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History of the Ao Dai – The Asian Sewist Collective Podcast
Patterns & Designers mentioned
South Shore Romper by Ellie and Mac
Julia Tank Top by Seamwork
Clyde Pants by Elizabeth Suzann
Asian Love Banner Project by Happy Sew Lucky & Sewtopia
Hannah Dress by By Hand London
Fabric Stores mentioned
Sister Mintaka, UK-based, carries silk noil in solid colors
Makers Fabric, US-based, carries silk noil and charmeuse in solid colors
Unit – Chemistry of Textiles: Animal Fibres, University of the West Indies
The Special Properties of Silk, Unilever
How Is Silk Made? A Guide to Silk Production, Lalouette Silk
Silk, How It’s Made episode
History of the Silk Road, History Channel
History of silk, Wikipedia
Silk Fabric: How Is Silk Made And What Does The Silk Industry Look Like In 2020?, TruHugs blog
Silk Museum in Lebanon, features a gallery of pictures of silk garments from various cultures, as well as the silk production process
Silk Museum in Hangzhou, China
Suzhou Silk Museum and Factory in Suzhou, China. Note from our researcher, Cindy: I have been here and while it definitely functions mostly as a vehicle to get you to buy silk goods, the tour portion was actually fascinating as they take you through rooms showing all the steps of silk production. Worth a visit if you are in the area and aren’t bothered by hard sells.
Please note, we are a Bookshop.org affiliate, so we may make a small commission if you choose to purchase books via these links:
Textiles, Sara Kadolph
The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, by Kassia St Clair
Nicole: Just want to pause, I have never questioned whether I was pronouncing modal right?
Ada: I think you are.
Nicole: I don’t know if people say that modal, modal sounds fancy. It’s like tarjay.
Ada: Yeah, tarjay, modaaal.
Welcome to the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. The Asian Sewist Collective is a group of Asian people from around the world brought together by our shared appreciation for fiber and textile arts, and our desire to see more Asian representation in the sewing community. In this podcast, we explore the intersection of our identities and our shared sewing practice as we create a space for Asian sewists, and our allies. I’m your co-host, Ada Chen, and I’m recording from Denver, Colorado. Denver is a traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples. I’m a Taiwanese American marketer turned entrepreneur and these days you’ll find me running my own all natural skincare business called Chuan Skincare. That’s C-H-U-A-N, and sharing my marketing tips on my blog, The Cultivate Method. Most importantly for this podcast, you can find my sewing at @i.hope.sew on Instagram.
Nicole: And I’m your host, Nicole, I’m based outside of Chicago, the original homelands of the council of the three fires, the Ojibwe, the Potawatomi, and the Odawa people. I’m a Filipino American woman and a lawyer by day and a sewing enthusiast the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram at @NicoleAngelineSews.
Ada: Before we dive into this week’s episode, Nicole, can you tell us about your current sewing project?
Nicole: Yeah, I talked about doing a strike sew, and I’m working on a faux jumpsuit for that because you said you know jumpsuits are hot. But I’m like yeah, it’s nice to have a set of separates. I was going to say something about the bathroom. But let’s just leave it all in. It’s easier to go to the bathroom, right, with separates and I’ve never actually made separates, so Ada, you were walking me through like my options. So the fabric itself is a really smooth, soft bamboo lycra. And I’m obsessed with bamboo lycra right now and I want to go and grab all of the bamboo lycra whence our ban ends in a couple of days from the time of this recording. And the fabric itself. The design is a black and white geometric design, almost zebra-like. By the time this episode comes out, it should be on my grid. And the pants part of it is the bottoms of the Ellie & Mac South Shore romper, which I’ve made a romper before. And then I took the Seamwork Julia tank top as the top so worked out really well. How about you Ada, what are you working on?
Ada: Love it. Also love the terno sleeve that you’re wearing today. Listeners, you can’t see but it is fantastic. And you should go to Nicole’s grid to see what it looks like.
Nicole: Thank you.
