Karen’s Gift: the butter yellow 1930s/40s negligée

Over a year ago I received an email out of the blue from a blog reader who had a small collection of 20s & 30s clothes that she thought I might like.

Would I ever!  That lovely lady was Karen, and the day her box arrived was like all my birthdays coming at once (only without any additional wrinkles or grey hairs): silks and velvets and beading and lace.

The contents were a treasure trove of amazing pieces, in all my favourite colours and techniques.  I photographed them right away, and have been meaning to share them with you ever since, but I’ve just been continually too busy this year.

I finally got all the photos sorted for one of my favourite items (who am I kidding, they are ALL my favourite items!) and was going to show it to you to coincide with the HSF Yellow challenge, and then internet in Vanuatu was too expensive to upload them.

So, a little late, but no less deliciously gorgeous, I present this 1930s/40s silk negligée  in butter yellow.

Leron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

(is negligée the right thing to call it?  I mean, you can’t quite call something like this a nightgown, but I always think of a negligée as opening up the front)

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

The really interesting thing about this is that it is entirely hand-sewn, but it’s not homemade.  It bears the label of ‘Léron / Fifth Ave. New York’

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

This (along with the silk)  indicates that it would have been an extremely expensive and luxurious item in its time – practically couture (and true couture is still hugely handsewn).  Once sewing machines became common, handsewing became a status symbol.  L.M. Montgomery stories have a number of mentions of baby clothes or wedding trousseaus with ‘every stitch by hand.’

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

The stitching is beautifully done – fine, even and perfect.  From the tiny piped bands that control the gathers of the bodice…

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

…And the perfectly even binding and minute gathers…

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

…To the pinstitching attaching the chiffon bodice to the skirt…

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

And finally, to the the tiny rolled hem…

 

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

…The sewing is clearly the work of a consummate needlewoman.

I suspect that the negligée may very well have belonged to a bride.  There is something about the colours and cut that is very youthful and innocent.  Other than her honeymoon or in a Disney fairytale where she’s bouncing out of bed to throw open the shutters and sing while birds perch on her outstretched hands, I can’t imagine when a girl would wear this!

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

Today you could easily wear this as an evening dress, or even a wedding dress, and with a slip underneath, few people would realise that it was originally little more than a slip itself!

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

And so turns fashion!

 

Léron Fifth Avenue 1930s negligee thedreamstress.com

 

Thank you a million times to Karen for giving me this amazing piece to study and share.  It brings me a little happiness and sunshine every time I think of it: the lovely yellow, and that long ago seamstress, making her living with perfect stitches.

If you want to see a few more pieces of vintage beautifulness in my collection, check out my posts on Elise’s giftTheresa’s 1915 dress, and Lynne’s quilted petticoat.

 

Terminology: What’s the difference between worsted & woolen wool fabrics?

If you have ever gone shopping for wool fabrics you may have seen some of the fabric described as worsted, and some of it described as woolen.

If you are me, you may have wondered what this meant.  Aren’t all wool fabrics woolen?  I mean, they are wool, right?

Not quite!

In brief, worsted and woolen are different types of wool (long staple vs short staple), prepared in different ways, resulting in a different look and feel.  Under magnification, worsted yarns look smooth with long fibres, and woolen yarns are much hairier, with lots of short fibres and more pokey-out bits.  Worsted wools are slick when woven, woolen wools are knitted, crocheted, or woven into softer, fluffier fabric, or fulled fabric.  Worsted wools are better at keeping out the wind and rain, but woolen wools are warmer, because they are full of air which acts as insulation.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

A fluffy woolen wool blanket

Worsted is also used to describe a particular way of spinning yarn, or weight of yarn, but I’m not going to go into that because it’s a modern spinning thing, not a historical textile thing.

Worsted wool comes from sheep with really long wool (long-staple): generally sheep that live in fairly easily accessible, lush, green pastures, as opposed to sheep that do best in harsher environments. The long wool from worsted-type sheep is arranged, either by gilling (pulling through holes) combing with metal combs, or as part of the spinning process, so that the fibres lie parallel and end to end: these long, parallel wool fibres are what characterise worsted wool processing.

The Weaver, 1698, Christoph Weigel.

The Weaver (with man combing wool on the left), 1698, Christoph Weigel

Because worsted wool is made from long fibres which all lie parallel, the natural crimp of the wool is removed, and the forms a very tight, hard yarn when spun, with little space between the fibres (as opposed to the more open, fluffy woollen yarn).  When woven into fabric, worsted fabric has a tighter, harder, shiny-er finish, and can make a finer, lighter weight fabric.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

The fine worsted twill weave of my 1813 Kashmiri gown

Here are two different worsted wools, so you can see how slick and hard the finish is, with few wool hairs on the surface.  The dark blue fabric is a serge, the camel a cavalry twill.

