Old silk, old roads, old habits


Last week, I came across an article which highlights some recent textile finds in Milan.   These relics are associated with the early Christian Saint Ambrose, who was elected bishop of the city of Milan in 374 C.E. What makes his burial of interest to us is that among the items kept in his honor are garment fragments.  These were likely ceremonial garments that he wore during his lifetime.  These delicate silk fragments give us a way of seeing more clearly into the splendid religious display of a church leader, priest and protector to emperors, and skilled political negotiator in a time where we have few other types of records.


To put Ambrose (born Aurelius Ambrosius, c. 340 C.E.) into historical perspective, he lived only a lifetime after Emperor Constantine changed the official Roman religion to Christianity (313 C.E.) and moved the imperial capital city east to Constantinople in May of 33o C.E.  Milan was a wealthy city in northern Italy, and it was sometimes used by Roman emperors in their travels as an alternate home.  Ambrosius was well known to Emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius.

Saint-Ambrose-crypt-Basilica-di-SantAmbrogio-MilanAmbrosius, besides being the patron saint of Milan, which he governed, was also the patron of bees, beekeepers and candlemakers.  And more useful for our needs, he was also the patron saint of children, learning, and students.

Silk was very precious in Europe in the 4th century C.E.  According to current scholarship, Byzantium and Rome were still importing all of their raw materials (reeled silk) from China and the near east.  Imperial Byzantine silk-weaving workshops often held specific weaves and colors for distribution by the emperors as diplomatic gifts.    Ambrose must have had considerable political importance to have been given such sumptuous garments.  However, Dr. Sabine Shrenk, the archaeologist working with these textiles, suggests, as a result of this find, that silk textiles were being woven in Italy by this time, even if still from imported silk threads.


“These are marvelously beautiful vestments of sumptuous silk that have been ascribed to the saint,” says Professor Dr. Sabine Schrenk of the department of Christian Archaeology at the University of Bonn. One of them has intricate depictions of hunting scenes with trees and leopards, while the other valuable textile is kept rather simple.”  (Science Daily article cited above)

kier leopardsTextiles woven with hunt scenes, trees, and leopards are a genre of silks associated with royalty.  Lions, tigers, and leopards, have been the preferred quarry of kings since the Sassanian rulers of the 8th c. B.C.E.  The motif continued to be woven for hundreds of years, and spread to Muslim workshops which produced textiles in Spain, Italy, and Syria through the 1300s.

Many fragments of silks with hunting themes have survived (likely because they were too valuable to make rags from).   The elaborate textile in St. Ambrosius’ tomb may encourage scholars to date more of the extant, intricate examples earlier.  In general, the multi-colored silks with hunters and roundels have been dated to the 7th or 8th century.

Here are some of the other hunting silks that have survived the centuries, so you can get an idea of what St. Ambrosius was dressed in:

mozac hunterred lions








The silk on the left was found in a reliquary in the Museum of Sacred Arts, the Vatican, Italy.  The silk on the right was formerly in the tomb of St. Calmin in Mozac, and now is in the Musee des Tissus in Lyon, France.  Both have been dated approximately to the 8th century C.E.  Fewer silks remain from the 5th century.

The article below adds that Saint Ambrosius brought the custom of relic worship to Milan.  This was an early-Christian practice where a piece of bone, hair, or some other body part associated with a holy person was kept in a church, wrapped in scraps of luxury textiles, in a richly-decorated case of some kind.   Imported silk textiles were often used as wrappings because their value was properly sumptuous for these precious objects.  It was believed that such objects offered the worshipper closer access to the holy person’s (e.g. Jesus, Mary, one of the apostles or saints)  goodwill when the believer venerated the objects.  Many churches collected such objects to give their churches greater spiritual significance.  The cases housing the relics were often very highly decorated, made of precious metals, and trimmed with jewels.  Here are a couple in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

relic crosssilver arm


The reliquary on the left is Byzantine cloissone, late 8th century.


The reliquary on the right is French, 13th century, but added to in the 15th century.



You can read more about these here:


Also, a quick search in ArtStor brings up thumbnails of many more:


The author of this history blog puts Ambrosius’ bishopric into historical perspective, detailing how the saint stood up to several Roman emperors and potential invading forces, while creating his own rich court in Milan.


