‘Them’ and the silk trade

Things I love about this article:

  1. ‘Them’ is used as a (relatively) good term
  2. Lots of fabric history!
  3. Fabrics named ‘Billowee’ and ‘Krinkle Krepe’ are considered elegant in comparison to ‘Necking Time’ and ‘Razzle Dazzle’
  4. “It was not exactly something new; it was merely old enough to seem new”

Reprinted from Times Magazine, Monday September 12, 1932

The U. S. silk industry, to its intense delight, last week found itself suddenly in the midst of a boom. Unlike cotton and woolen men, silk men are much at the mercy of THEM and last week it was gloriously plain that THEY—the fashion designers of Paris, the style buyers and editors from the U. S., and the 40,000,000 U. S. women who wear dresses—had decided on a style change which would require the U. S. silk industry’s most diligent services.

Schiaparelli and Bruyere in 1932

THEY do not decide all of a sudden. The blessed event which now delights silk men really began last February when the U. S. style buyers found nothing to excite them at the Paris salons and bitterly said so, threatening never to come back. Oh, please come back next summer! begged Vionnet, Lanvin, Patou, Schiaparelli, Chanel, et al., and promised faithfully to have something that would surely start a U. S. fad, a wave of buying under the irresistible pressure of Fashion.

Dress in blue crepe, 1934

The U. S. buyers last month went back to Paris skeptically. Sure enough, word soon went around the silk industry’s lunch tables that something had been found. It was not exactly something new; it was merely old enough to seem new. It was Rough Crepe, which takes more silk fibre per yard than any other silk dress stuff. Crepe de Chine has not been “in” for years, rough crepes have never been popular. Few wardrobes would contain old crepe de Chine dresses, let alone rough crepes, that could be made over. Silk men know that there are 10,000,000 U. S. women who have never had a silk dress. Perhaps 5,000,000 more cannot now afford to buy one, though a silk dress that cost $25 in 1929 will cost but $10 this year. Even so that leaves 20 or 25 million women who will feel they must, and therefore will, have at least one crepe dress almost right away. That was the beauty of it. When THEY decide, things move quickly.

Classical fashions for spring 1932, Vogue

Silk men say that a silk fad sweeps the world about every ten years. Creeping out of the post-War slump, in 1922 the silk industry was whipped to prosperity by a huge and sudden demand for crepe de Chine. It replaced taffeta, which had clung on tenaciously from the billowy era at the turn of the century, as the standard dress silk. When the good news came last month, silk mills had little rough crepe in stock. So great and so urgent was the demand that silk men last week were vainly trying to buy from each other to satisfy orders. A good part of the silk & rayon industry’s 125.000 operatives had already trooped back to re-opened mills. Consumption of raw silk last month jumped to 60,000 bales—up 29% from last year and the highest monthly taking in nearly two years. Japanese farmers clop-clopped about their sericulture more cheerfully, for the sudden demand had shot raw silk prices 82% above the June low of $1.10 a pound.

Frocks for looking slim, 1934

Rough crepe is an old silk product but the demand for it has always been nominal. All crepes are woven on large looms with some threads highly twisted. When the cloth is removed these threads tend to untwist, giving it a rough or pebbly appearance. Rayon, though not so elastic as silk, is also used for crepes and rayon mills are sharing in the present boom.

Ladies Home Journal, 1932

Most popular colors, silk men think, will be Harvard red, followed by black, olive green and royal blue. Trade names for some of the rough crepes include Bagheera, Billowee, Bubble crepe, Krinkle Krepe. Less elegant are two new silk fabrics, Necking Time and Razzle Dazzle.

Harvard red and black in 1937

Largest maker of dress silks is Stehli Silks Corp. Susquehanna, Schwarzenbach Huber & Co., Cheney Bros., C. K. Eagle are all large silk makers, but their business is less specialized. In 1929 Stehli sold 14,000,000 yards—enough for 5,000,000 dresses. About three-fourths was sold to dress manufacturers, one-fourth to stores for over-the-counter distribution. Their annual volume is nearly $25,000,000. The business was founded by Statthalter Rudolph Stehli in Obfelden, Switzerland, in 1837, has remained in the family ever since. The company now has 3, 500 looms scattered through Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the U. S. Emil J. Stehli, grandson of the founding Statt halter and president of Stehli Silks Corp., came to the U. S. in 1897 to establish an importing house as an adjunct to Zurich’s Stehli & Co. Importing of Stehli silks proved profitable until the Dingley tariff ended it forever. As U. S. manufacturers do today in foreign lands, the resourceful Stehlis promptly started manufacture of silks safe within the tariff wall. Now the U. S. branch of the family business is four times as large as the sturdy Swiss parent. Of the fourth generation is blond, pink-cheeked Henry E. Stehli, able young secretary and treasurer of Stehli Silks Corp. To reap the harvest of rough crepe Stehli has recalled 2,000 workers, its mills have been stepped up to three shifts. Production in anticipation of another silk year is running 25% above rated capacity.

