Syrian National Museum in Damascus!! There are several samples shown.

Here is one. According to Pfister, the thread count is between 60 and 100 epi which is a silk count of 90/2 to 120/2 NM.

So the original remarks about the silk being rewoven have to be regarded sceptically. Certainly, you would not unweave something with that kind of pattern on it. Maybe they did some reweaving. I have seen a wall painting from Pompeii which shows a Maenad who clearly is wearing the flimsiest of silk dresses but it is plain, no pattern. I wonder if they wove the Indian wild silk into plain silk cloth. After all the caravans took years to do the Silk Route and plain cloth weighs the same as patterned cloth so why not export the most expensive cloth?

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About Me

I am weaver and - -. I dye my yarns with acid dyes, I paint my warps, put fabric collages and stencils on my weaving. I have three looms, a 12 inch wide, 12 shaft Meyer for demos and courses, a 30 inch Louet Kombo which is nominally portable but has a stand, two extra beams and a home-made device containing a fan reed. And last a 32 shaft Louet Megado which is computer controlled, has a sectional warp and a second warp beam and I am the proud owner of an AVL warping wheel which I love to bits and started by drilling holes in. I inserted a device for putting a cross in. I have just acquired an inkle loom and had a lesson from an expert so I can watch TV and weave at the same time. I am interested in weaving with silk mostly 60/2 although I do quite a bit with 90/2 silk. I also count myself as a bookbinder with a special interest in Coptic binding.