Shattered Dreams: What Makes Antique Silk So Fragile?

Beautiful Decay

Shattered Silk-sleeved Dress, circa 1895-1905

Often when you are shopping for antique garments, you will find a beautiful piece of silk– a gown, a shirt, a hankie, a fan– that has begun to split and splinter, especially along creases and folds. Lifting the piece off the table is enough to cause new rips to open. It’s common in many antique pre-1930s silks.

Shattered Silk Fan

Silk shatter is like an incurable fabric illness. We currently don’t have a fix for a piece of silk that has begun to shred, so it can only be bandaged until time runs it course or it has to be removed and replaced. However, there is a certain beauty to shattered silk. It produces a unique, almost ghostly texture that cannot be replicated by blades or regular wear. Instead, it takes a combination of chemistry, use, and passing time to develop.

Tatter vs. Shatter

Silk tattering on at a waistband from years of wear.

Silk shattering on a fan from chemical and physical stress.

Silk tatter is different from silk shatter. Silks, treated or not, are very fine fabrics. Any fabric will tear if it’s tugged, snagged, or repeatedly pulled. Waistbands and cuffs will shred to pieces because they received the most physical movement, contact, and gravitational strain over the years. Tattered areas can usually be carefully mended and patched like any other fabric.
Silk shattering, however, is instantly recognizable. It often appears out in the middle of nowhere like the center of a bodice that is otherwise pristine. The wear is less “stringy” and more geometric, with breaks that are sharp and often linear or square. Sometimes the fabric disintegrates to dust if you pinch it between your thumb and forefinger, leaving behind only the warp threads. Depending on the piece, preservationists can use a fine mesh material like Stabiltex as an underlay or overlay to strengthen shattered silk for storage or display. This will slow down the decay.

The conservation of Iowa’s Civil War flags involved lots of stabilization to piece together the shattered, painted-silk banners.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, silks were often treated with metallic salts to give them fabulous weight and a pearly sheen. Most fabric is sold by the yard, but historically, silk has been sold by weight. Adding metallic salts, usually tin-, iron, tin, or lead bearing ones, made silk not only more luxurious looking, but more luxuriously priced because of the increased weight. Many rich gowns by famous designers like Worth and Jacques Doucet used such weighted silks to give volume, shape, “rustle,” and presence to their creations. Women’s fashions aren’t the only silk objects affected by shatter. Men’s silk ties of the 1920s and 1930s are notorious for their tendency to shatter at their knot points. Depending on the fabric treatment and use, weighted silks were known to begin shattering after only a few years. This knowledge, combined with new chemical technologies and tastes in fashion, led to the reduction of weighted silks. In the 1930s, laws were passed that required the labelling of weighted silks and most manufacturers use blends to avoid shattering, so vintage and modern fashions are less likely to suffer from the condition.

Weighted Silk Tie, circa 1950-60
Weighted silk is still manufactured, but it is marked and less likely to shatter than older weighted silks.

The culprit behind silk shattering is the tiny crystalline salts bonded to the fibers. As the threads weaken through age, dryness, and stress, the sharp salts act like minute razors that slice apart the delicate threads.

An electron microscope scan (in nanometers) of silk shattering in First Lady Edith Roosevelt’s 1905 gown. Read more about it by clicking here.

Other causes of shattering and pitting are iron compounds used in the printing process or early metallic dyes that deposit color via chemical bonding with a salt to the fibers. These treatments produced bright colors, but slowly eat away the fibers. Such types of metallic dye damage appear on silk, but also on fine cottons and wools. Some polished cottons, often used as linings in mid-to-late 19th century clothing, were treated with various chemical glazes which is why they are so often found flaking to bits.

It’s kind of like rubbing a salt scrub through your hair. Your hair will dry out and become super brittle, which is why many women avoid certain types of hair dye. Unlike table salt, metallic salts are highly reactive and change color when they come in contact with other chemicals. In fact, many metallic salts can be found in your bathroom because they are great fillers for more than just fabric. They are used in sensitivity-fighting toothpastes which work by plugging up small pores in your teeth.

If you, like me, love old clothing and come across a piece of silk that has begun to shatter, bear in mind that you cannot “restore” the shattered fabric. However, that doesn’t mean you should toss it out or cut it up. Silk shatter is not contagious to other fabrics, and with the right care and a bit of backing, it can be slowed. Shattering silk shouldn’t be immersed in water, especially soapy or hard water. Unlike familiar table salt, metallic salts are not water soluble and water can actually cause some treated fabrics to deteriorate faster. Light fades colors and speeds the chemical reactions that cause the salts to split the fibers, so try to keep shattering pieces out of sunlight and even artificial light if you can. Do not store blouses and dresses on thin hangers because the stress of gravity can break the silk at the shoulders. Folding should be avoided as it creates stress points that can snap fibers (which is why silk fans are so prone to shattering), so store heavy gowns flat or rolled and small pieces like gloves, shoes, or purses gently stuffed with non-acidic tissue or cotton.

Wedding Boots, circa 1865
It’s generally good practice to bolster collapsed shoes and poofy sleeves with filler for storage and display no matter what material they are made of. It’s important to be gentle though. Overzealous “care” can make things worse.

Silk shatter is proof of the former quality of the material. Weighted silk was very high-end. If you own a fragile silk item, you can be sure that it is probably older than 1930 and therefore has some historical significance. Many of the now-flaky items left forgotten because of their “infirmity” were once the finest pieces in the store. This irony is one of my favorite aspects of shattered silk items. They are so beautiful– formerly and in their current state– and deserve to be collected, cataloged, and admired before they disappear for eternity!

Shattered Silk Shoes, circa 1815

More articles about shattered silk and textile conservation:

Weighted Silk on Wikipedia

Textile Preservation on Wikipedia

Caring for Your Textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Caring for and Wearing Historic Costumes at the V&A

Honor the Colors: Iowa Civil War Battle Flag Restoration