Ada: I am working on or I just finished working on some Clyde pants by Elizabeth Suzann. And this is my second pair. And they were also a flaming hot garbage dumpster fire. Just like my first pair were. And I don’t actually think it has to do with the pattern this time. Or my fabric choice. It actually is the fact that I wasn’t looking carefully when I was cutting out the fabric. So I previously made a wearable toile out of the lightweight olive twill, it turned out to be way too big. So I sized down. I tried again on the next size down and Mariko, who’s also part of the Collective helped me with ideas on sizing because she does own these pants. And I squeezed it out of a yard and a half of leftover linen from Matchpoint Fabrics, RIP, that I had originally used for a tablecloth. It’s a beautiful rust color. That looks fantastic on my table, but I had a yard and a half left because I just didn’t know how long I wanted the table cloth to fall. And then when I was cutting my pattern pieces out of this yard and a half, which I think the pattern actually calls for two or a little bit more than two in my size, I possibly didn’t flip the pattern pieces over. And so I ended up with two you know of one leg and when you put those together, it doesn’t really line up and kind of the only way to put them together is to just have two front crotches instead of a front and a back crotch. So that’s what I did and they go on as pants. That’s the good news. But I now have a better appreciation. Yeah, they look like pants, but they probably won’t be using that much use or maybe I will adjust them slightly and give them to a friend or give them away. But a good learning experience on why a front crotch curve is different from a back crotch.
Oh, I did want to give out also a shout out to Elizabeth Pape, the designer behind Elizabeth Suzann who did kindly respond to my email request about expanding her size range. I believe this pattern only goes up to a 61 inch hip, if I’m remembering correctly, and she pointed out that she’s currently working on her size offerings, although it’s going to take her a few months and probably not be something she can launch until next year, because the current SKU count that she offers for physical products. So her different size variations in short, regular and long, all throughout her size range, and the color variations and fabric variations is just not sustainable for her team. But she pointed out that sewing patterns are a place where she can continue to offer all these different options without the limitations of carrying that physical inventory as a business owner so she said that was one of the most exciting things about offering sewing patterns, so I am excited to hopefully see her expand her size range even further in the future.
Nicole: Before we get started with today’s episode, we also want to give another shout out to the Asian Love Banner pattern created by Happy Sew Lucky s-e-w. And Sewtopia, the Asian Love Banner pattern is a set of banners or quote blocks designed in response to the increase in anti-Asian hate around the world. The project began with the finger heart block, which is a symbol of love when you make a heart with your thumb and index fingers. Ada is doing it on camera right now, and is commonly associated with K-pop. And then expanded the blocks to use the word love in multiple Asian and Polynesian languages. It includes many languages, but not all. Remember Asians aren’t a monolith. And there are many different languages under this umbrella. And we’re personally fans of the project since it is also a fundraiser: 100% of the profits will be going to a selection of organizations in North America that support various Asian communities. We’ll include a link in the show notes so you can check it out. And I know I’ve already bought the pagibig block and the love block and I think the heart block so Bhiravi will be proud that I am at some point in the future going to take a step in toward paper piece quilting even though it’s on a tiny scale.
Ada: I also bought the finger heart or the heart block with the love and I bought ai which is you know the word in Chinese for love except for silly old me forgot how many strokes are in that character even though I’ve been writing it for a very long time. And so that means more pieces to piece together.
Nicole: Well I can’t wait to see it.
Ada: I can’t wait to see yours. We can have matching banners.
Nicole: Maybe I’ll put it behind me. I mean nobody else can see it because this is a podcast but you get to enjoy it Ada.
Ada: That’d be cute.
Nicole: Welcome to our first textile episode, and in this episode we’ll be going over silk specifically silkworm silk or mulberry silk. Ada, have you ever worked with silk before?
Ada: I have worked with silk noil and sandwashed silk. So I made a By Hand London Hannah dress with tulip sleeves in the silk noil which was actually a wearable toile and is one of my favorite dresses in my closet now, because I love a good tulip sleeve and some pockets and I found it really similar to like a lightweight linen but with a little more texture. There’s like a little, there’s more nubs on it. If you’re familiar with the nubs that you sometimes see on linen. The sandwashed silk was actually made into a pajama set of a tank top and shorts, which was lined also, for my sister as a gift. That one, that’s fancy. It was so fancy because she was like I want these silk pajamas but they’re $300 and like, I hope that $300 is going to pay someone fairly for sewing these. But yeah, I guess we could go thrift some silk and I can make you a set, it was Christmas, too. And it was so slippery and shifty and just frustrated for a lot of the time and just talk about hard cutting and pattern pieces all over. How about you?
