Precious metals have long been used as status symbols, so it is no surprise to find them adorning prestigious royal and religious textiles. Even though metal thread embroideries and weavings have been desired by pharaohs, queens, and sultans for centuries, they have also been found in Asian court repositories and medieval tombs.
Metallic cloths, although cold to the touch and heavy to wear, are prized for their sparkle and sheen. Imagine sunshine on the silver thread in an Indian sari, or candlelight dancing on the embroidered inscriptions of a Muslim door cloth. Images of saints wrought in gold glimmer on the silks and velvets of a Renaissance chasuble (vestment). Even the military is not immune to this precious metal dandyism, with dress uniforms adorned with shining golden epaulettes, frogs and insignia.
Gold, which is highly malleable and rust-free, is the most expensive and prized of the materials, but it is rarely used in its pure form. Most often it is rolled into a cord, or pounded flat and wrapped around a silk or cotton core – called Passing. It can then be embroidered, twisted, couched or tied onto fine fabrics.
Some textiles are named for the content of the gold thread used, such as in the Siamese court. One of the most sumptuous and expensive cloths (often produced in India) was a silk and metallic thread brocade which contained more than 75% gold and was called “jer a bab.”
Types of metallic threads have exotic and evocative names like jaceron, lizerine, bullion, crimped purl, faconee, crinkle cordonnet, rococo, and soutache braid.
There is even a Thai hammered thread named for the shape of woman’s breast – แล่งนมสาว or “Lang-nom-saaw,” (“nom” = breast, “saw” = woman). This particular type of thread is similar to the one used in the Western Indian ladies slipper below.
Silver, copper and other alloys are also used in textiles, each type oxidizing and darkening in a different way. Cleaning metallic threads is a delicate process. A few very gentle and non-intrusive methods can often provide a little twinkle of what the textile once looked like. Unfortunately, it is not a permanent treatment, as all metals will continue to oxidize and tarnish.
What is your favorite metallic thread textile? Do you have a uniform with gold thread or a gown with silver filaments? We’d love to hear your thoughts.