In this blog, a researcher tried to imagine himself making the journey of a merchant along the silk road around Ambrose’s time.



These sites discuss histories of the trade routes, the spread of the silk industry throughout Europe, and other materials traded along these routes.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art did two major exhibitions on the history and art of Byzantium.  We have the catalogs from these shows:

The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261, ed. by Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom.

4th floor, Art Reference N6250 .G55

This is the catalog from the first big exhibition at the MMA.

Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), ed. by Helen C. Evans.

4th floor Art Reference N6250 .B962

This is the catalog for the second big exhibition by the MMA.

Byzantium: from the Death of Theodosius to the Rise of Islam, by Andre Grabar.

5th floor, Main Stacks N6520 .G6923

This is an older history, but considered quite well done.

A History of Private Life, ed. by Philippe Aries and Georges Duby,

5th floor, Main Stacks GT2400 .H5713

The first essay in this book is about everyday life from the Roman Empire through the Byzantine.

The Oxford History of Byzantium, by Cyril A. Mango.

5th floor, Main Stacks DF552 .O94

This is a recently finished general history.

Studies in Silk in Byzantium, by Anna Muthesias.

5th floor, Main Stacks NK8908.8 .M87

Anna Muthesias is the recognized expert on Byzantine textiles and the workshops that produced them.

The Embodied Icon: Liturgical Vestments and Sacramental Power in Byzantium, by Warren Woodfin.

5th floor, Main Stacks BX341 .W663

This title examines vestments and their meanings.


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Is a Passion-for-Clothing shallow?


Image from HR Daily Advisor Article listed below

I have a lot to say about this, but my first reaction is to be dumbfounded that we are even having this conversation in 2014 when several respected institutions give M.A. degrees on the study of clothing (as material culture, generally), and clothing-related industries have formed the center of regional economies repeatedly throughout human history.

My second reaction is, “do you really need the illusion of world-wide consensus to argue this point?”  Because that’s what the authors of this book have essentially done:  They’ve crowdsourced their clothing-related memoirs as if having testimonials from around the world would make it somehow more valid to argue the social importance of our clothing.


Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m sold on the importance of clothing as a social marker, as personal expression, as an indicator of world industries, and so on.  None more so.  In a real sense, since I work at FIT and I research clothing as used at royal courts to express power, clothing is my life.  So why do we still have to argue this case?  Is it purely because since the 18th century, “fashion” is gendered “female business” and, therefore, “trivial”?  Still?  Is it because fashion week presents garments so outlandish that they can only really exist as theatre?  Is it because NYC, so integrated into the fashion system, is only vaguely an American city in the eyes of many Americans residing west of the Delaware?

I cannot answer these questions, but this question bears further discussion…  Of which much presents itself…



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The Future, as imagined in the past

So today I got an email from the British Museum, who have several really nifty blogs.


Not surprising, because they are a museum full of very nifty things.  Someone on staff had found an article, written in 1969, thinking about how the museum will be for patrons come 2069.

britmuseumSome of the guesses are remarkably similar to things that have happened, such as the “Ten Most Famous Objects in the British Museum”.  Books of this sort can be purchased in their bookstores,


whether you want a more detailed guide to the collections, or just a highlights book of the most famous items you saw.  This idea predicts both the “History of the World in 100 Objects” exhibit and podcast series that has been so wildly popular of late, as well as the fact that the museum is a destination for whirlwind “Greatest Hits” tours from all over the world,



and frequently spend very little time looking at lesser-known museum holdings  (e.g. the Mona Lisa being swamped at the Louvre with tourists taking selfies in front of her.)


And then there is the problem of how to handle the influx of students needing to make their scholarly mark:

“It is no longer possible, because of lack of space, to allow students to read for more than two hours a day, but the extension to 24-hour opening admits twelve shifts a day. Through the floor you can also see the amusing scenes when a Student’s two-hour meter runs out, lets out a loud alarm bell, and sets off a mechanism which propels him automatically out of the door if he has not left within 60 seconds.” “Saxo Japonicus”, alias of curator/author of this article

Pretty funny, huh?  But at least we grad students would get some archaeological experience!

Truth is, this is part of an ongoing debate.  Since the British Museum is one of the western world’s oldest public institution, they have some of the most experience in dealing with the public.  They bring this to the current debate, as we can read,


What should the museums and libraries of the future look like?