Nicole: I’ve only worked with a silk cotton blend before and pretty recently and I really loved it. The fabric itself was soft and super luxurious feeling but it’s sewed up like a cotton so it wasn’t this slippery, shifty situation. It’s just but I really loved it like the bamboo lycra. I’m kind of obsessed with finding like the silk cotton blend. But essentially I cheated and it was easy to work with.
Ada: It’s not cheating. It’s just taking a shortcut. So Nicole, what is silk?
Nicole: According to the University of the West Indies, Mona, silk is a natural protein fiber. So it’s naturally occurring like cotton and linen but it’s a protein fiber in that it comes from an animal source rather than plants like wool comes from an animal source.
Ada: So it’s pretty unique is what you’re saying?
Nicole: Yeah, totally. And it’s also the only natural fiber that comes in a filament length. That is the fibers are super long themselves, up to 3000 meters compared to other natural fibers that are only measured in inches. Because of this, the woven fabric ends up being stronger and smoother than other natural fibers. And they can also be woven tighter than natural fibers. This is why silk has such a nice drape to it instead of being super structured.
Ada: And silk has been around for a very long time. Silk thread and fabric remnants have been found dating back to the Neolithic times in China with the oldest sample dating to 3630 BCE, and it eventually spread to surrounding Asian countries like India around 2000 BCE, Thailand around 1000 BCE, and then eventually Korea and Japan around 300 AD, and eventually the Byzantine Empire around 550 AD.
Nicole: And up until that time, silk was really expensive because it could only be acquired through trade in Asia. A collection of routes leading from China and India to the Mediterranean called the Silk Road was used by traders to bring silk from China to the West. Of course, traders also brought other types of things like spices, paper, gunpowder and knowledge. Trade between Central Asia and the Roman Empire began during the Han Dynasty around 200 BCE. Trade continued until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire officially shut down trading with China.
Ada: Speaking of expensive, silk was originally reserved for the ruling family and some favored nobles as sericulture methods, or the production of silk, became more efficient, the use of silk became more widespread and eventually became a form of currency and even a popular diplomatic gift. And the use of the silk radical, which is a component of a character became an integral part of the Chinese written language. And for listeners who are unfamiliar, and I’ll try to explain this as clearly as I can. But I am not a scholar in kind of the history of characters in the language, I just know how to read and write.
In written Chinese we use characters instead of letters to form words or phrases, and a radical is a component of a character. It’s kind of like a part of the alphabet. And each character has like a base radical that you use to sort of in the dictionary, or refer to it and you put together multiple radicals to make one character, which equates to kind of like one word or one phrase, although it’s not necessarily always like that one to one ratio.
Now back to silk, silk was still pretty expensive, even with some more sophisticated production methods. And because of this, the Byzantine Empire sent monks to spy on and steal trade secrets, espionage.
Ada: Oof is right. And they smuggled silkworms and were able to establish a lower grade silk production, but the use of silk was still limited to the imperial family, so higher quality silks were still desired and imported from China. In the 1100s, the Crusades allowed for the start of silk production in Italy, which resulted in more readily available so for the non oil rich people out there. In Leon, France and Spitalfields England there were, they developed production facilities before silk as well, but they were never really large enough to rival Italy and Asia.
Nicole: So did silk originate in China.
Ada: So silk was produced in other places, but we strongly associate it with China because of their scale of production and the historic monopoly they had on silk destined for the Western markets. Nowadays, China is still the biggest producer of silk in the world with over 50% of global production, followed by India with about 20% of production then Uzbekistan, Brazil, Iran, Thailand, and Vietnam. There are even Chinese legends and Confucian traditions that credit the discovery of silk to Empress Leizu, the wife of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor. And it’s said that a silkworm cocoon fell into her hot tea which then dissolved and she had a little dead silkworm in her tea. And she saw that that just dissolved the sericin. And when she pulled it out of her tea, it became a fiber so she decided to charge spin it and she is also credited with the invention of the silk loom.
