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Silk Symposium

Fri 15th March 2013

Wellcome Collection
Euston Road, London



Clare Browne: A master weaver shows his face: suggesting a possible identity for an eighteenth century portrait

Joan Kendall: A bizarre design: silk damask supplied to the Fifth Earl of Salisbury (1691-1728)

Kay Staniland: ‘Fair Ladies here's your Man', or Barbara Johnson revisited, 1755-1762

Deborah Dean & Tristram Aver: ‘Living in Silk’: the people and politics of an exhibition

Mei Mei Rado: Encountering magnificence: European silks in the Qing Court during the eighteenth century

Dr Ben Marsh: ‘One man might bring it to perfection’: Rev. Ezra Stiles and the quest for New England silk
Drs Mary Brooks and Sonia O’Connor: Understanding silk through X-radiography

Martin Ciszuk: Swedish eighteenth century silk weaving: technology and market

Julia Gazères: Relaunching silk production in Europe: the NOWSILK project

Report by Ann Gibson

The silk symposium was to mark a bequest from Natalie Rothstein whose work on eighteenth century silk is so well known and revered. The day was in her memory. Mary Schoeser and Brenda King explained how papers presented had been chosen from many entries and, as the day progressed, it was evident how Natalie Rothstein’s influence and scholarship had played such an important part in the ensuing research.

Many of the speakers had known her well and had been colleagues, and it was fitting that Clare Browne’s paper should open proceedings. She gave a detailed study of a portrait at the V&A - attributed to Michael Dahl - showing evidence of silk possibly relating to the London textile trades in the eighteenth century. Many had consulted Natalie Rothstein for her expert knowledge, as Joan Kendall expounded, during her investigations of the silk damask curtains at Hatfield House, illustrating both the original and re-woven design, and the bed furnishings. Still others had benefited from her formidable legacy of published texts such as Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashions and Fabrics which Natalie Rothstein had so famously rescued and ultimately edited in its facsimile edition. Kay Staniland looked at the album from a new angle, studying the engravings used as frontispieces for the early pocket books depicted alongside the dress samples.

Collections and museums continued to inform the next two papers: firstly, the 2012 exhibition, Living in Silk: Chinese Textiles through 5000 Years held in Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Tristram Aver recorded photographically some of his often amusing experiences encountered transporting the objects to England, while Deborah Dean related how the exhibition had been an opportunity to assess their own collection of Chinese silk and had successfully provided an opportunity to work with young people. Secondly, Mei Mei Rado gave us a wonderful portrayal of luxury European silks and the part they played in establishing the Qing imperial identity following extensive examination of the archive collection and portraits in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

Ben Marsh metaphorically transported us to New England via the detailed diaries of the Rev. Ezra Stiles, a North American colonist who documented his experiments, or “hopelessly over-optimistic efforts,” in silk farming. This was both well researched and engagingly presented, in turn revealing the very human touches in Stiles’ journal (staying in bed late while his wife and children worked on the farm and documenting the amusing ‘pet’ names he gave to his silkworms) alongside his colonial desire for riches and status, traditionally associated with silk.

For the last session of the day, the focus turned to technology. Mary Brooks’ and Sonia O’Connor’s continuing exploration of textiles using x-radiographic imaging was intriguing not only for its erudite and innovative study but for the resulting ethereal quality of imagery (which could inspire a new anthology of illustrated fairy tales). Their book, X-Radiology of Textiles, Dress and Related Objects is now on my ‘must have’ list. Martin Ciszuk turned to the Swedish silk weaving industry for a technical analysis of droguet and in the questions following the papers he confirmed how his experience as a hand weaver had informed his research, how he “can ‘read’ [textiles] because have made.” Bringing us up to the present day, Julia Gazères, explained the ethos behind the NOWSILK project, a Franco-Italian initiative to re-launch silk production in Europe. She brought with her some samples of the product, unusually remaining as a fibrous fabric rather than being woven into thread. The project aims to produce high quality, ecological and sustainable fabric for both fashion and medical use.

Those lucky enough to have been able to attend the symposium (not surprisingly over-subscribed) were treated to an unparalleled glimpse of silk in its many guises: from silkworm to luxurious finished items; from the hand written entries of an amateur in sericulture to research in x-radiography; from early weaving technology to sustainable ecological production; silk portrayed in paintings and engravings, and surviving silks in archives, museums, galleries and royal collections. We heard speakers from the British Isles and from across the globe discussing English, European and East Asian silk, and attempts at silk production in New England; research all strongly influenced by the outstanding scholarship that is the legacy of Natalie Rothstein.

Ben Marsh, lecturer in history at the University of Stirling, was presented with the generous Natalie Rothstein Silk Award by Henry Rothstein, Natalie’s nephew, while a Textile Society commendation was awarded to Mei Mei Rado, a doctoral student at Bard Graduate Center, New York. A special edition of Text is being planned by Lynn Hulse to include as many of the research papers as possible - a much awaited treat.