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

The development of worsted wool fabric (in the modern sense) dates back to the Middle Ages, when changing agricultural practices in England meant that new breeds of sheep that thrived on rich, enclosed pastures were being introduced, at the expense of older breeds, which did better in rougher environments.  At the same time waves of Flemish weavers, fleeing unrest in the Low Countries in the early 14th century, immigrated to Norfolk in England in response to invitations to settle in England offered in 1271 to fullers, dyers and weavers. They set up weaving in and around Worstead, in Norfolk, and introduced new spinning and weaving techniques.  The type of cloth they produced came to be known as worsted.

Worsted cloth was known in the 18th and through the 19th century as stuff to differentiate it from cloth, which was woollen fabric.  Stuff was also used to describe other woven fabrics of fibres other than silk, especially once cotton became more common as a fabric in the late 18th century, so a mention of a garment made of stuff does not necessarily mean the item was made of wool, simply that if it was, it wasn’t woollen.

Worsted wool fabric tends to be more expensive than the same weight and quality of woollen fabric, because the pasture land needed for worsted sheep varieties is in higher demand (in New Zealand, for example, it is far more financially beneficial for farmers to use pasture land for dairy cows than wool sheep), and because worsted fabrics require more processing.  However, you also get more wear for your dollar: worsted fabrics are also more durable than their woollen counterparts.  Desirable light or ‘tropical’ weight wools are generally worsted as well.

The one drawback, wear-wise, to some worsted fabrics is that they may go shiny at areas that receive a lot of wear, such as the seat of pants and skirts, as the parallel fibres are pressed more firmly together.  Twill weaves are more likely to go shiny than plain weaves.

There is also a semi-worsted type of fabric, with yarns that are spun tightly, but not combed.  This is a cheaper process, and is usually done with inferior wool to further cut costs.  Even with 100% wool fabrics there can be huge differences in quality and durability, which is why I prefer to buy fabric, and wool in particular, in person rather than online, unless it is from a very reputable supplier.

Today, worsted fabrics are most likely to be seen in men’s suiting, and in trench coats and other outerwear.

Woolen wool usually comes from sheep with shorter wool fibres, though the shorter fibres (under 8cm/3″ or so) of long-staple sheep varieties that are combed out in the worsting process can also be used to make woollen cloth.

To make all the short bits of woollen wool lie nicely together so that it can be spun into yarn, it is carded, or brushed in two directions at once with stiff brushes.  The name carding comes from the Latin carduus or teasel, because carding was originally said to have been done with teasel heads (note, the use of actual teasels for the initial carding is under some debate).

Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), 1374, illustration showing women spinning, carding, and weaving wool

Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), 1374, illustration showing women spinning, carding, combing, and weaving wool

Once it is carded, the wool is spun, and then woven.  After weaving, woolen cloth is sometimes subjected to the fulling process (also known as waulking or tucking), which cleans the fabric, making it thicker, and works the hairs of the wool together, creating a uniform, almost felted surface, without much visible weave.  Fulling basically involves pounding or rubbing the surface of the cloth, either with hands, feet, or clubs, or in special water-driven fulling mills, which began appearing in England in the early Middle Ages.

The first part of the fulling process is scouring, when cleaning agents were pounded in to the fabric.  These agents were initially urine (the Romans used it), which is full of ammonia, which softened and whitened the wool, and later fullers earth, clay with mineral elements which performed the same purpose of softening, whitening, and absorbing oil and dirt.  Fullers earth is sometimes known as bleaching clay.

Once the wool was scoured, it would be rinsed (thoroughly!), and then beaten again, to matt the fibres together and thicken the cloth, making it more water and wind resistant.

Woolen cloth can also be brushed with teasels or carding combs after it is woven, to raise the nap of a fulled surface.  This too was done with teasel heads: in fact, there are still some wool processing plants that still use teasel heads set on to a special frame for the initial or post-wearing carding.  There is at least one teasel-head carding frame still in use in a commercial factory in New Zealand – which I think is pretty awesome.

Mendel Hausbuch, f. 6v, c. 1425, Peter Berber, Carder brushing woollen cloth with teasel heads

Mendel Hausbuch, f. 6v, c. 1425, Peter Berber, Carder brushing woollen cloth with teasel heads

When woven up, woolen cloth is usually softer and fluffier than worsted stuff, though it can also be pricklier and hairier, if made with cheaper wool.  It’s generally easier to fit and sew with, because it isn’t as slippery and stiff as worsted, and woolen cloth gives and eases around your body more.  However, certain woollen weaves are prone to snagging, and may sag at the knees and bottom, or wear out at the knees.

