During the Victorian era (1837-1901 CE), ribbons were extremely popular. The women of this time loved the intricate woven ribbons that were made possible by the Jacquard looms and used them with abandon. The French and English were using ribbons to decorate household goods and clothing, including hats, shawls, parasols and reticules. Americans also used ribbon in their homes and clothing, but with more restraint. There are a couple of reasons why this was true. Some think it could be a result of early Puritan influences, or perhaps was a manifestation of the common anti-English sentiment of the times, or maybe it was because imported ribbons were expensive and hard to obtain. It is not really clear, but over time the American market has come to appreciate and use all types of ribbon.
One interesting early American experiment was the manufacturing of ribbon by a group in Pennsylvania. The Moldavian School for Girls taught ribbonwork and silk ribbon embroidery to their pupils and decided to make their own silk ribbons. They tried raising silk worms to provide the raw materials needed for the ribbons, but a harsh winter killed all the mulberry trees they had planted. Since mulberry leaves are the only food silk worms can eat, the venture did not last very long.
While this experiment did not go far, other more commercial interests took up manufacturing ribbon with more success. In 1815 William H. Horstmann opened a plant that manufactured “all sorts of trimmings”, which included ribbons. In 1824 he brought the first Jacquard loom to America.
Modern ribbons are made of materials such as paper, candy, metal, jute and various synthetic materials, as well as traditional fabrics like velvet, silk and lace. Today North America is the largest importer of ribbon in the world. Although we do use ribbons to decorate clothing and household items we use them for a lot more! Ribbons are used for everything from decorating our hair and our gifts, to keeping our money supply safe . Ribbons are used to honor actions and accomplishments, for dancing and in solemn ceremonies, as a sign of approval and quality, and to make statements and carry instructions . We even stitch with them! In the next part of this article I will look at how we came to use ribbon as an embroidery thread.
During the Rococo period in France (1740-1790 BCE), ribbons were very popular among the wealthy as they tried to strengthen their ties to the noble class. Fancy ribbons woven of silk and other expensive fibers were especially suitable for decorating clothing, and were used with abandon by those who could afford them. The ribbon’s elegant frivolity reflected the graceful playfulness of the Rococo movement. Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famous painting, ‘The Swing’ shows a woman of this period with ribbons decorating her hat, shoes, the edges of her sleeves and hem, and the bodice of her gown. She even has ribbons at her neck! It is a good example of how ribbon was used to decorate clothing of the French aristocracy. At that time a woman could change her dress up to seven times a day and each outfit required coordinating shoes and hair appointments, which were often embellished with ribbons. Ribbons were also popular with the men who wore huge rosettes made of ribbon on their coats, hats and shoes.
Ribbons played their small part in the economic unbalance that led to the French Revolution. Although the common people were in desperate need, wealthy men and women adorned themselves with as many expensive ribbons as they could get their hands on. Then the citizens of France had their turn. During the revolution, ribbons were used to identify who was supporting the common citizenry and who was supporting the aristocracy. Cockades of red, white and blue ribbons were adopted as the symbol of support for change. Perhaps we could consider these cockades to be the ancestors of modern ‘awareness’ ribbons. During the revolution, it was unsafe to be seen in public without a cockade to show support for change. The demand for ribbons remained strong since all of the citizens of France were using ribbons for their own purposes.
At this time ribbons were woven as a cottage industry in France, England and Switzerland. A family could rent a loom and materials from a ribbon manufacturer and sell them back the finished ribbons. It was a slow process and this made ribbons very expensive. In 1801 a revolution occurred when Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a new type of loom. Jacquard looms wove cloth in intricate patterns using an automated punchcard system that lifted each thread individually. This punchcard system is credited as being the idea behind modern computers. The Jacquard loom totally changed the weaving industry and had a similar effect on the ribbon market. Jacquard looms produced multicolored fabrics with intricate weaves almost as quickly as they could weave plain fabrics. Within 15 years ribbon manufacturers had adapted Jacquard technology to allow multiple multi-colored ribbons to be woven at once. This loom shown is weaving sixteen souvenir picture ribbons at the same time. Ribbons were now cheaper and easier to obtain and soon became common items in the wardrobes and homes of ordinary citizens. Weaving ribbons one at a time was now obsolete.
Silk ribbon embroidery has a surprisingly short, but very interesting history compared to other stitching techniques. While the technique has not been around for long, the ribbons themselves have a very long history. In the first two parts of this series, I will cover the history of ribbon itself, then tackle the development of ribbon embroidery as an embroidery technique.
When people began to weave cloth, somewhere between eight and nine thousand years ago , they used the same materials and tools to weave narrow bands of cloth that we know as ribbons. Today, ribbons are defined by the textile industry “as a narrow fabric, and it ranges from 1/8 in-1 ft (0.32-30 cm) in width”. Early ribbons were used for practical things like tying together bunches of herbs and as closures on clothing. Ribbons were used to keep papers together as early as the 13th century, until this job was given to the paperclip in 1899 . Soon ribbons became decorative accents for personal items. Ribbons with both edges finished as part of the weaving process became common by the 16th century.
Ribbon was used in Asia far earlier than in Europe. In China ribbon was used in their traditional Ribbon Dances beginning in the Han Dynasty (206-420 CE). The dance was developed to honor Hsiang Po, who thwarted an assassination attempt on the Han Emperor. He used his long silk sleeve to block the sword of the assassin. The ribbons in the dance represent his sleeves and are waved around in graceful patterns. Originally the ribbons were attached to the sleeves of the dancers; later longer ribbons were attached to small sticks to add energy to the dance.
In Europe ribbons were very popular by the Middle Ages (500-1400 CE). They were used as decorations for anything from hair braids to shoes. Peddlers sold them as they traveled from town to town. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, he even mentions a ‘tri-colour riband’ stuck into the hats of Constance’s three escorts in The Frenchman’s Tale. During Renaissance times (1400-1550 CE), silk that had traveled from the Orient along the Silk Road was being woven into ribbons along with other precious metals, like gold and silver. Within a hundred years ribbons were covered by sumptuary laws, which restricted their use to those who were noble. During the time of the Reformation, many Huguenot ribbon-makers fled France bringing silk ribbon weaving to Basel Switzerland. The area soon developed into a major ribbon-manufacturing hub that is still known for high quality ribbons with lovely delicate designs.