Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Trade (and Art) of Making 18thc. Trim

Sunday, August 9, 2015
Susan reporting,

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, above left, 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.

Many thanks to Sarah and Christina for their help with this post.

Photographs ©2015 by Susan Holloway Scott. Videos courtesy of the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg.


AuntieNan said...

Ok total novice here..... What a labor intensive job! What is the reason they didn't use a crochet hook for this? Was it not invented then?
Thanks for this posting! I think I'm a pretty patient person, but I don't think I have enough for this task!
Nancy N

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Nancy, I wondered that, too. A fine gauge steel crochet hook would be much more efficient - and yes, they were invented and in use in the 1770s. I'll check with Sarah for an answer. My guess is that using the needle was probably described in "how-to" instructions from the time, which is why they use it - but that's only a guess. Stay tuned....

bluefalling said...

2 shillings for 12 yards? I never ceased to be amazed how labor was undervalued back in the day. In that regard our economy has changed more than anything else...

Yve said...

My goodness, we so take machinery for granted. Can you imagine the patience required to sit and do this all day long?

Elena Jardiniz said...

I suspect crochet grew out of these trims - once those fine hooks were developed they'd encourage clever crafters to develop more uses for them. I've got a couple of crochet hooks that I think dated from the 1920's that are so insanely fine they could only be used for sewing thread. The only thing I could think to use them for is a few of the more annoying tasks in sewing - like catching and pulling a single thread to cut absolutely straight when preparing a piece of linen.

But a great many tools, especially needles, are just no longer made - after the Great War so many needle arts were repudiated in disgust at what they represented that the old needles, threads, fine fabrics and all were just lost. Needles are stamped now, and if you look at the eye under a microscope you see burrs and shards that just eat the thread - not to mention being able to break many needles with your bare fingers! If you sew, haunt thrift stores and look for old sewing baskets and boxes - the needles and the pins from the 40's are quite superior to anything you can get at JoAnnes today!

They mentioned that in The Plymouth Jacket Project's blog too. They actually got a manufacturer to try a limited run of silk gylt thread they needed for the project and so far (knock on wood) some colors are still in production and still on the market. But you have to either modify a store bought tapestry needle with emery paper or buy one of the expensive Japanese hand made needles to be able to use the stuff.

Flor said...

The videos are gone :(

Eichenelf said...

Thanks for this lovely's hard to find good information about trimming. The facebook links are broken :( do you know where to find them? i just want to see how it is made!

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