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Textile Society - Silk Sympsoium

Silk Symposium 2013

Textile Society – Natalie Rothstein Silk Symposium, 15th March, 2013

I recently spent a very interesting and enjoyable day at the Wellcome Conference Centre in London. The Textile Society was holding a Silk Symposium in honour of Natalie Rothstein (1930-2010), a textile historian who had a long and distinguished career at the Victoria and Albert Museum researching English silks.

Tickets for the Symposium had sold out quickly but I was lucky to get a returned ticket and at 10.15 am was in my seat to hear nine very varied papers on the subject of silk.  I’ll describe a few of the papers which stood out for me.

The first was by Clare Browne of the V&A Museum. Clare spoke about a portrait which the museum has recently been given, showing a rich gentleman pointing to a bolt of brocaded silk fabric. The names of the artist and sitter are unknown but Clare suggested the possibility that the portrait was by the 18th century artist Michael Dahl and that his subject was the master silk weaver and designer, James Leman, a Huguenot who lived and worked in Spitalfields, London. It will be very interesting to learn of further evidence to support this thesis in the future.

The paper given by Joan Kendall followed on nicely from the previous one as it concerned a damaged silk damask curtain at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, of which only one complete design repeat of 55 inches remained in 1980. ( Joan has worked for many years organising and training volunteers to conserve historic textiles at Hatfield House.) The design on the curtain had been identified by Natalie Rothstein as being by James Leman. Subsequently a bill for 427and 1/4 yards of ‘Rich Crimson Damask ‘, dated 1711 and supplied by Henry Strudwicke, was found in the archives at Hatfield House. The design has recently been re-woven in two-colour silk damask by Richard Humphries on a Jacquard rapier loom.

Kay Staniland, a retired museum curator, talked about the album assembled by Barbara Johnson (1738-1825), showing samples of her dresses between 1746 and 1821. The album was acquired by the V&A Museum in 1973 and after conservation was reproduced as Barbara Johnson’s Album of Fashions and Fabrics, in 1987, edited by Natalie Rothstein and Ann Buck.  Illustrations for the album were in the form of engravings from pocket books which were notebooks for appointments and expenditure, something like our modern diary. Kay discussed the identification of some of the engravings, including The Ladies’ Complete Pocket Book, (1750-51), the first to be directed at women, and The Ladies Own Memorandum Book (1770).

After lunch we heard from Dr Ben Marsh of Stirling University who spoke about a clergyman, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, and his attempts to introduce silk cultivation to New England in the mid-eighteenth century. The highlight of this talk, for me, was the revelation that the Reverend Stiles had names for individual silk worms in his collection!

Drs Mary Brooks and Sonia O’Connor gave a fascinating paper entitled Understanding silk through x-radiography,which explained how x-radiographic imaging may be used to reveal hidden details of silk textiles. They illustrated their talk with images of textiles showing previously unseen stitching and methods of construction. This methodology has exciting implications for textile research and conservation.

The Natalie Rothstein silk award for best paper, presented by Henry Rothstein, Natalie’s brother, was won by Dr Ben Marsh. A special prize  was awarded by the Textile Society, to Mei Mei Rado, for her scholarly paper on the roles and meanings of European silks in the Qing court during the Qianlong period in China (1736-95).

I would not have believed that there could be so many different aspects to the subject of silk! Each of the papers was very informative and interesting and gave us a lot to think about on our journeys home.

Hazel Conway