Sunday, August 7, 2016

Fashion Victims - Poisonous Pigments : Arsenical Greens

A Killer Green Gown

These represent green shades popular in fashion.  They are not toxic pigments
This is the second excerpt from  Alison Matthews Davis” book, Fashion Victims.  The first excerpt, 5/28/16, recounted the health risks posed by the long skirts worn by fashionable women. The skirts dragged on the ground, through the filthy streets of large cities and, of course, were then worn within the household, bringing with them all manner of pathogenic ( or at least, undesirable ) elements.

Fashion Vistims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Aloson Matthes David, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015 

The topic I present now is of a pigment popular in the 1800’s which, while perceived as very attractive, was also very, very toxic.  The first dyes were made from natural materials: madder root, cochineal exoskeletons, mollusk shells.  While many colors could be produced from recipes using natural elements, there were some that were less than satisfactory.  One of these colors was green.  Green was produced as a compound color, that is the combination of two colors, yellow and blue.  Perhaps you have seen old textiles where the blue component has faded and the “green” has become a
poor example of its former self.  Chemists were constantly trying to introduce new hues for the new technology of aniline dye production. Better Living Through Chemistry as one future chemical company would motto a century later.

In 1778 Carl Wilhelm Scheele published his work on a green pigment he created by mixing potassium and white arsenic with a solution of copper vitriol (a sulfate of copper).
Yes, you read correctly..arsenic. In 1814 a more saturated green hue was synthesized from copper acetarsenite and called by various titles.  It was widely used for fabrics, children’s toys and even candies.  It was also produced as a pigment in oil paints.

Women were tired of the dull-colored clothing that was commonly worn and the introduction of  fresh green hues was most welcome.  The dye was used not only in fabric production but also in accessories such as shoes, and most widely in artificial floral wreaths of fruits and foliage worn as hair adornments and  large broaches. 

It had been noted for some time that workers who produced the artificial foliage suffered from debilitating ulcerations on their faces arms and legs.  Rashes appeared along the necklines of women wearing green gowns and there were  reports of children dying from eating ( or trying to eat) artificial fruits which appeared in baskets set upon tables in Victorian parlors.

Efforts were made to assuage the fears that soon were voiced by consumers.  Apparently, “this is not arsenical green” became a disclaimer, but was it, or was it not?  Eventually by the 1870’s, other green pigments replaced the copper arsenic compounds.

Why would anyone purchase, much less wear, something that was so very dangerous?   It was well known that arsenic was used as a pesticide and that it was toxic if ingested.  Although there were many fallacious  theories concerning disease and cures, surely, there should have been some heed paid to those physicians and chemists who warned of the danger.

Thinking of today’s times, there are still those who ignore the warnings that appear on tobacco products.  The question would be, is it worth being stylish?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Reference Book- Not New but Fabulous

Another Reference for My Library

If you are a frequent reader of my blog, you know I have a great fondness for my reference library.  I love textile books almost as much as the textiles themselves.  I know historians are always searching for more reference materials and haunt libraries, bookstores and vintage shops for more information.  I try to keep up with new publications in the field of textile history, but must admit it is a daunting task.  When I first began my studies nearly 3 decades ago there was little available, now there are books available in nearly every category of textiles and textile production.  One volume, published in 2010 I missed and only recently found in the library.  Occasionally, I search the library of the Santa Fe Community College after my biweekly Yoga class and, although their collection is not extensive, it does contain some very interesting and informative volumes.

Classic and Modern Fabrics - The Complete and Illustrated Sourcebook, Janet Wilson, Thames and Hudson, 2010

I own several encyclopedias of textiles but found Classic and Modern Fabrics- The Complete Illustrated Sourcebook to be more inclusive than any others I have.  It is indeed a “complete sourcebook”.  According to the introduction, the aims of this book include: preserving the knowledge of classic fabrics while providing information of new textile developments.  Also, explaining the characteristics of various types of fabrics and their construction is valuable knowledge.

Some other features include: Fabrics in alphabetical order as well any alternative names,  such as HOPSACK (basket cloth).
                                                Principal features of the fabric for identification and details about fibers, construction and history.
                                                 Fabric weights and yarn counts and weave diagrams for a greater knowledge of construction.
                                                  Finally, what I always appreciate in any reference, a detailed glossary of technical terms and a section of sources for any additional study, including a list of trademarks.

But the most remarkable feature is the enlarged photographs of the fabrics (834!) so one can easily tell the difference between Malimo (glass filament and polyester) and Malimo (glass roving and polyester).

