French Silk Sample Book (ca. 1900)

First, grow yourself a mulberry tree... could be the first step in a how-to guide for aspiring silk weavers. Then you'd need a silk moth — preferably the Bombyx mori — of which each female will produce a clutch of four hundred or so eggs. From these the hungry silkworms hatch. After six weeks or so of leaf-eating, each larva is ready to make its cocoon, which it does by extruding through spinnerets (or, holes in the head) a liquid protein which solidifies on contact with air. Rotating its body in a figure-of-eight motion, the larva spins a single strand of silk of up to one hundred meters long, taking between three and eight days to encase itself.

As silk-maker, or sericultivator, you would next immerse the cocoons in boiling water to dissolve the gum holding their form, and extract the long, single thread from each. This can then be treated, dyed, spun, woven, and finished. It's an ancient process, with the oldest traces of silk found in China at Neolithic digs, and one with a rich history in France; Diderot and d'Alembert include instructions in the "Rural Economy" section of their Encylopédie.

Here, in the Mary Ann Beinecke Decorative Art Collection at the Clark Institute, Massachusetts, is a more recent example of silk production. It's a lovely French silk sample book, dating from between 1895 to 1905, consisting of 139 pages onto which are stuck small scraps of fabric. (The collection has similar books that present examples of embroidery, brocade, lace, and weaving patterns. See our previous collection post for another French sample book, of 1863, though that one collects watercolour copies of fabric patterns, whereas this example has the actual fabric.)

This silk collection is clearly a working tool of some kind — the pages are annotated, with what look like notes on the weight of the fabric, and names that might be designer, customer, or manufacturer? There are comments on the colourways, too, distinguishing between plain stripes in noir, marine, lido, or bordeaux, while the polka-dots come in a selection of names that are almost as pretty as the silks themselves: cyclamen violet, emeraude blanc, ciel bordeaux. There are woozy tartans, delicate chintzes, smart dots and stripes, Richter-esque roses, Missoni-style zig-zags. Below are some of our favourites; browse the whole sample book to find inspiration for your own, silky style.

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