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.

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