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Thursday, March 10, 2005


Silk is made from the unwound cocoons of a particular group of moths. The oldest silks date back to 1500 BCE in China, although the word “silk” in Chinese is known to be older than that. The establishment of the Silk Road between 140-60 CE marks the beginning of silk use in the West.

Silk feels gorgeous, however unless you are portraying someone extremely wealthy (and have all the accessories to go with your', 'outfit) it would not be recommended to make an entire garment out of silk. The most common use for silk in our era was for trims (collars, cuffs, and decorative accents).
Fabric Types

There are many types of silk available to us today, and they differ in quality and price, however the following are ones that are known to be of our period.

Noil (Raw Silk)
Often called “raw silk”, Noil is characterised by a nubbly texture and the subtle flecks that are actually particles from the silkworm’s cocoon. It has a muted sheen, resists wrinkles, is softer than linen and is excellent for clothing.
raw silk

This silk is soft, lightweight and lustrous with a smooth surface. It means “soft and downy” in Japanese and is a very versatile silk fabric.

Twill-faced patterned silk. This was the weave used in ancient Persian and Byzantine figured silks.


Silk is a fibre made of protein like wool or hair, therefore some detergents that are made to dissolve protein stains may weaken silk over time. It can be washed, however it is recommended garments be washed by hand. Try a baby shampoo or use soap which is different in chemical composition than a detergent.

Dry cleaning is optimal as some silk dyes used during manufacturing may lose their brilliance through normal washing.

How it is Made

Silk thread is obtained by carefully unravelling silk worm cocoons and reeling the silk onto spools. First the cocoons are soaked in water to make them easier to reel, then the start of each thread is found - one thread per cocoon. Michael Cook from Wormspit states that an ounce of reeled raw silk is equivalent to about 250 cocoons and can be created in an evenings work.

Silk can also be made by spinning. The cocoons need to be degummed and carded, much like wool.

Additional Information

Virtue Ventures - Silk
Winter Fabrics - Silk Types
Worm Spit

Natural Dyes

Many people believe that in order to look medieval, you can only use very plain, natural colours. It is actually possible to produce a myriad of colours using natural dyes, and even very bright ones.

The most difficult colours to dye are greens and very bright red, thus these colours were more expensive. Pure black and pure white were also very uncommon, where “black” is usually very dark with a brown or blue tinge and pure white can only be obtained through ', 'extensive treatment and sun bleaching.

A Viking black was created by mixing three of the most expensive dyes: cochineal, woad and weld. The Vikings also had their own method of creating brilliant white, however again it was very expensive.

If you are portraying a Byzantine peasant then you will wish to avoid purple. It was considered an imperial colour, and culturally only worn through special privilege and rank. A very wealthy Byzantine persona may consider wearing a small piece of purple cloth.

Other colours to avoid are very bright fluorescent colours; however some bright blues and yellows can be obtained. The image below demonstrates many colours that have been obtained using natural dyes that were available during the medieval period.
image by Jodi Smith

Dye Equivalent Colours
The following table highlight a selection of some of the more commonly known colours and a modern dye equivalent for obtaining this colour.

Indigo from murex5407319
Shellfish (non-specific)3007895
Weld and alum and urine7117784
Madder over Woad7237767
Madder and alkali9307184
Madder and copper8717446
Woad over weld6917769

Additional Information
Black in Period
Craft of Natural Dying
Dye Equivalent Colours by Regia Anglorum
Medieval Dyes