Tag Archives: silk

Currently Reading – Portrait of a Woman in Silk

I think I’ve mentioned here that my first history obsession was with the American colonial period.  Since my college days I’ve gone on to other interests, but I’ve recently rediscovered  early American history after reading a biography of Abigail Adams, and then I discovered my latest podcast love, Ben Franklin’s World. It was through Ben Franklin’s World that I found the book that is today’s topic.  The author, Zara Anishanslin, was the featured guest on the podcast, and she made her book sound so interesting that I had to read it.

And I’m so glad that I did.  I love biographies, and you might say the book is a biography of the portrait, which weaves together the stories of four people who had a hand in the creation of it – the woman who designed the pattern of the silk, the man who wove the silk, the woman who wore the dress, and the man who painted the portrait.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of “material culture” (otherwise known as stuff) and what we can learn from from objects from the past.  And while I usually explore the not so distant past, it was so interesting to see a historian travel back 250 years to see what evidence can be found in portraits, bits of silk, drawings, not to mention the usual historical sources of written records.  The challenge of this study was that there were few written records.  None of the four people involved left written accounts of their lives. Other written evidence was sketchy, such as mentions in guild records or other people’s letters.

So Anishanslan turned to what was plentiful – the objects themselves, especially the portrait and others painted by the artist, Robert Feke.  It’s helpful to know how to “read” a portrait, and Anishanslin provides plenty of instruction in the symbolism and clues found in a colonial portrait.  I had no idea you could learn so much about a person just by the careful examination of her portrait.

The woman in the portrait is Anne Shippen Willing, and it now hangs at Winterthur in Delaware.  It was Anishanslin’s recall of the portrait as she was examining designs for Spitalfields silk fabrics housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum that led to her research.  Seeing the similarities between the dress in the portrait and the designs in the museum, she was then able to find the original drawing for that particular piece of silk, which was drawn by Anna Maria Garthwaite.  From there she discovered that the weaver of the cloth was Spitalfields weaver Simon Julins.

One important person that could have added to this story that was not uncovered by Anishanlin was the dressmaker who constructed the dress.  It’s a shame that her (the dressmaker’s) work was not somehow recorded.  But then, she was just a seamstress, out of a multitude of sewers working in a city like Philadelphia, where Willing lived.  If only Willing had kept a diary!

It’s rather amazing that one portrait could inspire an entire book, but Anishanlin left no stone unturned in her pursuit of her subjects. The book is full of tangents and detours, and it is all the richer for them.  This book is not just about the portrait, or the fabric, or the people directly involved in the creation of the two.  There’s a rich study of the importance of botany in the eighteenth century, a close look at New England trade and the merchants who got rich off from trans-Atlantic trade, and the role of slavery in both Philadelphia and New England.

Portrait of a Woman in Silk

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Ad Campaign: Dueling Textiles, 1969

Synthetic fabrics were nothing new in 1969, but they had been improved to the point that they seemed like a new idea.  Rayon and acetate had been available to consumers on a large scale since the 1920s but there were lots of problems with the fabrics.  They often were prone to shrinking, and there are even stories of women who got caught in the rain in a new rayon frock who then had to give the dress to a much smaller sister.  The dyes used, especially blue, could be unstable, with blue often turning to a pink or dark red.  They wrinkled as badly as natural fibers, and they were bad to retain odors.

The 1950s brought Dacron polyester which was usually blended into cotton.  Polyester had the advantage of being wrinkle-resistant, color fast and it did not shrink.  By the 1960s 100% polyester was being knit into what seemed to be a miracle fabric. It looked to be well on its way to replacing both cotton and wool knits.

The 1950s and 1960s must have been great days for those in chemical research.  People really did buy the famous line from DuPont,  “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.”

So with all these advantages to Tritessa, why would anyone want to buy silk?

Because as the International Silk Association tells us ten pages later in the same magazine, “Only Silk Is Silk.”

Researchers continue to improve synthetic fabrics.  The polyesters of today are far superior to the hot and heavy double knits of the 1960s and 70s.  Rayon is colorfast, wrinkle-resistant, and it no longer shrinks in the rain. Still, it has to be repeated, only silk is silk.

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Lady Manhattan Silk Blouse, 1950s

I recently found this silk blouse at my not-so-secret shopping place.  Because I can’t seem to pass up a great separates piece and because I did not already have a piece with this label in my collection, I decided to take it home with me.  Plus, I just loved the modern, graphic look of the print.

The Manhattan Shirt Company was a maker of men’s shirts.  The company dates back to 1867 and was, interestingly enough, headquartered in Paterson, New Jersey.  By the early twentieth century the company owned or leased eight mills which produced men’s shirts of various types.  In 1912 Manhattan Shirt was incorporated in New York, and continued to be a major producer of shirts.