I returned the book to the library and immediately ordered a copy of my own.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Summertime in Santa Fe

13th International Folk Art Market

Several times I have written about the International Folk Art Market, which is held in Santa Fe each July.
Today I want to give you a heads up in case you will be in our area the second week of July.
 Voted the Best Art Festival by USA Today 10 Best Reader’s Choice Awards, the Market features artists from all over the world.  This year’s Market features an increase of market space (20%) for the biggest and best Market ever!  Market events run July 8,9,& 10.  For more information contact

Other July events in Santa Fe:

60th   Anniversary Santa Fe Opera  - July 1 – Aug.27
        Santa Fe

65th Annual Traditional Spanish Market – July 30-31

30th Annual Contemporary Hispanic Market – July 30-31

Summer Season – Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Please check the internet for other New Mexico summer events

Have a special and SAFE holiday. Come see us!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Gift of Prometheus

In the beginning only the Immortals had Fire.  Prometheus looked with compassion on the cheerless creatures of earth.  In defiance of the gods he stole Fire from the heavens and brought it to earth.

Yesterday was the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.  Although, it has felt as if summer has been with us for several weeks.  Across the country temperatures have soared, creating new weather records.  Living in the southwest we are no strangers to summer heat and drought.  The combination all too often results in disastrous wildfires.

Throughout history firefighters have been the heroes who braved the flames of Prometheus to protect the towns and homes of the citizenry.  Because of the dangerous conditions they faced, firefighters were given special protective clothing which differentiated them from the populace.  One of the most familiar apparel was worn from the earliest times by Japanese Firemen.  Their jackets (Hanten) were made of various materials.  In the Edo period some were made from deerskin. In the 19th C they were constructed from quilted wool or cotton, sometimes with silk linings.  The unique feature of these jackets, from an artistic point of view, was the elaborate decorations (many were considered lucky or protective symbols) which were woven, painted or embroidered on the surface of the garment, as well as on chest protectors (Maekeke).  There are many examples of these vintage fire jackets to be seen on the internet.

One component of many protective garments has been used for centuries.  It is the mineral asbestos.  Asbestos is found throughout the world and its fibers were used as  reinforcement in early pottery. Once the fire resistant properties of asbestos were known the fibers were woven into cloth.  The unfortunate aspect to the use of this mineral in a wide variety of applications, is the fact that asbestos fibers are carcinogenic and could cause Mesotheliosis.    Over 50 countries have banned the use of asbestos fibers, the US is not one of them.

Modern firefighters wear garments called “turnouts”, protective clothing.  These garments have 3 layers: an outer shell, a moisture barrier and a thermal barrier with pockets of air (dead zone) in between the layers.  Footwear is boots with a steel toe insert or rubber boots. There are additional items such as gloves, helmets and hoods.  Depending upon the type of fire, they may also wear hazmat suits.  For fighting wild fires their clothing is modified.  Their garments are a single layer, they wear industrial hard hats and leather logging boots.  They cannot wear steel-toed boots nor rubber boots due to the heat conditions of the fire.

These garments are made of a combination of two fibers of the nylon family : Nomex and Kevlar.  Both of these synthetics are product of the DuPont Corporation and are variants of aramid.    Kevlar is an aramid that does not melt, is highly flame resistant, is exceptionally strong (5 times stronger than steel on a weight basis). It has a high resistance to stretch and maintains its shape and form at high temperatures. It was first synthesized in 1971.
Nomex is a variant of aramid but unlike Kevlar, Nomex cannot align during filament formation and therefore has poor strength.  However it also has excellent thermal, chemical and radiation resistance.  Nonex was developed in the early 1960’s and first marketed in 1967.

May the Immortals protect them all.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Fez, Morocco - The Tannery

The Tannery

One of the many textile – related side trips in Morocco was to a large tannery in the city of  Fez.  Morocco is known for its high quality leather textiles (as well as carpets, jewelry and ceramics).

Animal skins were probably the first textiles used for clothing and shelter.  The term skin is meant as the outer covering layer of the animal body, which would include the fur, hair and feathers of the animal as well.  Animal skins were, and are still, used in rituals and ceremonies. Leather is a term for animal skin (goats, cattle, sheep, pigs, horses and  other animals) from which the hair or fur has been removed and prepared by tanning, ether by exposure to weather or chemicals.  The ostrich is the only bird used for leather. Evidence of tanning and the use of leather for clothing was found in ancient Egypt (2420-2258 BCE).  Leather “nets” were made by ancient Egyptians from a single piece of hide by cutting small slits, allowing the leather to expand.  The “nets “ were used to protect the clothing of sailors, workmen and soldiers. Suede, a popular apparel leather, is made by napping, running the skin under a coarse emery board.

At the tannery, which is in the middle of the walled city (the Medina) visitors are free to examine the most beautiful leather goods in their retail space and also view the actual workmen and their vats of various solutions and dyes.  By ascending a 3 story, winding staircase and walking along an outside wooden ramp I could view below (from a safe distance) the tanning process.  Accompanied by one of the workers, the scene resembled a vast ancient work yard of activities.  The processes used are the same as those employed centuries ago.

