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Worthing Museum - Silk Dresses

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

nb. This post is a work in progress, some of the links won't work yet as the related posts are still being written. Please check back.

It was a cold, grey day in February when I headed to Worthing Museum to see silk dresses and Dolman's in their Costume Research Centre. I'd emailed Head Curator Gerry Connolly a rather convoluted list of requests in response to where my research is now heading and I was delighted by what was waiting for me. Weaving Silk Stories is my current project and, as that title hopefully suggests, silk thread will be key this time; alongside my work with paper of course. I'm working with venues from three of the historically important areas of the UK linked to the design and production of silk; Whitchurch in Hampshire, Maccelsfield in Cheshire and London, especially the City and Spitalfields. This time I have a much wider timespan in mind however, as regards the era's and the changes therefore in related fashion. That is, compared to the last collection I was researching for (in previous posts) The Regency Wardrobe. This time I'm looking at, and will be designing, garments inspired by fashion from the late 1600's to the early Twentieth Century. Of course I'll be tying in social, national, fashion and (this time specifically) silk related history including references to the lives of specific individuals where I can. So the remit is broad but we have to begin somewhere...

...why not begin therefore with a gorgeous detail like this, from a robe á la Française 1745/50

The Worthing museum collection catalogue entry tells us the following:

"Materials: Silk damask, satin ground ribbed poplin pattern, close warp, flower, leaf and berry spray. Colour: Purple-navy [faded] Style: open robe À L'Anglaise, back stitched down to waist..."

It was wonderful to be able to look up close at the construction.

"...Elbow length sleeves with pleated self cuff edged narrow self ruching. Skirt is underlined..."

"...Bodice lined with linen fastens with tapes at the front..."

"...Pocket holes each side of skirt."

And what of the texture of the fabric and the trim detailing! Ribbon work, knotted and twisted threads, metal wire, metallic thread, cording, it's all there. Now I just have to figure out how to mimic it!

It's interesting to compare our dress above with detail such as can be seen here on a sleeve from a 1760's Sack-back gown from the V&A collection which likewise integrates ribbon and twisted thread. The blue and white thread trim on the Worthing Museum example looks a little less smooth, a little more tangly perhaps but I wonder if that is is just as a result of wear and age.

As an aside I have found a couple of lovely videos that look at examples of trim of this sort and consider how to correctly name it, which you can view here and here I am still left a little unsure whether our version (above) should be best described as Sourcile d'Hanneton (named after the fine fringe on beetles) or Fly Fringe, (which might have been named after the fly's used by fishermen), or another variant altogether. It is safer but less distinguishing to stick to the general term that covers all types of trim, tassels and braid ie. Passementarie

There are more images of examples of this sort of edging to come but in the order in which we looked at the pieces on this visit to Worthing Museum we moved on, in fact, from pastel shades straight to Canary yellow. How could you not be drawn to this colour!

I was thrilled when I found out it was an example of Spitalfields silk. Which will be so important in this story and to all my Weaving Silk Stories collection research. To read my research into Spitalfields silk please click here

This time we have a robe á la Française from c. 1770

The collection catalogue card says:

"Open robe and matching petticoat of yellow silk (probably Spitalfields 'lustring') trimmed with narrow bands of self material in scallops on front of robe, and self material bows within each scallop. Some alteration around 1900 with addition of cream chiffon 'front'."


From French lustrine, Italian lustrino, from lustrare (“to polish”), Latin lustrare. See luster and compare lutestring.


lustring (countable and uncountable, plural lustrings)

  1. A glossy silk fabric; lutestring"

Both of these first two dresses were donated to the collection by the same lady in 1957.

Being able to see the large back-stitching between the back and the box pleats on both of these first two dresses was great, they were even more clearly seen on the yellow. I don't use patterns to make The House of Embroidered Paper's paper dresses, working only by eye, but I'm yet to create a Sack back dress, and I think it's probably overdue, so all such details were interesting to note.

"The loose box pleats which are a feature of this style are sometimes called Watteau pleats from their appearance in the paintings of Antoine Watteau"

And this too is very similar to a gown in the V&A which you can view here

The V&A describe rushings and ruffles, as applied decoration, using the base fabric that the dress is made of and we can also see that effect here.

But back to trim...

Polonaise & petticoat 1760-1770 (80?)

Oh it's lovely.

And since having compiled the earlier part of this post and watched the videos about fly fringe and a style of fringe she calls on the video 'knotted fringe' I've looked back at previous research posts and the images I've upload here of Regency era garments. In the videos I credit above she is talking about Eighteenth century passementarie so I wanted to remind myself of fringing effects as they continued into the 19th century also and I was interested to look again at this image. It's a tassel from a silk pelisse and two cotton dresses worn by Arabella Millbanke, for her wedding to Lord Byron from the Bath Fashion Museum collection. It's one of two beautiful tassels (tassels also coming under the category of passementarie) on the piece and it has that knotted fringe effect hanging from it. I can see another huge area of learning and experimenting opening up for me and The House of Embroidered Paper's volunteer team.