According to the United States Trademark Office database, Lady Manhattan was first produced in 1953.  The application for the trademark states that the label was used not just for women’s shirts and blouses, but also dresses, skirts, sweaters, pajamas, jackets,  trousers, and shorts.   Nevertheless, most items seen today with this vintage label are blouses or shirts, though I’ve also seen shirtdresses and skirts.

It’s my guess that this blouse dates to the mid to late 1950s.  I’ve been looking for ads, and while I did not find this blouse, there are several ads for sale on ebay for similar styles in silk, all dating between 1957 and 1960.  Later on in the Sixties, Lady Manhattan, like so many companies, abandoned their use of natural fibers for the “easy case” dacron, nylon and blends.

A word about the trademark database is in order.   Ten years ago, back in the very early days of the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource, a seller on ebay disputed some of the information we had included.  She said that what we had written about some company was wrong because of what was on the trademark database.  It was a fairly well documented company, so we had no trouble backing our information, but it did bring to light a very interesting point.

Just because the database contains official government documents does not mean that there cannot be errors in it.  The information for each application is supplied by the company making the application, and in some cases it is many years after the first use of the name.  I can just picture some junior staff member being handed the application to fill out, and his quest to gather the information from other people in the office.  I’m sure there have been a lot of educated guesses over the years.

It’s like any other source.  It’s always best to have a second source to verify information, especially when it comes to dates.

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Acorn Peau de Satin, The Bruner Woolen Co.

Click to enlarge

Here’s a bit of color to brighten the day of those of us being held in the grip of winter.

This is a silk sample card from the Bruner Woolen Company.  As far as I can tell, Bruner was a jobber, or a middleman between the fabric manufacturer and the clothing maker or fabric retailer.  There was a Bruner Mill in Pennsylvania, but I don’t think there is a link between it and this company. I also found reference to a Bruner mill in  Winooski, Vermont, so it is possible that they made at least some of the goods they sold.   There were four branches of the company, in New York, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

The big woolen jobbers like Bruner and Detmer sold to tailors and factories and stores by the use of sample cards.   The salesman would have a big case filled with his samples for the buyer to consider.   I have a case from Detmer from the 1920s that is worth a look if you have not seen it. Smaller cards like this one would be left with the buyer or mailed to them.

This sample card is a tri-fold.  The first fold had a large sample of black Acorn Peau de Satin, and the information the buyer needed to know.  Unfold it again and there were the color samples.

The range of shades offered is quite extensive, with there being thirteen different blues and ten tans.  Unfortunately there is no date, and I don’t know enough about color usage of each era to say the exact date of these colors.  I do know it is before 1922, when Bruner merged with Detmer and two other companies.  My guess is that from the 1910s.  Any thoughts?

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1930 Liberty of London Jacket

There are a few things I’m always on the lookout for, and one of them is clothing made from Liberty of London fabrics.   Liberty started as an importer of exotic goods, but by the 1880s, they were printing their own fabrics in Oriental-inspired prints and colors, and making clothing from the fabrics.  They also printed and sold scarves.

Today, vintage Liberty garments are pretty scarce, especially items from before the 1950s.  I was really tickled to spot this jacket on ebay, and even more tickled when I was actually the high bidder.  It is so typical of the type of things Liberty produced in the 1920s and 30s.  It is actually cut from a 37″ scarf, or perhaps part of two (I’ll be figuring out the pattern later) and then sewn together.

In a bit of extremely good luck and vintage serendipity, I actually found the exact scarf printed in a 1930 Liberty catalog.  Unfortunately, I can’t show you the catalog page because it was being offered for sale on ebay.  The seller had taken the catalog apart and was trying to sell it page by page at $10 a sheet.  Madness, I tell you!  Complete madness to take apart a catalog for which the seller would have gotten a very nice price.  As it was, I could not bring myself to bid on something that was taken apart in this manner.

And the madness does not end there, because my sweet little jacket is a victim of a repair crime.  I’m talking about fusible web tape, that vile glue that one can use to iron two pieces of fabric together.

When fusible products came out in the 1960s or 1970s, we sewers thought they were an answer to a prayer.  No more hemming!  No more basing in interfacings!  Unfortunately this convenience came at a price.  If you have ever encountered a 1970s garment where the glue has failed, you know what I mean.  The residue is grainy and impossible to remove.

Vintage sellers, please don’t use fusible anything on the clothing you sell.  I’m very sincere when I say I’d rather have a tiny hole or two than a glued-on patch.  Buyers, if the seller says something has been patched, email them and ask how it was patched, which is what I really should have done.

Patches

The front, showing the tiny holes

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