Animal skins (goat, sheep, cow and camel) are delivered to the tannery from the abattoir. The skins are then placed in limestone baths for three days to kill vermin which may be present in any left over fur or hair.  The skins are then rinsed and rescraped.  I saw piles of fleece remnants which were of poor quality and, therefore, not used for commercial purposes, but for filling leather ottomans, called poofs.  (At one of the carpet houses the carpet seller showed a rug made of this type of inferior fibers.  The fibers were very coarse and an entire knot cold be plucked from the surface of the carpet easily. Just a cautionary note!)
The rinsed skins are then submerged in bath solutions made from bird dung and finally treated with vinegar as a fixative.  Only natural dyes are used (natural dyes are not fugitive, that is they do not run after the textile is finished.  Think of a red tee shirt in the laundry.  The skins in the dye vats are turned every 4 hours to ensure an even absorption of the pigments.

The quality of the workmanship is very evident in the finished leather products produced by the workers.  An entire floor of the retail space is devoted to apparel.  The most beautiful coats, jackets, hats in  the most beautiful rainbow of color choices.  The temptation to max out any line of credit you may have is overwhelming.  The ground floor featured bags and purses and wallets of every size and shape.  It was here I lost all control.  Of course, they also sold handmade slippers and shoes.

View of the 2 story retail area.  Note the hand carved and painted walls

  One interesting item for sale is the ottoman or “poof”, a leather footstool or small stool for sitting or even useful as a small side table.  They are usually round, although there were some square and rectangular ones.  You can purchase them already filled (with the aforementioned  fibers), or, because most would want to carry their purchase home and carry-on space is more precious than gold, they are unfilled and folded flat.  There were racks of these articles and one visitor mentioned that they thought they were pet beds. What do you think?

 I think if I had a retail pet supply shop I would be buying dozens in different colors and sizes.
I probably should have brought one home for our cat.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Fashion Victims

Dressed to Death

Fashion Victims is a collection of very interesting facts, folklore, and, sometimes dangerous misconceptions in the history of textiles and fashion.

Fashion Victims - The Dangers of Dress Past and Present
Alison Matthews David, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2015

We know the textile industry has a somewhat dubious history concerning the safety of its workers (see my blog series “Slavery in the Factory”) and many early textile techniques relied upon the use of potent chemicals and unsanitary practices.  But there is much, much more hidden in the closets throughout fashion history.  From time to time, I will share some of these, often gruesome, tales. 

Today I wish to consider one short piece of fashion history presented by the author.  I had never considered  the wearing of long skirts in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as a potential health concern ( beside the obvious tripping hazard when crossing the street) but Alison David discusses the scenario of fashionable women dragging their skirts through the filthy city streets.  We all have heard accounts and seen pictures of the unsanitary conditions prevalent in large cities at that time ( and, I might add, today in some sections of our modern cities).  The streets were clogged with horse drawn carriages, and anyone who has mucked a stable can attest to the obvious problem here.  Waste water was thrown from windows onto the street below and there was no shortage of animals, vermin and other distasteful elements present.  Obviously, the hems of the garments would inevitably become soiled and dusty and all those little microbes would then be carried into the family parlor.  The idea of the germ theory, was just a theory, and most people had little idea of the potentially dangerous consequences of their ordinary lifestyle.

We live in a very different time.  The other day I stopped to buy some bathroom cleaner at a big box store.  There were 4 long aisles, floor to ceiling, with products to clean, disinfect and sanitize the home.  Rows of detergents for the washing machine, bleaches and stain removers shared space with floor cleaners and carpet steamers.  Soaps for your body and dishes were next to several rows of hand sanitizers and wipes containing bleach, presumably to be used to destroy any virus, bacteria or other harmful pathogen.  Next came the insecticides and pest control products.  Good grief, I thought, we must be the most sterilized  civilization ever. 

But, how clean are the clothes we buy?  When you purchase items do you immediately go home and throw them into the washing machine?   After all, where have these items been?  From fiber through manufacture of the cloth, to the cutting and sewing of the garment, through packaging and shipping and finally arriving at the retail establishment there have been dozens and dozens of contacts with the environment and the textile workers.  Of course this can be said of anything we purchase, from TVs to corn soup.  But I might throw a bit of cautionary advice.  Be aware that clothing can be a conduit for those little “germies” we cannot see.  When we try on jeans to find the perfect fit, we surely know that perhaps others have been in that same dressing room, or that those jeans may have been returned after purchase.  Perhaps judicious use of  those products at “big box” is a fairly good idea.