Have a piece of fabric and want to know if it is worsted or woolen? If it is soft and fluffy, or has a brushed, fulled surface that looks almost like felt and makes it hard to see the weave, it’s woollen. If it has a smooth, slick, hard surface, it’s worsted.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

The soft, open woolen weave of my Roman stola

Worsted fabrics generally look best for suits, and other smart, crisp, tailored garments.  Woolens are softer looking and drape better, so work better for more informal garments.

Common modern & historical woolen fabrics include:

  • Boiled wool – woolen fabric, woven or knit, which has been thickened or shrunk by heavy fulling and/or boiling.  You can create your own boiled wool by washing your fabrics multiple times on the hottest, roughest setting – assume that you will loose approximately 20cm of length for every metre.
  • Boucle – fabrics of wool or other fibres with twisted, irregular crepe threads and a loopy, textured weave.
  • Camelet – medium quality woolen fabric produced in England in the Middle Ages.
  • Camelin – luxury woolen cloth made from the wool of the angora goat, imported into England from the Near East in the Middle Ages.
  • Challis – soft, draping, lightweight, plain weave fabric of wool, cotton, or rayon.
  • Crepe – soft, draping fabric with a twisted thread, giving it a slightly nubbly surface and excellent drape, recovery, and movement around the body.  Wool crepes can range from very lightweight, to heavy double-weave crepes.
  • Knits (jersey, doubleknit, etc)
  • Tweeds – woolen cloth with an unfulled surface, often with mixed (heathered) yarns.

Common modern & historical worsted fabrics include:

  • Barathea – very fine twill weave fabric, mainly used for mens dress suits.
  • Bombazine – a twilled or corded fabric with a silk warp and worsted weft (now sometimes all silk, or made of other fibres).
  • Cavalry Twill – a fabric with a steeply diagonal twill weave, and a distinctive raised ‘cord’ or rib.  Also known as artillery tweed.
  • Gabardine – A very tightly woven fabric with a fine steeply diagonal warp faced (has a clear wrong and right sides) twill weave, invented in 1879 by Thomas Burberry, originally as a kind of waterproof fabrics, but used as a general term for the weave and fabric type by the early 20th century.  The name is taken from ‘gaberdine’, a word for cloak or raincoat dating back to the late Middle Ages.
  • Serge – Very tight, hard wearing twill weave, frequently used for suiting, but prone to shining.
  • Sharkskin – lightweight wool fabric with a fine, nubbly weave that is supposed to imitate the skin of a shark.
  • Whipcord – like cavalry twill, a fabric with a steeply diagonal twill, and a raised ‘cord’ or rib.  There is no official difference between whipcord and cavalry twill (except that whipcord may also be made of cotton), so either term may be used to describe certain fabrics.

For further posts on fabric, check out my post on the difference between brocade and jacquard (and all those other weaves that can be achieved with a jacquard loom), and the difference between voile, lawn and muslin, as well as all the posts through The Historical Textile & Fashion Encyclopedia.

Sources:

Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne, Consumer Textiles.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press.  1988

Calasibetta, C. M., Tortora, P, and Abling, B (illus.).  The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion(Third Ed).  London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.  2003

Collier, Billie J. and Tortora, Phyllis G.  Understanding Textiles (Sixth ed).  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.  2001

Ginsburg, Madeleine (ed), The Illustrated History of Textiles.  New York, New York: Portland House.  1991

James, John.  History of the Worsted Manufacture in England.  London: Frank Cass & Company, Limited.  1968

Shaeffer, Claire.  Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide.  Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.  2008

Wilard, Dana.  The Fabric Selector.  Millers Point, NSW Australia: Murdoch Books Pty Ltd.  2012

Brocade and jacquard – what’s the difference? (or, the history of the jacquard loom, and all the weaves it can create)

A long time ago, when I posted the difference and between muslin, voile, lawn, and batiste (among other fabrics), someone asked if I could explain the difference between brocade and jacquard.  I took a deep breath, and say “Yes, but it will take a while.” It certainly has, because it’s actually quite a big question, and there is so much confusion around it!

