18th Century Painted Silk

Editor’s Note: Join us at the Maryland Historical Society on Wednesday, August 12, at 11am as our Costume Interns detail their findings from this summer’s rehousing efforts! 

By: Anna-Maria Hand 

One of the most exciting pieces we've found in the collection is an 18th century dress made from hand-painted silk. Fascination with Eastern cultures was extremely popular throughout the 18th century. To have anything made in Turquerie, Indiennerie, or Chinoiserie styles gave an exotic appearance, and were coveted by the elite classes. Turkish rugs, ottomans, and Chinese painted fans and silks were some of the most desired objects to wear and have in the home. This particular dress shows evidence that the silk was made and painted in China, but the dress was most likely assembled in London.

Sadly, this amazing dress was found in poor condition, and will require extensive conservation work. The silk is splitting and there are losses throughout. Thankfully, the exquisite hand painted detail has mostly remained intact. The dress opens in the front and has no front enclosure.

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According to conservators at the Victoria and Albert museum, splitting is a common vice of painted silk, especially in green areas as copper-based compounds were used to make the color. Unfortunately, the silk is splitting and tearing in painted areas as well as non-painted areas, possibly because protein-based fibers disintegrate faster than plant-based fibers.


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The process of painted silk is quite intricate. Raw silk is non absorbent, so it has to be sized before it is used. A solution of glue and alum is used to make the ink and pigments stick to the silk. The silk is stretched and the sizing solution is applied to the silk. When it has completely dried, it is ready to be painted. An outline of the design is applied to the front, then the back is reinforced with white or black paint to ensure the color builds up properly. It is painstaking work, and requires a lot of concentration. Check out the video in the 'Read More' section below to see how Chinese painted silk is created.


Resources and Read More:

"1690–1815: Chinoiserie, Indiennerie, Turquerie and Egyptomania." The Berg Fashion Library. 2013. http://www.bergfashionlibrary.com/view/Geczy/Geczy0004.xml (accessed 7 Aug. 2015).

V&A Chinese Painted Silk Process

V&A Treatment of a Painted Silk Dress