Silk took over the textile market in Europe in the late middle ages and silk’s demand peaked in the early modern period. During this time span, Italy dominated the silk industry. Despite its popularity “silk never became a state monopoly” (Ertl, 258). Italy’s silk industry was extremely successful and the government wanted to keep it that way. To keep the industry booming, Italian cities “offered financial incentives to attract silk weavers” (Schoeser, Silk, 42). Florence, Lucca, and Venice were known for their production of silk in the early modern period. With the cities full of weavers, the popularity of silk grew and grew. Every European wanted silk garments, but only the wealthy could afford it. The most expensive of silk textiles were all-silk cloths, which were manufactured and “gradually becoming established” in Italy in the fifteenth century (Schoeser, Silk, 46). While pure silk textiles were expensive, “less costly alternatives were equally desired for lighter silks and mixed-fiber clothing” (Schoeser, Silk, 46). The lower classes always made sure to find a textile that mimicked the trendy, expensive textile in style. As time progressed, as well as technology, silk became easier to produce and thus cheaper, especially by the seventeenth century. During the early modern period, “silk, initially the stuff of cardinals and kings, became available to the wives and daughters of sugar-bakers, sausage-makers and their ilk” (Lemire and Riello, 892). As with all textiles, as quantity demanded increased, price decreased. This led to almost the entire continent of Europe obtaining silk by the eighteenth century.
Silk’s popularity had a lot to due with its capacity to retain designs. Silk was “the most reflective of fibers” (Schoeser, World Textiles, 159). It held prints and dyes well, although not as well as cotton, and both patterns and dyes were important to dress, especially in the early modern period. Silk was also comfortable, as it was much cooler and lighter than wool, which was a popular textile in Europe at the time. Silk could also be worn all year round. While these were both pros to the textile, there were cons. Silk was extremely difficult to clean, and it still is. Linen and cotton could be washed multiple times without worry of destruction, but one had to be cautious with silk. Silk was not waterproof which led to even greater issues. Most Europeans chose to ignore the unfortunate maintenance requirements of silk, for they favored their status more. Silk played an important role “in social and political affairs, in art and interiors, and most importantly in fashion” (Schoeser, Silk, 55). These roles silk played in Europe in the early modern era were the reasons why silk succeeded for so long, and why silk is still so popular today.
- Ertl, Thomas. “Silkworms, Capital and Merchant Ships European Silk Industry in the Medieval World Economy.” The Medieval History Journal 9, no. 2 (October 1, 2006): 243–70. doi:10.1177/097194580600900203
- Schoeser, Mary. Silk. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007.
- Lemire, Beverly, and Giorgio Riello. “East & West: Textiles and Fashion in Early Modern Europe.” Journal of Social History 41, no. 4 (2008): 887–916. doi:10.1353/jsh.0.0019.
- Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. World of Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003.