Left to right: Imperial brocade, tapestry/brocatelle, damask, brocade, damask

Left to right: Imperial brocade, tapestry/brocatelle, damask, brocade, damask

A lot of the confusion come from the fact that while the appearance of brocade has stayed very similar throughout history, the method of creating it has changed drastically.  Prior to 1801 brocades were woven on hand operated draw-looms by master weavers, who manually created the elaborate brocade patterns as they were woven in with the help of a drawboy, who stood on a perch above the loom.  Then, in 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard demonstrated a new invention (albeit one based partly on a series of inventions from the 1740s-60s) – a loom which ran on cards with holes punched in them.  Each card represented one line of a pattern, with the holes allowing threads to pass through into the pattern, changing the colours and creating a design.

Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England

Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England

The Jacquard loom  revolutionised the production of elaborately patterned fabrics.  Skilled craftsmen who could read pattern diagrams and manipulate the pattern as it was being woven were no longer needed to weave brocades and other designs, and the Jacquard loom did not require the assistance of an additional drawboy.  The new looms could be operated by an unskilled labourer, making richly patterned fabrics faster and cheaper to produce.  Jacquard looms were so much easier and cheaper to operate that the old style of looms quickly became obsolete, and within a few decades of Jacquard’s invention almost all elaborate fabrics woven in the West, including brocades, damasks, and richly patterned faux-Kashmiri or ‘Paisley’ shawls, were woven on Jacquard looms.

If the punch cards with holes which create a pattern sounds a little like an early computer – it is.  The Jacquard loom and its punch card pattern system is considered an important point in the history of the computer.  Babbage and Lovelace (the ‘Father of the Computer’ and world’s first computer programmer and first person to envision a computer that did much more than mathematical calculations (also Byron’s daughter), respectively) were familiar with Jacquards loom, and Babbage intended to use punch cards based on the loom punch cards in his Analytical Engine.

Punch cards in use on a Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England

Punch cards in use on a Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England

The jacquard loom was further revolutionised in 1843, with the invention of the dobby loom, which makes simpler patterned fabrics by a method of up to 40 frames which lift according to a programme.  The dobby loom was even cheaper to run than the Jacquard, and supplanted it for all simpler patterned weaves.  Dobby loom patterns, however, are limited to designs that stretch over 40 threads, whereas designs made on a Jacquard loom are virtually limitless.  Today jacquard weaves are achieved not with a Jacquard loom, but rather a Jacquard head which is fitted on to a dobby loom.

Almost all modern brocades are woven with a jacquard device, so one could say that all modern brocades are jacquards, but not all jacquards are brocades, because jacquard looms are used to create other weaves, such as brocatelle, damask and tapestry.

Today the name jacquard usually applies to all weaves that can be achieved with the machine, but it is sometimes used to describe one specific type of fabric woven using a Jacquard loom: a light, soft, draping damask weave (see damask weaves below) of silk, rayon or synthetic fibres, which is why descriptions of jacquard as a fabric sometimes say daft things like ‘similar in appearance to damask’.

A rayon damask of the type sometimes called jacquard.

A rayon damask of the type sometimes called jacquard.

Here are some of the most common weaves achieved on a jacquard loom.  Because a jacquard head can produce an almost infinite variety of weaves, there are many fabrics produced with a jacquard loom that don’t fit nicely into one weave category or another, so certain fabrics (particularly brocade & tapestry) can be quite fluid or imprecise in their definition:

Brocade: These days brocade frequently describes the aesthetic of a fabric, rather than a specific weave.  Brocades are fabric with an elaborate embossed or embroidered surface effect, usually with different ground and pattern weaves.  The name comes from the Italian brocatto, meaning ‘embossed cloth’.  Unlike damask, brocades are not reversible.  Continuous brocades have the weft threads left loose and floating on the back.  Some continuous brocades have the back threads cut away, though the short cut ends are still visible.  A discontinuous brocade is one where additional yarns are only woven into the patterned areas, resulting in a smoother back.

A continuous brocade with a pattern formed of lamé threads that have been cut on the reverse of the fabric.

A continuous brocade with a pattern formed of lamé threads that have been cut on the reverse of the fabric.

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven)  1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk detail, V&A

Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk detail, Victoria & Albert Museum

Front and reverse of a silk brocade variant

Front and reverse of a silk brocade variant

Brocading: brocade or other jacquard weaves with the inclusion of gold or silver coloured threads.  It is also called Imperial Brocade.

A variant of brocade with cut threads on both sides of the fabric, forming voided designs

A variant of brocade with cut threads on both sides of the fabric, forming voided designs

Front and reverse of an silk/rayon blend imperial brocade

Front and reverse of an silk/rayon blend imperial brocade

Brocade velvet: a patterned velvet with a raised pile and a woven ground (not to be confused with a burnout velvet, where the patterning is achieved by burning out the pile with acid, rather than weaving in the pattern from the start).