British Museum of the Future


You can follow the debate by keeping up with #museumofthefuture, @britishmuseum



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The history of the footie


Rattan football from Burma, collection of the British Museum
Rattan football from Burma, collection of the British Museum

Just when everyone in town has lost or triumphed with their favorite team, the British Museum gives us some historical context for this beloved contest.  How did we get here?  Take a look at what their curators have to say about it.


Says David Francis of the British Museum,

“Liverpool manager Bill Shankly’s famously said ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death …. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ His quote would have been more appropriate, however, if he’d been talking about the Central American ball game. Whereas in modern football a major penalty miss can result in a hate campaign from the tabloids, mistakes in the ballgame could be even more costly. Reliefs exist depicting the participants of the ball game being sacrificed after a match and some scholars think that playing the game was believed to be linked to the rising and setting of the sun.”

The museum has some terrific objects related to the different games that evolved around the world and combined into what the rest of the world calls “football”.


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Needles in the Stacks: Professional Sewing Techniques edition

Denise n Beth

This is a “Not for Beginners” post.  Today we’re working our way through a series of books aimed at demonstrating production sewing techniques.  What we’re looking for here are the kind of shortcuts that are used in garment mass production to streamline the process, yet still produce a well-made garment.  These methods allow one to put a garment together with little or no handsewing.  Frequently these are exactly the opposite of the couture sewing techniques in the books we reviewed last time.   (Remember that couture essentially means “custom made”.)

Professional Sewing Techniques for Designers by Julie Cole and Sharon Czachor

4th floor Art Ref and 5th floor Main Stacks TT505 .C65 2009

prof tech coleI really wanted to like this book.  I first came across it at the Fashion Bookstore on 27th, across from FIT’s campus.  It has a practical horizontal layout,  it’s relatively new, and it seemed to cover a lot of ground in a single volume.  But both Denise and I feel that it doesn’t provide the information its title promises.

The first half of the book talks the reader through the process of fashion design from trend research, fabric sourcing, sketching, all the way through production, using a tone aimed at the greenest non-sewing beginner.  However, the book introduces very little industry vocabulary, outside of some broad textile categories.  It includes some details about tools and machines, but these are covered more clearly in other beginning how-to sewing books.   It includes broad details about patternmaking and fabric properties which I would expect a student to get in more specialized classes, and in greater detail.

When this manual finally gets to “industrial” construction techniques, they are broken down by how they structure a garment, which is somewhat confusing (i.e. “Planning the Horizontal Edge”? for waist finishes) .  It covers many basic sewing techniques, but the images are mostly sleek fashion illustrations that don’t convey information well, or very squared-off diagrams which aren’t color-coded as clearly as they could be.   On top of being a bit too broad (in our opinions) of focus, this book is super expensive.  It might be helpful as a beginning book for someone teaching him- or herself, but Denise and I both felt we’d reviewed other books that presented more information more clearly and at much lower cost. (e.g. The Reader’s Digest Guide, for starters.  We keep coming back to you, oh, Reader’s Digest!)

N.B. a newer edition of this has just come out.  We’ll take a look at it in a future post!


Sewing for Fashion Design by Nurie Relis and Gail Strauss  

4th floor Art Ref and 5th floor Main Stacks TT715 .R44 1997 

relissewThis book was written by a leading light in FIT’s Fashion Design department.  She and a colleague (both long retired) were also responsible for a basic draping text that is still used “Draping for Fashion Design” with Hilda Jaffe, now newly revised.  This book has solid information about mass-production sewing.

I suppose the reason I’m so comfortable with this book is that it most nearly coordinates with the information I received in my FIT classes (I’m FD ’88).  Unlike the previous book, this one cuts directly to the tools of the trade, assuming you already know *how* to design.  Showing its age, however, it actually still includes hand stitches, which aren’t generally used in any kind of production anymore, outside perhaps the bridal and suiting markets.  Like many other books we’ve reviewed, this one includes a section describing different types of fabric.  This is difficult to understand without any images, however.  The most useful thing I found in this are the lists of “Summary of Assembling Procedures” (p. 72) for each sort of garment.   This workflow isn’t laid out so clearly in the “professional” construction manual we’ve just discussed.

