Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Satin's Sheen

    These days satin fabrics are in eclipse.  They have moved in and out of fashion and desirability for hundreds of years, and will do so again, and again, as the dialog that is the Attire language proceeds to describe our changing feelings about ourselves over the centuries, and millennia.
    But there is something quite extraordinary about satin.
    First, you need to understand that satin is not a fabric, as we commonly understanding it to be.  Satin as a term refers only to a particular weaving pattern.  By definition a satin weave is four warp threads over each weft thread, or vice versa, four weft over four warp.  To give you a handy mnemonic, the weft goes to the left.  So, looking at a loom, the weft threads go side to side, while the warp threads run the length of the piece of cloth.  So a satin weave has four times as many threads running in one direction over the other, which is what gives it such a smooth, unbroken seeming surface.  Add to that the refractive capabilities of silk fibers, and you have a level of shiny that is nearly un-reproduceable.
    Now satin, as a fabric term, can encompass nearly any fiber known. Satin fabrics can be made in linen, cotton, wool, assorted synthetics, and of course, silk; because satin is really a weave structure, not a textile.  We have become used to referring to it as a fabric, but its a misunderstanding.  Just as we commonly think of cotton or linen as a fabric, we're wrong. Those are fibers that can be woven in myriad ways.  What defines a fabric, is both the fiber in use, and its weave pattern.  You'll pardon me I hope for getting a bit didactic. Its a bit of a sore point for the geek in me. (grin)
    So, back to satin.  The real origins of the weave go back to China, and are lost in time.  But as early as the Middle Ages in Europe, silk satins were available to the very wealthy, since they had to be imported from the East.  For centuries they were entirely the province of wealth and power, so, over time they've acquired a veneer of luxe, of exclusivity that they perhaps don't fully deserve any longer.
    What keeps satin fabrics the nearly entire domain of wealth, is the physical reality of their structure.  The closer you get to a one on one relationship between warp and weft threads in weaving, the more forgiving a textile is.  The further you get from that one to one, the more finicky and difficult a fabric becomes to work with.  Satin weave, with its 4 to 1 ratio, is devilishly hard to handle.  Every stitch much be precise; or it shows to disadvantage.  The reason, is that smooth, unbroken surface created by the structure of the weave.
    And satin fabrics can be woven in a number of different weights from the heaviest Duchesse satins to the lightest of lining satins.  So on top of its shiny qualities its a remarkably versatile weave, enabling suit coats to slip on effortlessly, ball gowns to have grandeur,  and cotton dresses to glide over slips.  It also creates a sense of inescapable luxury, when rendered with faultless perfection.  Paintings of titled ladies in satins, film stars in satin gowns, and clergy wearing lavishly embroidered satin vestments all partake in this image of perfect, glossy, unattainable beauty.
    What makes satin not a favored weave and type of textile these days?  Too much skilled labor is involved.  A single out of place stitch can ruin an otherwise lovely piece.  So satins must be worked slowly, and with care.  That's something the mass market isn't interested in.  No big surprise that we've been steered away from its gleaming sleek sexiness.
    So, if you find some divinely sexy thing in a satin weave, grab it.  You won't be sorry.  The feeling of being special is something remarkable.

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