Nicole: Well, that story isn’t too far off from how silk is actually produced either. The bombyx mori larvae or silk worms are fed mulberry leaves growing several 1000 times larger until they’re ready to pupate. So back to middle school science class. pupating is the stage where the worm undergoes transformation and they usually are enclosed in a cocoon or protective covering. The worms are allowed to pupate for about a week on a specially designed stacking tray and then killed by boiling or steaming. So that’s the tea right there. The cocoons can then be sorted for quality and boiled again to dissolve the sericin and loosen the filaments in preparation for reeling where machines or people unwind the long filaments. So, these are what did we say 3000 meter long filaments and they can then be spun into yarn, dyed and woven into fabric. Now, while silk does come from a quote, organic source, the dyeing and treatment process can result in environmental damage when production is unregulated,
Ada: Right. So, even though silk is a natural product, it isn’t quite sustainable, is it?
Nicole: No, not really. The normal silk worm life cycle has to be interrupted just to make the silk fibers. When the cocoon is boiled or steamed it kills the larvae, kills the animal. The fibers from the cocoons are unwound for self production, not to give an example of just one silk sari, which is five to 10 yards or four and a half to nine meters, depending on the size requires 10,000 silk worms. And for another reference, according to PETA, it takes 3,000 silkworms to produce a single pound of silk. And that’s about a half a kilo for our non-US listeners. And on top of that, some post production treatments include environmental and health concerns, many silk producers will add heavy metal salts and synthetic resins to add weight to the fabric.
Ada: Right. So it’s kind of like how many fabrics, even denim, for example, are treated with chemicals that may not be so great for us. And I guess the issues with silk production don’t just stop at sustainability. Like you just mentioned. There are health concerns for the post-processing treatments. And there’s also human rights issues right. Workers have to put their hands into vats of hot, almost boiling water to grab the cocoons and then the process of extracting the silk fibers from the cocoons and winding the threads is just extremely labor intensive, right? And the silk industry has been linked to child labor and other human rights issues.
Nicole: And even though there are problems with modern production of silk, other alternatives to silk also have their own slew of issues. So for example, the cheapest alternatives nylon and polyester are known sources of microplastics. And they’re not breathable. Rayon, which was first called the artificial silk quote unquote, has a similar drape readability and lightness, but also isn’t as strong or resilient as silk. The manufacturing process of rayon also may result in environmental damage, similar textiles to rayon like viscose, lyocell, sometimes known by the brand name Tencel, and modal use wood pulp to turn into a textile. Unfortunately, this process uses harmful solvents and the chemicals are not captured or reused. Lyocell and modal are probably the most sustainable alternatives. Chemicals are used in production but are free from harmful solvents. And the processes are closed loop which means the chemicals are captured and reused over and over again. Wood pulp raises concern about sustainability issues because of the source of the wood. But lyocell brand Tencel is a certified form of lyocell that is guaranteed to be made from sustainable wood pulp. If you’d like to learn more about Tencel in particular, the podcast Love to Sew has a whole episode about it. It’s in Episode 181, which we’ll link in our show notes.
Ada: I love Sewing with Tencel and lyocell and it’s so lovely to work with. And there’s a lot more to alternatives like there’s soy silk, which is a silk like fabric manufactured using soy residue from producing tofu, but that uses formaldehyde which we know now is a carcinogen in the production process. So not so great. Other alternative fiber silks tend to be difficult to source and are extremely expensive, such as orange silk, aptly named for citrus processing leftovers, bamboo, silk, micro silk, and even Lotus plant silk, which can be, our producer Shilyn looked this up, 10 times more expensive than silk, which is already expensive due to the limited amount of craftspeople that can weave it.
Nicole: I have to say I am totally interested in orange silk and Lotus plant silk. I’m definitely for paying more in order to make sure that the people who are making these fabrics are getting more but I don’t even know where to find orange silk so maybe we’ll if I if and when I do. We’ll have to report back and see that but I’m glad we have all these silk alternatives nowadays.
Ada: Oh yeah. Fabric shop owners, are you listening?
Nicole: Get your orange silk!