French fashions in 1933

A different kind of robe a la francaise

In addition to all the recreation dresses that were in last Saturday’s talk, I used some real vintage garments as well.

I own this beautiful early 1930s rayon robe, made in Japan for the Western market.

The theme of Saturday’s talk was The Eastern influence on Western fashion, with a focus on Japonisme and Chinoiserie, so what could be better than a kimono inspired robe made in Japan for the Western market?

Madame O has a beautiful 1940s peach pink negligee that paired perfectly with the robe (and being the darling that she is, of course she was willing to let me use it for the talk).

The only thing we needed was a model.

I got asked to do Saturday’s talk at the last minute, and coordinating models was touch and go the whole time.

Enter Mrs C and Hortense (you have to say her name in the most glamorous French accent possible).

Hortense is a French exchange student who came to Saturday’s conference with her host.  Mrs C found her, pounced on her, declared she would be the perfect model, and presented her when I arrived.

Oohhh la la!

Is she gorgeous or what?

She was an absolute darling backstage, beautiful and poised onstage, and gorgeous during the photoshoot.

Occasionally I had to tell her not to be such a good model though!

I’m happy with my blog looking a little less professional and Vogue and a little simpler and more Dreamy.

Miss Elisabeth, the Sewphist, lent her wedding shoes to go with the negligee and robe.  Very sweet!

I love the late 40s negligee – it’s more sweet than sultry, and works perfectly with the unusual orange of the robe.

Mrs C did Hortense’s (remember, glorious French accent!) hair in 40’s poofs

The robe isn’t a particularly high quality example – it’s rayon crepe rather than silk, and the embroidery is very large and rough.

This doesn’t lessen its charm for me in the least bit – I like the ‘ordinary’ vintage bits as much as the extraordinary ones, and it’s interesting for me to know that exports from Japan were so common that there were lesser quality items being produced for the Western market.

The black lining around the edges of the sleeves and the robe front hints at the robes inspiration, and the layers of kimono that would have been worn in Japan.

I love peaches and pinks and apricots, in flowers and clothes.

And one last image of the exquisite Hortense

And some details of the robe:

Thank you so, so much Hortense!  You were wonderful!

Flourish, polls and other bits and bobs

First off, if you check out the Events page, you will notice a new event (in addition to my Pompeii to Paris talk): Flourish.

“To flourish is to grow, thrive and blossom.

To flourish is to develop succeed and prosper.

To flourish is to attract attention, make bold gestures, standout from the crowd.”

The textile design students at Massey University have been creating gorgeous one-off silk scarves as a fundraiser for Downstage Theatre.  If you are lucky enough to be in Wellington you can visit an exhibition of the scarves at Thistle Hall, and attend a fantastic evening at Downstage to bid on one of the fabulous scarves.

And the scarves are fabulous – I’ve been watching the students create them and drooling over the designs!  They have put hours and hours of work into the designs, and they can only get one true printing off of them.

Second, you may have noticed my new poll function on the sidebar.  I’ll be running weekly lighthearted polls about textiles and fashion and pretty much anything and everything else I can think of.  Except politics.  And probably sports.  But who knows.

And for the record, speaking of polls, I can’t believe that no one wants to be a zombie!  Just think of the lack of worries – the only thing on your mind would be brains!  Mmmmm….brains….

Mmmm...brains...wait, no, that's a tulip! It does look kind of brain-y, or at least organ-y, doesn't it?

Third, I’m dripping in commissions, and (luckily) also feeling fabulously productive, so as long as I can tear myself away from the dress form and the ironing board and the sewing machine, you should see lots and lots of sewing posts. If I can’t…well, then you’ll see lots and lots of cute pictures of Felicity.

Now that’s not a bad thing, is it?

Felicity pictures can never be bad

Finally, I entered four items in the Historical Costume Inspiration Festival, mostly because every time I’ve been bored and had internet access I’ve popped over and added another one.

Go and check out the other stuff on offer (I’m seriously drooling over the wire Royals Swedish crowns!), and check out the costume portfolios of the ones I have entered.

The waterlily dress

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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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