Killing It Softly: Shattered Silk

IMG_2095It’s beautiful. It’s romantic.

It’s dying. It’s incurable.

It’s tragic. It is doomed.

It begs for its story to be told, even as the story comes to a sad, inevitable end . . .

My mother bought a box of vintage linens for me recently, a box full of damask and lace and elegance.

In that box, in a plastic bag, was a garment, a nightie or a slip, and it was so lovely. Soft peach-colored silk with pin tucks and filet lace and a pointed handkerchief hem.

IMG_2092Just seeing it sent my imagination awhirl. The young woman who wore this—who was she? When did she live? What was her story?

Well, she probably lived in the northeast United States or Quebec. She was here, and wearing pretty things, in the late 1800s or early 1900s. She had enough money for quality silk, at least for this one special item.

Could I learn more by looking at the details? I pulled the lingerie out of the bag, opened it up, and . . .

It shattered. The silk began to shatter and each touch, each movement, made it worse.

It didn’t shatter like glass shatters, into a thousand brittle pieces that scatter and cut you and make you bleed. It shattered as only fine old silk will, into creeping tears in the fabric that appear from nowhere and grow and multiply and break your heart.

IMG_2090 IMG_2086As I understand it, the very quality of this item was its undoing. The seeds of its end were there from the beginning.

According to the Pragmatic Costumer, old silks were created in ways that guaranteed their demise. She notes that, “During the 19th and early 20th centuries, silks were often treated with metallic salts to give them fabulous weight and a pearly sheen.” Because silk, unlike other fabrics, was sold by the weight, the heavier it was, the better. Metallic salts gave silk the heavy lushness and “rustle” that spoke of money, class, and quality.

But those same metallic salts ultimately destroy the fabric. Old silk fans shatter along the fold marks, a man’s silk tie shatters at the knot, the silk patches in a crazy quilt shatter and disappear while the cottons and wools stay strong. Slips and negligees and lingerie shatter when they’re handled.

Every time I move this silken beauty, I hasten its death, killing it softly with my touch. I can’t save it; there are no conservation methods. I can only take pictures to remember it by. And tell its story so it won’t be forgotten when it’s gone.


67 thoughts on “Killing It Softly: Shattered Silk

  1. What a poignant post. And what a beautiful garment, made even more lovely because of it’s fragility. It almost looks as though it had been worn very little. Like you, I wonder at the story behind it.
    How useful and kind to have a Mother who also has a collectors eye. Did you pick up this passion from her?

    • I don’t think the garment had been worn much but, even as I handled it to take the pictures, it deteriorated more. I think I just need to cut the lace off and throw the rest away. 😦

      My mom loves garage sales and has a wonderful eye for home decorating but only looks at vintage linens because I like them. Her eye for linens is improving–she’s found some treasures!

  2. Hopeful she got to enjoy it and wore it with pride. It would be a shame if such a beautiful thing was kept away for ‘best’. A nice piece of writing and discovery.

    • That’s a good point and, sadly, the garment shows very little evidence of having been worn. It’s in great condition, except for the shattering. Thanks for being here!

    • Thank you, Susan! So glad to have you here! And I loved the story about Catherine Macomb–I’m so happy that you took the time to honor her by making sure her story was part of the BOP celebration!

  3. Oh Kerry, that is heart-breaking. Just like a life lived long and well, when you see the frailty and brittleness of skin and touch the delicacy of bone beneath – and understand with breath-taking awe that the body is dissolving – so you touch and love and value and bless and thereby ease the inevitable passing…….. My imagination is busily composing stories of the past wearer and how this garment was guided to be with you at the end of it’s days. We are also reminded of how the need to enhance what is already beautiful brings about its ultimate demise! There has to be a life-lesson in there somewhere!

  4. I knew from your title that is had to be weighted silk. What I am wondering about is the lace? I can’t tell if the lace is hand made or machine made from the pictures. It does look like bobbin lace when I blow up the picture. I do have crochet edging and insert patterns from 1910 that are of the same design.

    • I’d love to have a better idea about the lace, too, but I have no knowledge or experience in that area. Are there any telltale signs on handmade lace I should look for? It sounds like you know a lot more than I do! The box of vintage linens had a ton of lace and crochet in it–yards of trim that had been cut off other items and antimacassars, etc. All lovely and I have no idea what to do with it!

    • The depressing thing is that there’s, apparently, not one thing you can do to stop the progress (bad word) of the decay. I’m not used to feeling so helpless!

    • It was new to me, too–I did research! 🙂 I was trying to figure out how to stop the shattering from getting worse . . . only to learn I can’t stop it. Sigh.

  5. Thanks for educating me about this. I have a silk mantilly hand painted and with foot-long fringe that I wanted to display, but every time I touch it there is another little rip. What can be done? A photo record is a wonderful idea.