The thing that hurts this book, sadly, is that it’s all black and white and all drawings.  I don’t know if this is because images were more expensive before today’s digital processing, or if, because it was a textbook, the publisher assumed a built-in audience who would buy it regardless, but it’s disappointing.   Also, probably because it was originally a textbook, it seems disproportionately expensive for the amount of text it contains.  Denise and I concluded that this book has some good information, but it’s not the reference text we are looking for.


Industry Clothing Construction Methods by Mary Ruth Shields

4th floor Reference Desk, directory A (ask at the desk) TT515 .S53 2011

desk a cloth constDespite being textbook-priced instead of home-sewer priced, and despite being printed in black and white, this book provides more of the information we expected to find when we began looking at books aimed at the trade.  Ironically, this one states up front that it’s intended to be a textbook for a student beginning to work in the fashion industry.

We both liked this book.  The images in it are clear and organized so that each is near the  technique described.  Like the Cole & Czachor “Professional Sewing Techniques” (reviewed first in this post),  this book begins with an introduction to the industry.  The difference is that this book provides industry vocabulary, outlining the divisions of manufacturing, some history of recent industry changes, how the buyers and merchandisers fit in, and some up-to-date explanations of production technology.  It also explains price points and classifications as well as fabric finishing and production, information that seems crucial to any understanding of fashion design as a profession.  It also includes good industry profiles of designers and companies the student is probably already familiar with.  I especially liked the guide to industry machinery.  Many of the other books we’ve reviewed are aimed at the home sewer, but this is a really good explication of industrial processes and workflow from a manufacturer’s point of view.

This book does include sewing instructions, although they are only printed in grayscale with one color.  But the instructions seem more matter-of-fact and clear, and they include the types of thread and fabrics appropriate, how to troubleshoot mistakes, and practice exercises along with the workflow flowcharts I like so much.  This book may not include as varied techniques as the Cole & Czachor but it offers more concentrated doses of the information a beginner in the industry would really need.  While I would still continue to refer to my “Singer Guide…” and my “Reader’s Digest…”, this seems the best focused on actual industrial methods of mass production.

The one drawback to this book is that the printing is only 2-color, so the photos are all black and white and the diagrams are all black-gray and one or two shades.  The illustrations are good, but lack the clarity of some of the photography in other books we’ve liked.

Sewing for the Apparel Industry by Claire Shaeffer

4th floor Art Reference TT515 .S4845 2012

shaeffer textbkThis book is clearly a textbook, but the information within serves several specializations.  Much of it is directed at design students, but it also includes details about industry machines and their functions.  It includes order of stitching operations and production paperwork that would be more in the purview of a production manager.  This is a useful and thorough book that could be a useful reference through several fashion-business and design courses.  It includes instructions for working with knits, and a chapter (new, apparently) on how-to basics for beginning sewers.

Denise and I dislike the computer-generated illustrations, but they are clearer than some other books’ because they are color coded for right-side/wrong-side and the added notions.  The techniques shown are workroom techniques with heavy (almost exclusively)  machine stitching.  This strikes me both as an excellent textbook for a  fashion student, and a useful resource for the semi-professional home sewer.


Guide to Basic Garment Assembly for the Fashion Industry by Jayne Smith

4th floor Art Reference TT497 .S57 2013

smith basic garmentThis could be a useful book for those who wish to design, but need to first acquaint themselves with the sample room.  Unlike many of the others reviewed here, this is a very basic book, focused solely on production machinery and construction of basic garment parts.  It covers seams, machine attachments, specialized stitches and threads, and includes a trouble-shooting section with pictures of stitch-formation problems and instructions to adjust equipment to avoid these.  Unlike some of the other titles reviewed here, this book addresses only the most basic of techniques.  For this reason, it would be an ideal textbook for AP 143.

The most helpful thing about this book is that each photograph of a stitch or seam type includes a cross-section drawing of the layers in each operation.  While it is illustrated with line drawings and photographs, many of the photos are dimly lit, or the samples shown are in muslin, which makes it difficult to determine the fabric layers in play.  This is a good basic book, but, unlike some of the others, visually it is rather bland.  Also, because it was published in England, all calculations are presented in metric.   While this title is a basic textbook for a basic industrial design/sample techniques class, the Shaeffer book reviewed above is a more useful all-around manual that will get a student through more advanced classes as well as the first.