Ada: Yeah, get some orange silk we want to see it! I am the same way I will pay more for a product that I know has come from an ethically sourced and sustainably produced source.
Nicole: I wonder if it smells citrusy. I’d be fine with that.
Ada: Yeah, I’d be down with that. It’s like natural perfume in your clothes.
Nicole: Okay, well we digress. Folks get on orange silk. Let’s figure this out. But for a while silk wasn’t available for home garment making because of the costs and also the perception of difficulty in both home sewing and care of the garment itself, as well as association with high end and special occasion use. When man made silk alternatives became available silks use in everyday garments became more rare. The increased focus on the sustainability of fossil fuel based fabrics and the microplastics they shed has led to a resurgence of the use of silk.
Ada: So depending on the type of silk there are a lot of different uses for them. For example, the lightest silk textile is chiffon which is very light drapey and sheer, you might recognize it for its crepe-like texture. It is ideal for evening wear, when you’re feeling fancy and lingerie, but because it’s so drapey it’s, also take it from my personal experience, very difficult to work with because of how shifty and slippery it can be.
Nicole: And georgette is similar to chiffon too, but it is more stable and not as transparent so it has the same uses as chiffon but might be easier to work with because of its stability.
Ada: And then you have organza which is a stiff, stable and still somewhat transparent textile, it is ideal for underlining without adding bulk. This technique is frequently used in tailoring to add structure to lightweight jackets or for stability when you’re making pockets or buttonholes. organza is also very popular for special occasion wear.
Nicole: And maybe our producer on this episode, Shilyn can correct me if I’m wrong. I believe organza is used oftentimes to underline terno sleeves in terno makes for the Philippines and she says yes!
Ada: That’s cool.
Nicole: I have not lined with organza.
Ada: What did you line with?
Nicole: This is just a straight interfacing. It’s like a super stiff interfacing. And the reason why it’s curved again listeners can’t see it’s curved right now because I didn’t I didn’t press the interfacing flat and also it’s curving around my arms.
Ada: You didn’t press it flat when you were sewing?
Nicole: I didn’t, I don’t know what that was okay, but yeah, I don’t know if that would necessarily have helped for this because it does curve but we’ll see and then maybe this will be a video clip that we show people I mean just like talk like touching my sleeves. Anyways back to other types of silk. So we left organza and now habotai is still slightly sheer, crisp and also a good practical silk for clothing. It can be sand washed which is a process by which silk is treated for a more peach skin like texture, similar to suede. And some ready to wear brands advertise quote washable silk which is actually sandwashed silk.
Ada: Yeah, I used to, before I learned how to sew, sandwashed silk or washable silk was kind of my go to for like work office wear that was still light and breezy and breathable. But then I learned about what sandwashing is and I decided to stop doing that. And I also learned how to sew. So back to back to the types of silk: charmeuse silk is satiny on one side and peach skin like on the reverse it’s very drapey and liquid like making it ideal for a special occasion wear, but it is also difficult to work with. One tip for charmeuse is to cut it out as a single piece, not folded, and sandwich it between tissue paper for better handling.
Nicole: I need to try sewing with tissue paper with the lighter stuff. Have you done that before Ada?
Ada: No, because I just have like, it makes me kind of anxious to have to pick out the little bits. I don’t know if that’s what’s holding you back. But that’s definitely what’s holding me back.
Nicole: I mean, the last time I worked with something that probably called for using the tissue paper method and the machine was eating my stuff. I haven’t worked with something like that since. So I’m going to try it next time.
Ada: I may try hairspray, only on things that you can wash it out of but hairspray is a good, it’ll just shellack your hair right back. There’s no reason why it won’t do the same for fabric.
Nicole: Fair. That makes a lot of sense. So we’ll have to report back on all these little things that we’re going to try as a result of learning about silk from this episode. Now crepe de chine is not as lustrous as charmeuse but it is drapey and also appropriate for a special occasion wear.
