Silk trim was the final decorative icing on an 18thc. lady's elaborate dress, whether the last delicate accent to a costly silk or an important element of design on a solid-colored gown. I've written about trimming before, and most recently featured this spectacular sack-back dress covered with multi-colored trimming that brings the white gown to life.
While I was recently visiting Colonial Williamsburg, our good friends in the Margaret Hunter shop were busily recreating knotted silk trim for use on future projects. They were making a variety called floss fringe, sometimes called fly fringe (though the historical jury is still out as to whether "fly fringe" was a term used in the 18thc., or is a later expression.) Silk thread is knotted in regular intervals, which are then cut apart into short pieces, or fringes, marked by the knots. The ends of each fringe are brushed and spread apart for a tassel-like effect. Then these fringes are in turn knotted at regular intervals into a chain-stitched base.
It is a great deal of practice and precise handwork. In the shop, these modern young women estimated that it was taking them about three hours to produce a foot of trim. Their 18thc. counterparts would have been much faster, with trim-making being its own skilled trade. Working in teams of three (two to make the fringes, and one to complete the knotting), experienced trim-makers could produce twelve yards of trim in an average workday. Twelve yards was also the standard length, wrapped on a card for sale, with most trims costing about two shillings a card in the 1770s.
As a branch of the millinery trades, and, in a larger scope, the fashion trade, trim-makers were almost exclusively women. Smaller hands were more adept at knotting the delicate silk threads, and children, too, were often employed in making the fringes.
In our mass-produced modern world, trim-making might seem like a hopelessly antiquated skill. But Christina, aboveleft, who is spending the summer as an intern at the shop, thinks otherwise. Later this month she'll return to her full-time job as a librarian and teacher, and she's planning to incorporate the 18thc. trim-making skills she's acquired with young children into her classes. Not only will trim-making help develop small-motor skills and manual dexterity, but it also teaches patience, precision, and making design choices of color and size. There's a bit of history in the mix, too, showing the kind of trades open to young women in the 18thc., and the skills that would have been prized at that time. Plus, in the end, each young worker will learn the satisfaction of making something, plus get a piece of trim to take with her (or him, for trades are less gender-specific now) to take home with pride. Not bad for an archaic trade.
But you can give trim-making a try yourself. Christina and mantua-maker's apprentice Sarah Woodyard have put several short videos showing the steps of floss fringe making on the shop's Facebook page. They're fascinating, and I also found the rhythm of the women's hands across the silk beautiful to watch as well.
Here is the link to the first step, tying the knots.
Here is the link to the second step, clipping the thread into between the knots.
And here is the link to the third step, inserting the silk fringes into the silk gimp chain to complete the fringe.
Many thanks to Sarah and Christina for their help with this post.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.