Poor Man’s Gold
One of the most exciting things about being a textile conservator is that it allows one to closely observe the way an item is constructed and what it is made from. Often there is a surprise in store particularly when an unusual material is used. In 2011 when RAMM reopened after its redevelopment a stunning purple two piece day dress of the late 1860’s was put on display.
The interesting thing with this particular ‘dress’ was the embroidery material used to decorate the bodice and skirt – straw.
We know very little about this dress. Who wore it, who made it and even where it was made are speculative. It was thought to be French but there is a dress in the Galleria del Costume dib Palazzo Pitti that is reportedly Italian and is very similar in colour, style and date.
Straw used in the bonnet making industry was quite common when RAMM’s dress was made in the 1870’s. The straw in England (mainly a bread wheat Triticum aestivum) was split by drawing the hollow shaft through a hole sectioned off with numerous metal cutters so the shaft was cut into splints varying from about three to nine. They were then bleached with sulphur fumes and flattened before being plaited and the plaits stitched together to make the bonnet shape.
Straw embroidery is still something of a mystery. Why use straw? Described as ‘poor man’s gold’ it might be cheaper than gold but possibly more difficult to work with and certainly less robust. The large skirt worn over a crinoline would brush against doors and furniture; over time it can become brittle and then easily damaged by cracking.
It is ironic that the embroidery on RAMM’s dress depicts ears of wheat, wild oats and grasses but designs of the time show a fashion for botanical images.
Detailed analysis of the straw used for the embroidery has not been carried out but if the dress was made in Italy would the straw be the finer Triticum turgidum used in the Italian straw plait industry?
The straw here in this dress is also split and worked as an embroidery thread but how it was embroidered throws up more questions than answers. We can see the design has been drawn with a white pencil or crayon and the straw worked directly through the silk fabric. This would have been difficult to do without damaging the silk and unlike many forms of embroidery there is no re-enforcing layer underneath.
Before plaiting straw it needed to be soaked in water to make it pliable enough not to crack. This would need to be the case here but why are there nor tide marks on the silk caused during drying?
Straw is not the most ideal material for use in costume. The large skirt would brush against itself, doors, carriages etc. Over time it can become brittle and then damaged easily by cracking.