Ada: Then you have taffeta, which is having a little bit of a moment right now, if you follow ready to wear trends or Gen Z kids on TikTok. Taffeta is a tightly woven silk which gives it a crisp paper light quality to it. It has an excellent rustle which is that sound, you know when two fabrics kind of rub against each other, trying to rustle. Nicole’s, yeah, yeah, you’re rustling. And taffeta has historically been used for voluminous Victorian skirts, if you follow any costumers, they use taffeta so beautifully. And it has, like I said, also been quite popular in ready to wear. Maybe also in special occasion and bridal wear, because that’s where my mind is.
Nicole: Yeah, I guess I need to figure out what the kids are wearing these days. And how taffeta is part of everyday wear because I think prom, I think wedding, I think special occasion. But now I’m thinking like tutus on rollerskates or something right now.
Ada: There’s like, really cool taffeta corsets and, and separate pieces that are being made. And I’m questioning how the longevity, you know of those pieces. But they look cool. So maybe we will all attempt it one day.
Nicole: I do like things that look cool, but maybe I need to get on the TikTok and see what all the kids are talking about these days Oh gosh. So what else do we have here. So there’s other types of silks too. We have a dupioni or shantung and that is crisp,lustrous and slubby. It’s woven with two different thread weights to give it that slight iridescent sheen. And dupioni can be woven with different colors as well to get a multicolored sheen depending on the angle and it’s often used in bridal wear and home decor and probably we’ll see it on TikTok with the Gen Zers.
Ada: Silk twill is relatively stable but still pliable. And it’s a diagonal weave silk. So it’s frequently used for blouses or dresses.
Nicole: And velvet. So velvet silk has a very luxurious feel and is a medium to heavy weight. So that’s a bit hot to be thinking about for me right now. But you know, it makes for gorgeous garments, but it’s really tricky too. So besides the usual considerations that come along with working with plush napped fabrics. Silk velvet also retains any needle hole and the pile is crushed pretty easily. So extreme care must be taken to only sew once and use a velvet board for pressing or steaming. Now, it’s important to note that not all velvet is made of silk. Like we mentioned earlier, there’s loads of alternatives to silk that includes velvet fabric, which has a smooth nap and a shiny appearance.
Ada: And finally, there is silk noil which is, which I mentioned before and it’s made from leftover fibers from the spinning process. It has a rougher texture than you might expect for silk. But it’s also more stable, resilient and affordable and quite frankly, way easier to work with. Think of it as any other very lightweight woven.
Nicole: I’m interested in checking out noil right now as well.
Ada: It’s like, if you love linen like I love linen, you will love silk noil.
Nicole: All right, well so with all of these different types of silks, there are a ton of options to choose from. And you’ll be able to figure out something for your next project if you want to start to dabble in working with silk.
Ada: Exactly. And while there are tons of different places where you can find silk locally or online, we did want to highlight some Asian-owned fabric stores that sell silk. Sister Mintaka, located in the UK, (Hey Sandeep!) has a selection of silk noil in solid colors and Makers Fabric, which is located in the US has a selection of silk noil as well as charmeuse in solid colors.
Nicole: We’ll have links to the shops in our show notes. And don’t forget we also have an Asian -owned sewing businesses directory on our website. So if you’re not on there, and you have a business that is geared toward providing patterns, fabric, notions to other sewists, let us know and we’ll be sure to add you on there. Be sure to check out our directory and support Asian-owned businesses with your next sewing project.
Ada: Thank you so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast. Next week we will be talking about Disney’s animated movie Raya and the Last Dragon, which will be the first episode and an ongoing series called Asian Dress in Pop Culture. If you like our show, you can support us by following us on Instagram at @asiansewistcollective. That’s one word Asian Sewist Collective. And you can also help us by spreading the word and telling your friends. We would appreciate it if you could rate review and subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcasts, PocketCasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. All of the links and resources mentioned in today’s episode will be in the show notes on our website that’s asiansewistcollective.com. And we’d love to hear from you. Email us with your questions, comments or even voice messages if you want to be featured on a future episode at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nicole: This episode is brought to you by your co-hosts Ada Chen and Nicole Angeline. This episode is researched by Constance Chien and Cindy Chan, produced by Shilyn Joy, and edited by Leslie Rehm Hunt and Henry Wong. Thank you so much to the other members of our Collective who made this week’s episode a reality. This is the Asian Sewist Collective podcast and we’ll see you next week.