antique textiles band weaving Uncategorized

Weaving Silk Ribbons – and the Curious Phenomenon of Late Eighteenth Century Automata

Joséphine Bowes sits at a table on which rest the text of several plays in which she appeared when an actress at the Théâtre des Variétés on the boulevard Montmartre in Paris under the stage name Mademoiselle Delorme. Her dog, Bernadine, lies at her feet.
Josephine Bowes, Countess of Montalbo (1825-1874) by Antoine Dury 1850. IMAGE COURTESY of The Bowes Museum.

A while back, I was researching late 18thC/early 19thC automata, after coming across an advert in a Georgian issue of one of the York newspapers, for an exhibition of them – there will be more on this in my upcoming book.

The idea of some room in a cramped Georgian house, by the city walls, full of automata, was just too good not to investigate further.  In my researches, I came across a famous chess playing automaton; a Cupid automaton who played 2 operatic arias on the piano, a piano playing full sized lady automaton and even a disabled man who had a celebrated automaton-maker build him a pair of ‘automatic’ hands that functioned so he could pick things up.

Online, I came across mention of  a spectacular extant automaton – The Silver Swan, (1773), at Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham.  On our next trip up to Cumbria, we stopped in, timing our visit so we were there for 2PM, when the swan is wound up and “played”.  It is spectacular; slightly unnerving, beautiful, fabulous in every way.  You sit watching it just as a crowd in one of the Georgian exhibitions would have.  (Check out the Silver Swan on YouTube – there are a few videos if you’d like to see it in action).  It was bought by John and Joséphine Bowes in 1872, for two hundred pounds.

I usually go behind the scenes in museums and poke around in the reserve collections, documenting textiles – preferably 18thC and 19thC as you know, dear Reader – but such is the attraction, we have been back to Bowes Museum a few times in the past year, as ‘members of the public’ – simply to gawk at the textiles and the automata (they also have a tiny silver mouse).


Swan meets someone almost the same age as it.


Talking of silver, I have always had a love of eighteenth century Spitalfields silk fabric – especially those brocades that combine a silver thread with a pastel coloured silk.   The jacquard looms which made that possible would have had something in common with the mechanics behind early automata.  (Incidentally, there is such a loom on display at Bowes).

Whilst at Bowes, something else caught my eye: the ribbon worn by Joséphine Bowes, in the portrait by Dury, above.

At first, I wanted to replicate it but my eighteenth century style band loom was already warped up with a repro, workaday linen tape.  Also, I wouldn’t be able to replicate a horizontal bar pattern, with such wide gaps between the pink silk and the silver metallic thread with a simple tape or inkle loom.  I could however, use  Joséphine’s ribbon sash as a jumping off point, to inspire a band.

Mifflin Tape Loom, repro of 18thC American tape loom – often these were brought with settlers, from England. Made by Mr. Paul Parish. Used with Swedish band lock., woven backstrap. Repro 18thC linen tape in progress! 18thC home tape weavers held the warp with one hand or tied one end to a belt.


It is still not off the loom, but here it is so far (below) – woven with a simple inkle threaded-in technique.  I made this first attempt on a Schacht inkle loom, but will be returning to do something similar using my 18thC repro tape loom, made for me by the talented and inimitable Paul Parish.  I have the first of Mr Parish’s looms in the UK – it is called the ‘Mifflin’ loom as it it based on the loom in this portrait.  If you want to know more about tape looms, hold on, as I will be doing a more in-depth post about them, soon.  I’ll also be posting about the 1770s’ tape loom we won at auction, in the Derbyshire Peaks, late last year.

Here is the Joséphine-inspired band in progress. Joséphine’s ribbon would have been made by an automated loom, by 1850, and extant silk ribbons of even a century before, were often sophisticated weaves.

Metallic and silk threads look spectacular but in reality aren’t more challenging to weave with, than wool, cotton or linen.

I have finished this ribbon but want to do a second, shorter one and there’s still some warp. I’ll photo the finished one.  The yarns used are in some cases, sewing thread (metallic); the pink is fine (2/60 NM) pure silk and the metallic threads were plied with some very fine, cream coloured linen.

Joséphine’s band would have been far finer, and made on more a complicated ribbon weaving loom.  Which would be capable of brocades and all kinds of things a simple, threaded-in inkle can’t achieve.

I have spent a lot of 2018 learning to do more complex pick up techniques but wanted to return to something simple, where the pattern was threaded in so a faster weave, reliant on the yarns used alone, for its visual impact.  Which meant I could only get alternating horizontal bands, but I’m pleased anyway with this ‘inspired by’.  It will be used for our 18thC Living History kit.

Shuttle by Ampstrike (Estonia). Heddle Stoorstalka (Sweden).  Yarns: UK and Germany.
Heddle from Stoorstalka (bought it myself – no affiliation). I had to ply the metallic Gutterman sewing threads with very fine linen yarn, on my spinning wheel as the metallic threads alone lacked body.


Homemade width gauge to ensure consistent band width.


I almost don’t want to take this off the loom. It looks so beautiful as a warp.


I am grateful to the museum for permission to reproduce the portrait that set me off on the silk and metallic ribbon quest.   I have loved weaving this, so far, and hope to weave many more – some brocaded, some like this, a plain threaded-in pattern.

For the spinners, weavers and dyers, I’ll be doing a workshop at the South Lincs Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers this Saturday. (Longdraw Spinning). Do come along if you’re nearby and want to learn how to do the classic longdraw, a la 18thC!


Finally… If you have never  been to the Bowes Museum – go, if you get the chance. There is plenty to interest anyone with an interest in textiles and costume with the fascinating Fashion & Textile Gallery. If you time your visit right, you may also get the see the Silver Swan.


One reply on “Weaving Silk Ribbons – and the Curious Phenomenon of Late Eighteenth Century Automata”

The portrait is lovely, as are the ribbon and her shoes. Do you think the ribbon would have been homemade or purchased? Since it is so prominent in the portrait, was it perhaps showing off some lovely article she made? Even her left hand seems to be directing our attention to the ribbon. I guess a Countess could probably be able to afford such luxuries. What do you think of the fabric/trim (?) to the dog’s right? More evidence of hand work at home?? Can the dog possibly be a yellow Lab? Your work is lovely too, and far beyond any feeble attempt I could possibly make! Thank you for sharing lovely post!


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