Vintage Clothing Glossary: Shattered Silk

Vintage clothing is often as sturdy as its modern counterpart, but the older you seek, the more fragile you find.

Vintage silk in particular has a fragility all its own.  While we expect to see antique cotton clothing in washable, wearable condition, a silk dress of the same age and storage history will generally shred with unfettered use.  Why is this?

1920s silk beginning to shatter, originally finished with metallic salts to create a crisp, glossy lustre.


Silk is the strongest natural fiber when it is produced, but it disintegrates more quickly than other natural fibers.  Additionally, Victorian clothing and early vintage clothing (into the 1920s) often has chemicals added during the manufacturing process that were meant to create a special finish or beautiful drape.  These chemicals (usually metallic salts) cause the silk to disintegrate regardless of storage quality, resulting in a “shattered” effect with a pattern similar to pieces of broken glass.  In textile conservation the presence of these disintegrating chemicals (or any other problematic characteristic permanent to a garment) is called inherent vice.



Occasionally a vintage clothing collector will see a variation of shattered silk.  The image below shows a garment which has all its warp threads intact, but many of its weft threads missing.  One might call this a half-shattered silk, and the description is accurate, as the antique fabric is made half of silk, and half of wool.  The silk threads (the weft) have disintegrated while the wool threads (the warp) remain relatively strong and intact.




Even vintage clothes made later in the century sometimes have this inherent problem.  We occasionally see 1940s and 1950s cocktail dresses and organza wedding gowns of similar vintage that have especially crisp finishes, which are prone to brittleness and shattering as time passes. Handkerchief weight silk dresses as late as the 1960s are susceptible as well.

Is there any solution?  Unfortunately no.  While there are many techniques for solving the signs of age in vintage clothing, there is almost nothing to be done for shattered silk.  We have seen museums utilize an adhesion process that would make a shattered silk garment capable of display, but this is a costly and time-intensive process, and it would be useful only for display, not wearing.


1860s/1870s Victorian dress in taupe shattered silk.


The best use we’ve seen for shattered silk in antique clothing is either display or pattern copying.  The beauty is still there, and the trims are often salvageable, even if the fragile silk is not.



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