Accredited to Fashion Museum Bath

But back to the Eighteenth century silk gown we were looking at. Well the next piece became decidedly more exciting immediately that I registered what exactly I was seeing on it - worms! Yes that's right, worms. Or perhaps caterpillars? The dress is covered in them, as you can see below. And as silk related research was my reason for looking at these dresses, all made of silk, I immediately started thinking of silk worms/caterpillars. But was I meant to be seeing caterpillars or are they just some semblance of decoration, an abstract shape perhaps? There might be no way of knowing.

The Worthing Museum curator who received this piece when it was donated in 1972 wrote the following:

"A two pieces dress of polonaise and petticoat in cream silk figured with self flowers and leaves and stripes, woven with springs of mixed flowers in pinks, cerise, greens and browns. Skirt with over flounce at hem and heading of gimp. Centre back bodice is boned and cut with six panels and runs to a V; sleeves shaped at elbow; drawstring through lining at neck but no other front fastenings inside."

It sounds like she saw them as stripes?

Don't you see caterpillars?

I was already planning to incorporate imagery from my research trip to the Natural History Museum to see silk moths into the design of a piece in my new collection. Now I'm thinking also of involving imagery of caterpillars into the decoration of a different piece. And it seems there are many other historical examples of where a worm/caterpillar effect appears for me to be inspired by:

For example, this effect from a 1600-1625 sleeve:

"...the fabric has not been worked in the traditional cording method. S-shaped lengths of cotton cord, covered in green satin, have been couched down on a matching emerald ribbed silk, creating a grid of intersection waves. The couching stitches fall into the twists of cord, accentuating its spiral nature. A line of green floss silk is couched on either side of the cord; a tuft of the same type of thread springs from the concavity of each corded curve..."

All of this work just for the sleeves of a woman's/mans doublet. They must have belonged to someone important: "Wardrobe accounts of Elizabeth I list several items made of fabrics tufted with silk.."

- Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail - Avril Hart and Susan North V&A

And there's this, from a woman's linen jacket, covered in embroidery using coloured silks and metal thread English 1600-1615 From:

Silk moth caterpillars are either extremely minimal or extremely exotic looking, depending on whether they are of the wild or working, giant or small varieties. Either way however I am inspired. If you want to see the images I took in the Natural History Museum store, including images of giant silk moth caterpillars please click here

Anyway...back to the dress which also has a ruched decorative border using the base material, so therefore was similar to the golden yellow dress above. Commonly appearing techniques are the sort of details that I can easily incorporate into my designs.

It was not just a type of trim that we saw repeated on this visit however, there was also a repeating colour scheme. A cream base with floral sprays in pinks and reds in particular seems to have been very popular at the time as you can see from the next dress we looked at and this page (see left) from Silk designs of the Eighteenth-Century in the V&A collection by Natalie Rothstein. So this is a colour combination I'll be looking to work with.

I was particularly interested to see the internal ties used to create the three puffs (that is not a technical term) at the back of a Polonaise. To create the desired shape this gown has slits either side at the back, an internal string (which literally looks like string) and fabric covered buttons to tie the string too around the gathered fabric:

Open Robe with matching Petticoat .1770

"Open robe over matching petticoat - sac back - front of robe and hem of petticoat trimmed with ruched self material "pinked" on the edges. Triple falling cuff to elbow length sleeves - also "pinked". Hem lined with plain silk. Materials: - cream damask with brocaded pattern in colour - pink and red and green flower sprays. (probably Spitalfields silk) Sac - Back"

This dress has lovely little French knots on the back

On this dress we have the addition of Whitework (though in cream)...

...and the ties were closer to ribbons:

So many layers to edge the sleeve!

"The wide pleated sleeve cuffs, known as manches à la raquette (similarly trimmed with self-fabric) are an exaggerated version of the triangular cuffs that were fashionable during the first half of the century. Small, circular lead weights, encased in linen, are stitched to the sleeve lining at the elbow to hold the sleeve in place and to remind the wearer to keep her arms slightly bent in accordance with proper comportment."

In order to be able to handle one piece more thoroughly, and to try it on a mannequin with a bustle we looked at a less delicate gown made of cotton. The pattern on the material was very similar, cream with flowers. But it was in fact the embroidered ribbon trim I found fascinating because the tiny embroidered circles on it look like miniature thread buttons of the sort The House of Embroidered Paper volunteer team are involved in learning about and practising to make. For my post about thread buttons please click here

This last dress introduced a little more blue into the embroidery...

Open Robe & Petticoat c 1750

"Off white corded silk brocade with pattern of scattered flowers in shades of blue, rose & rust with green. Probably English c 1750. skirt made up of several uneven sized pieces of material sewn together & shows evidence of considerable wear. Bodice has 2 bones on either side of centre front inserted late 19th/early 20th c..."

"...Petticoat of same silk using more patches ...Materials much more worn & darned, probably been scoured..."

"...Insertion of glazed wool (callamanca) at centre. Back is original but deep shaped waistband of cream satin is late 19th c. addition. Fabric c1750..."

With thanks to all at Worthing Museum. To hear my interview with Lucy Clayton for her Podcast Dress Fancy which we recorded in the Research centre at Worthing Museum please click here


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