Saturday, July 3, 2010

ramble: damask, the aristocratic, immortal textile

Damask is a figured, reversible textile, usually silk satin or velvet, historically used to make tablecloths, napkins, curtains, wall coverings, furniture coverings, gowns, waistcoats, robes, etc. The most familiar damask patterns are stylized florals or are otherwise organic in appearance--acanthus leaves, scrolls, pinecones, pomegranates, and shells are all common--but the motifs may also be of animals or even detailed scenes.

Damasks could be any colour dyes allowed. Most damasks are monochrome, with a shiny pattern against a dull background (vice versa when flipped over), but polychromes, including those with metallics, are also possible.*

The name "damask" supposedly refers to the city of Damascus, but this, of course, may be apocryphal. Technically, the term refers to a particular weaving technique, one of five traditional types in the early medieval Middle East. However, some early damasks (simple checkerboard patterns) date from the Roman era and the technique itself may have truly originated in eastern Asia.

Damask weaving fell out of fashion in Europe in the high medieval period, but by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the textiles were being produced in Italy. Thereafter damasks became fashionable throughout Europe. In England, for example, King Richard II wore silk damask, and in the mid-fifteenth century, one of King Edward IV's sumptuary laws decreed that no one below the rank of knight could wear the fabric. Damasks became especially popular in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Today, damask motifs conjure up images of the boudoirs of doomed queens and languishing courtesans.

I compulsively buy damask fabrics when I come across them and turn them into curtains, pillowcovers and tablerunners. I also own damask plates, mugs, candles and heaven knows what else. The recent interior design trend, which involves putting the pattern on everything, is hardly new! For damask inspiration, try a search of the Victoria & Albert Museum; you'll turn up all manner of textiles displaying various permutations of the motif. Take a look at this glorious Chippendale chair from 1772, covered in green damask. Ah, to dream of luxury.

* The pictured crimson-and-black damask is a modern damask from my fabric stash. It's really a false damask--it's faux-satin printed with faux-velvet, and it is not at all reversible. I don't think a real damask could even be stark black-on-red like this; reversible weaving just doesn't work that way (though I am not entirely sure, not being a weaver myself).

Here instead are two examples of lovely authentic monochrome damasks: crimson silk (1680-90, Italian) and yellow silk (1710, Chinese or English).

And (you may have noticed!) my blog's background is a damask-inspired motif designed and drawn by yours truly.

- Morgan, Krystal. "Satin Damasks of Renaissance Europe." Complex Weavers' Medieval Textiles 37 (Sept. 2003): 1-6. [available as a .pdf at link]
- V&A Collections [link]
- Wikipedia [link]

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