Garment Construction Guide, by the Union Special Corporation, Technical Training Center, Huntly, Illinois

4th floor Reference Desk directory A, TT520 .G27 1983

At the other end of the spectrum from beginner how-to books is this manual, produced to provide manufacturing stitchers with the stitching order for regularly-produced garments.  This book is fascinating partly because it’s all diagrams and statistics, and partly because it’s so comprehensive.  Each diagram shows a flat sketch of a garment.  Then there are smaller drawings with arrows detailing the type of seam and seam finish for each construction detail.  The Operations list that accompanies each of these sketches is a simple list of numbered instructions like “1. Make hip pocket tab” or “10. Tack label to neck opening”.  Then follows some numerical information that includes the type of seam, the estimated number an operator can make in an hour, and more machine model information for each stitch.

sewing_instruction_mens_coat1smThere are roughly 200 garments “exploded” like this in this manual, so that a new stitcher can understand how each garment should be produced.  The second volume of this is an updated version (1997), where the illustrations are less detailed (and look computer generated) and the construction workflow instructions are listed on a “cutters must” form.

The Union Special company manufactures industrial sewing machines.  This book was apparently designed as part of the training programs they set up in the early 1970s.  You can find out more about their company on their website,


After I’d added in this image from the more recent volume, I read in the caption that this book is still available, so we will be looking to see if there is a newer version we can add to the library’s collection.


Shirtmaking: Developing skills for fine sewing  by David Page Coffin

4th floor Art Reference TT612 .C64 1998  (copies of an earlier edition are on 5 Main)

shirtmaking cof

Both books by David Page Coffin (see below) have great visuals.  Denise and I both liked the fact that each book’s focus on a single type of garment allows the author to present more specialized construction details.  Also, unlike most of the works we’ve reviewed so far, this one has menswear construction techniques.  Men wear clothes too, so this seems fairer, doesn’t it?  This is a great in-depth book about shirting.  It includes real size patterns for multiple collar and cuff shapes as well as construction techniques only applicable to .  Denise didn’t care for some of the line drawings (illustrating proper fit and how to drape from scratch), but the construction sections show clear step-by-step instructions.  The volume also addresses different fitting and shaping options, and includes directions for  “rubbing off” a pattern from a shirt you already have.  Unfortunately, this book relies more heavily on line drawings than on photos, but the author clearly has taken advantage of newer publishing resources by the time he produced the next book below.


Making Trousers for Men and Women: A Multimedia Sewing Workshop by David Page Coffin

4th floor Art Reference TT605 .C65 2009

trousers cofDavid Page Coffin’s more-recent book on pants is everything Denise and I want in an instructional book:  It has color illustrations that are coded to make fabric layers clearer. It also has more well-photographed sequences for each instruction, broken down and labeled clearly for the less-experienced stitcher.  The difference between these two volumes (this and the shirts volume above) is noticeable.  We hope that each publication from him will continue this trend.  And if you enjoy making pants, we highly recommend this book!




High Fashion Sewing Secrets from the World’s Best Designers by Claire B. Shaeffer 

4th floor Art Ref and 5th floor Main Stacks TT515 .S484 1997

shaeffersecretsThis book is neither fish nor fowl.  It contains more finishing techniques than the couture-handwork books we reviewed last time.  Most of the techniques included here are machine-done, but they still represent better garment techniques that an ambitious home sewer might want to incorporate into his or her work.  The illustrations are clear, with color clearly designating layers and photographs of finished garments incorporated.  I like the way this book is laid out.  I just don’t know if it expands sewing knowledge in a unique way.  Much of the information is duplicated elsewhere, although it’s all done very well here.  The target audience is still a home sewer using a pattern, although instructions are included to augment a pattern as needed (such as how to draft a lining pattern from a jacket).  If I had to choose books, I probably would leave this one out of my purchasing plans, even though the material is well presented, because I have most of the techniques listed in other, more comprehensive books.

If you’ve read this far, you are a tough-minded individual who *really* enjoys sewing!  We’re going to stop for now, and wish you a good few weeks.  We’ll keep on reviewing our (HUGE) how-to collection, we promise.  But for now, we’ll let your eyes rest a bit.





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