    • I think a photo record is the only thing to do. The (limited) research I did said that there’s no reversing the shattering and that even conservators can’t fix it. With extremely rare and/or historically important items, they can try and support the fabric by backing it with another fabric but that doesn’t stop the silk from deteriorating. Sad, huh?

    • Thanks, Michelle! This garment brought something out in me! I’m sorry to hear about your pillow–it makes me so sad that there’s nothing to be done to save these things!

  6. Such lovely silk and what an informative piece, Kerry. It is a gorgeous piece of clothing. Manufacturers back in the old days are not very different from manufacturers now, are they? Such luxury items were kept as such and made in such a way as to guarantee their demise and repurchase. Still, the photos speak volumes as to this silk beauty.

    • As far as I can tell, manufacturers didn’t know that the metallic salts would have such awful long-term effects. It’s like thalidomide as a drug–it seemed to solve problems and improve lives, until the horrible unintended consequences became apparent. It does make me wonder what we’re doing now that will come back to haunt us . . .

    • Like you, I figured the shattering was a result of me doing something wrong in storing or handling the silk. Now I know it was inevitable and that’s even worse!

    • Yes, the lace seems strong and fine–it’s probably made of cotton thread. I’ll cut it off and add it to my piles of other lace trim and hope to have an epiphany, someday, about how to use this stuff!

        • It’s an intriguing thought. The fibers in weaving (at least in my severely limited experience) get beaten down and kind of scrunched so that no element stands on its own. But lace could be applied to the top of a finished woven fabric, or to a quilt, or to the collar a favorite blouse. I’ll need to ponder this . . .

  7. What a sad story but just you writing about it gives it a new life.
    I bet it looked wonderful on the person who owned it.
    Can’t wait to see what was in the rest of the box.

    • When I first saw it, I was all excited because I could imagine someone like you being thrilled to wear it! But then I realized, almost immediately, that’s days of being worn are over. 😦

    • That’s how my brain works–I see one of these vintage items (it doesn’t seem to matter much what it is) and all I can think about is the person who owned it, who they were, how they felt. I get especially worked up if the item is handmade! Thanks for stopping by!

  8. I agree with Crafty Sorcha–thank goodness you were able to preserve the memory of this garment by taking photos. I learned something new from reading this post. It’s really interesting how some fabrics self-destruct.

  9. It breaks my heart to see old textiles crumble. Sometimes they were stored away in cedar chests for special occasions that never happened, only to have the cedar itself damage the fabric in direct contact with it. When I read about cedar’s affect on fabric, I lined my check with an old sheet to protect those textiles stored there. A thought for the lace: perhaps you can stitch a sampler-type picture of the pieces so they can be displayed and enjoyed?

    • The other thing that can happen comes as a result of storing items that have been starched! Since starch is basically food, insects and even mice will nibble at the starch and damage the fabric in turn. I try to never, ever, ever store away starched linens! I like you idea for the lace pieces!

  10. Now I know why the silks used in old crazy quilts so often shatter. Many thanks. I photograph old textiles for a local historical society and have gently unfolded many a crazy quilt only to find small pieces of silk floating around in the air with only the batting held down by the embroidery. Yet the silk crepe fabric I inherited from my grandmother is still amazingly strong. I’ve tried to rip it, but have failed.

    • I have an old crazy quilt that is in great shape . . . except for the silk patches. 😦 The silk crepe must’ve seemed heavy enough just as it was or there was some other reason it wasn’t treated with salts. I think I remember reading that silk, left alone, is very strong.

  11. How very interesting. I had no idea about the deterioration of silk. I think it is a good idea to save the lace.

  12. I have enjoyed reading this well written post, tremendously. What a sad ending to pretty piece of fabric. I didn’t know they were sold by weight, thanks so much for teaching me so much in such a short time. Enjoy the weekend!

    • Thanks, Liz! It is a sad ending–I know I should just cut the lace off and throw the silk away but haven’t quite brought myself to do that yet . . .

      You have a good weekend, too!

  13. But, that silk has out-lived it’s original, and maybe several other, owners from 100 years ago. My Dockers are likely to head to the thrift-shop re-sale rack after a year of two. As I can afford new ones, I actually try to rotate out the older ones while they are still servicable by someone who has fewer resources than I.

    • I learned about the business of metallic salts while I was trying to research a way to preserve the fabric. If it was a fabulously rare or historically important item, it could be stabilized, I guess, but I couldn’t find any way to fix it.

  14. Very interesting – I always learn such fascinating things about textiles and fabrics from you. I’m glad you are at least able to photograph the garment – and we can all enjoy seeing it and imagining the life of the wearer. So very special.

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