Brocatelle:  Similar to brocade, but the patterned areas are more distinct and raised, and the fabric is heavier.

An ottoman in the process of being re-covered in brocatelle

An ottoman in the process of being re-covered in brocatelle

Damask:  Patterned fabrics with a ground of one weave (usually plain, twill or sateen) and designs in other weaves (particularly satin and twill variants), so that the patterned areas have sheen and reflect light, Damasks are always reversible, with the pattern weaves becoming the ground weaves on the reverse (so on a fabric with a plain ground and satin pattern front, the ground would be satin and the pattern plain on the reverse).  There are tone-on-tone damasks, with different weaves within the damask creating elaborate floral or geometric patterns, and multicoloured damasks, where the background colours and the pattern colours reverse from front to back.  My Polly Oliver jacket is made from a red tone-on-tone jacquard damask.

Tea gown with 18th century inspired back pleats, ca. 1905, Callot Soeurs, silk damask, lace, Victoria & Albert Museum

Tea gown with 18th century inspired back pleats, ca. 1905, Callot Soeurs, silk damask, lace, Victoria & Albert Museum

Dyeing fabric for the Mariana Victoria dress thedreamstress.com

The damask for my Mariana Victoria frock

Front and reverse of a rayon damask

Front and reverse of a rayon damask

Matelassé/Marcella/Piqué: a weave specifically designed to imitate quilting with a characteristic bubbled/blistered raised effect.

Tapestry:  In modern terminology ‘tapestry’ just means a fabric woven on a jacquard loom that imitates historical tapestries.   It’s a very imprecise term, but it describes a heavy fabric with an elaborate, multicolour weave, usually with the colours reversing on the back of the fabric (for example, a fabric with green leaves on a red ground would have red leaves on a green ground on the reverse), but is thicker, stiffer, and heavier than damask, the reverse may not be as neat and tidy, and is usually woven with thicker yarns than damask or brocade.

Front and reverse of a modern tapestry type fabric

Front and reverse of a modern tapestry type fabric

If you are looking at a modern jacquard weave fabric and trying to determine what it is most likely to be called, ask yourself:

- Is it reversible, with the pattern a mirror of each other on each side?  If so – it’s a damask.  If it’s light and drapey, some people might call it a jacquard.

- Is one side beautiful, and the other side a mess of floating threads?  It’s a continuous brocade, unless it’s very heavy, and the pattern is very raised, and then it is a brocatelle.

- Is one side beautiful, and the other a mess of short, cut threads?  Its a discontinuous brocade, unless it’s very heavy, and the pattern is very raised, and then it is a brocatelle.

- Is one side beautiful, and the other a pattern of coloured stripes?  It’s a type of brocade.

- Is it a brocade with gold and/or silver coloured threads?  It’s an imperial brocade/brocade with brocading.

- Is it quite textured, with puffy, blistered areas on the front and a loose, gauzy support weave on the back?  It’s a matelasse/marcelle/piqué

- Is it really elaborately patterned, quite heavy, and doesn’t fit any of the other descriptions?  It’s a tapestry weave.

Jacquard looms can also be used to create elaborately patterned knits, including:

Jacquard hose: socks and stockings with elaborate patterns, such as argyle, herringbone, and other socks with the patterns woven in.  Stockings/socks/hose have been knit on jacquard looms since the 1920s, and have gone in and out of popularity since then.

Jacquard sweaters: machine made sweaters with elaborate patterns knitted in.  Most ugly Christmas sweaters?  Yep.  Those are jacquard sweaters.  Aztec sweaters – those are jacquard sweaters.  Machine knit argyle sweaters are knit on a jacquard loom.  Faux Fair Isle and Cowichan sweaters are knit on jacquard looms.

And if you are interested, weaves that are usually done with a dobby loom are birds eye (diaper cloth), crepes, cloche, dotted swiss, double-weaves, honeycomb weaves, simple matelasse/piqué patterns, satins, and elaborate twills, as well as fabrics with small, simple widely spaced designs.

Sources:

Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne, Consumer Textiles.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press.  1988

Calasibetta, C. M., Tortora, P, and Abling, B (illus.).  The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (Third Ed).  London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.  2003

Collier, Billie J. and Tortora, Phyllis G.  Understanding Textiles (Sixth ed).  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.  2001

Shaeffer, Claire.  Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide.  Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.  2008

Wilard, Dana.  The Fabric Selector.  Millers Point, NSW Australia: Murdoch Books Pty Ltd.  2012

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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