Over the past couple of years, I have had to research silk quite a lot. When I started my French Silk Scarf shop it was simply because I had a passion for vintage scarves and especially those that were silk. I discovered others did too and the shop grew and grew.
With each find and purchase my knowledge has also grown. A very definite bonus as I love to learn new things. These days I can generally tell the age of a scarf by the type and quality of the silk. How the seams are finished. And even the design and use of colour. It turns out all of these play a part in telling it’s story.
A Little French History
I discovered that Lyon was and still is the centre of the silk business here in France. It all began centuries ago, officially turning into a manufacturing hub in the 15th century. It slowed to a halt during the French Revolution, when thousands of silk workers were guillotined.
It bounced back in the 1800s, during Napoleon’s reign, making up 75% of Lyon’s industry. Then in the 1830s there were two silk revolutions over worker conditions. Phew! Who knew French silk history was so bloody.
Today Lyon is still a centre in the silk world, with more diversification including restoration and working with the haute couture fashion houses, especially Hermès and Chanel.
The above is only a very brief summation. It’s a fascinating aspect of French history, particularly as most people associate French silk, and particularly scarves, with Paris. For more information there are several links to Lyon and it’s silk history below.
Within Lyon, yesterday and today, they still make silk and particularly scarves for the majority of the famous French designers. But Lyon also has a few of it’s own. Lesser known, but possibly of equal or higher quality to many you might get from Paris.
In buying scarves for my shop I fairly regularly come across (Pierre) Baccara, as well as Maison des Canuts, Canova, and Bianchini-Férier. Baccara is also doubly famous for getting in a trademark dispute with Baccarat. Maison des Canuts offer tours of their silk making facility. They, along with Canova, still make silk today. And the last, but not least, some would consider the crème de la crème of vintage silk and scarves from Lyon.
Founded in 1888, Bianchini-Férier has always been synonymous with quality and design. They have been and are associated with most of the biggest names in haute couture: Worth , Poiret, Doucet, Lanvin, Vionnet, Patou, Madame Gres, Carven, Nina Ricci, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, Jean Paul Gaultier…
Their hey-day was in the 1920s and their making of exotic silk fabrics such as crepes and georgette. They undertook all phases of silk manufacture in the Lyon region, from milling in Givors, weaving in Tour-du-Pin, dyeing and printing in Tournon. Bianchini-Férier printed and produced its own fabrics until 1982.
Types of Silk
There are many different types of silk, including silk mixes. Differences in silk can be related to types of silk worms, but also and more so to the type of weave.
Charmeuse and silk satin are prime examples of a satin-weave. Charmeuse is an easily recognisable example that you see very often in scarves from the 1950s, where one side is shiny whilst the other is matt like. Chiffon and crepe are a plain weave, giving them more of a matt texture. These two types of silks were particularly popular in the 70s and 80s.
When it comes to silk and scarves, there is a focus on: charmeuse, crepe-de-chine, georgette, chiffon, shantung (or raw silk) and silk satin.
Dating a Silk Scarf
I have a particular passion for scarves from the 1950s & 60s, with their hand rolled and sewn edges and uniqueness of design. The quality of silk from this era is superb, wonderfully thick (for silk). What is called a medium-weight silk.
The 1970s & 80s tend towards finer, lighter weight silks, raw silk and chiffon. More delicate in style, but still wonderfully long lasting. Hand rolled or serge stitched edges generally give way to machine stitched edges, except in haute couture.
And going back a bit, antique scarves tend toward more texture, whether in the silk or the design. Scarves, for both men and women, in the Victorian and Edwardian time lend themselves to singular solid colours, but with patterns and/or borders woven in. Advance into the 1920s and intricate beading becomes the rage as well as very large and colourfully printed shawls with fringe. The 1930s sees a shift from long and/or rectangular scarves to what we think of today as the more traditional square scarf.
Did you know? Vintage is classified as over 20 years old and antique is over 100 years of age. It is actually very rare to find an authentic vintage scarf in pristine condition. And even rarer an antique one.
If you are looking to purchase, particularly a designer scarf, be aware that if it is over a half a century old and the condition is ‘excellent’ ‘like new’, it is very probably a fake unless you are dealing with a trusted seller. Prices don’t always reflect this, but condition often will.
Further Research and Writings on our Website:
For more history of French silk in Lyon:
Clothes press – How Lyon became the heart of Europe’s Silk Industry
Aderly – History of Silk in Lyon
Silk Road Today – Lyon, Heart f the European Silk Industry
And for more information on types of silk:
Clothes-Press – A-Z of of silk types (including cleaning instructions)
Lily Silk – Several Silk Types you need to know
My Textile Notes – Difference among Chiffon, Crepe, Crepe-de-Chine, Georgette, Organza