The raw silks of Thailand

Raw silk” is silk woven from “the first spin”.  Silk cocoons are dumped in boiling water, whereupon the glue holding the string together dissolves and the pot becomes full of mingled, endless thread.  One grabs it anywhere and begins to “spin” — rolling it between his fingers while pulling what emerges from one’s hand onto the spinning wheel — trying to get as thin a thread as one can — i.e. one made up of as few fibers as possible.  The first spin is invariably a little rough and bumpy, thicker in places and thinner in others as it is knotted, mottled, and various bits of flotsam adhere to it.  Later re-spinnings eventually work out the kinks, producing very thin, uniform thread; which is used to weave fine cloth like satin; but the first-spin — in places as thin as the real McCoy, elsewhere as thick as hemp string — can also be used to weave cloth.  This is known as Raw Silk. It produces the texture you see above:  rough to the touch, uneven, with pronounced individual threads, a bit like the bark of a tree.

Shot silk is silk woven with contrasting warp and weft colors, resulting in a cloth which appears to gleam and shift colors as you turn it before your eyes.  These four examples are, top to bottom, red and black, orange and blue, orange and red, and blue and red.  Note how they gleam around the fold:  this effect — the unique property of shot silk — is especially strong when the cloth is worn as clothing and the wearer moves:  she appears to shimmer.

Shot silk is especially effective in satin silk, a type of weave which uses the thinnest, finest thread, and leaves long stretches of individual threads unwoven (“floating” along the surface); this makes the cloth easy to damage, but gives it smooth surface (“smooth as silk”) and brilliant sheen:  it seems like the cloth has been woven from pure sunlight reflected on water.

Weaving raw silk as shot silk, on the other hand (as these examples all are) produces a different — and extraordinary — effect:  the seamless shifting of colors between the colors of the warp and the color of the weft — the shimmering of light reflected on water — is interrupted by the rough feel created by the the uneven thread.  As you bring your face closer to the cloth, the liquid smoothness resolves into dry roughness:  it is a lot like a tender kiss suddenly turning into a bite.

The colors of which these four are made up — red, purple, orange — are the basic colors of the Thai language.  Purple (Si Muang) and orange (Si Seet) are the two most popular colors in Thailand, seen everywhere:  in homes, in clothing, in company colors, on official logos. Not for Thais the dullness of less is more:  nature would not allow it; among the intense colors of South East Asia’s nature, “less” really does look like less.

Ten years ago, Kad Luang (“The Old Market”) in Chiang Mai had at least a dozen shops selling silk, both raw and satin, lined along the walls with a fantastic range of colors, starting with white on the left, going through various shades of white (“Monsoon clouds”, “Moon in August”, “Tiger tooth”) to shades of grey to shades of beige to shades of cream, and so on and so on, to umpteen shades of green, umpteen shades of red, umpteen shades of purple, ending, at last, on the far right, at the far end of the store, in several shades of black.

Today only three shops remain and they have, between them, at most 20 meters of linear shelf-space of colored silk;  you’d be lucky to find four reds to choose from.  The shop owners, there day in and night these twelve years, have not noticed the change, it has been so gradual.  But the truth is that silk retail is dying.


It isn’t the prices:  it costs in Thai Baht what it cost ten years ago, a modest 25% climb in dollar terms (between $12 and $18 per meter today).  Rather the problem is on the demand side:  the government rule that all government employees are required to wear Thai silk on Fridays has been rescinded; marketers have convinced the feeble-minded that denim and spandex are more chic; but, mainly, tailors have gone and closed.

Why do tailors close? 

Who knows? 

Twenty years ago I tried, in vain, to convince an otherwise intelligent and enterprising Polish man, that clothes made to measure will cost him less and fit him better than an off-the-shelf Ferragamo, but he refused to hear good sense.  Perhaps, like many people, he felt helpless in his inability to visualize what he would like for himself. When asked by the master craftsman “Would sir like a double-breasted jacket or a single-breasted one?”  most people reply “Oh, I don’t mind” meaning not that they do not care, but that they don’t have a clue what they want.  (An apt metaphor for the whole of their life).  The store with ready made clothes offers three choices — which has the virtue of being easy to choose from, even if none is especially good; but the tailor offers endless opportunities; which is, despite Hollywood propaganda to the contrary, not what people want.  Don’t ask me what I want.  I don’t know what I want.  I want everything.  I want nothing.

Tracking down my old tailor last month, after three years’ absence, I discovered he had moved to the suburbs and his waiting time is now not three days but — three months.  This is not a measure of his success but a measure of the profession’s failure:  no one else sews anymore; he is the last tailor shop left in town (not counting the fake, tourist “suit and two shirts” shops which do not actually know how to sew, just how to sell).  His prices aren’t up, just like the flat prices of silk, but his waiting times are.  His customers are old timers who had learned in better times how to have things tailored (i.e. how to visualize what they want and then instruct it) but can’t afford a higher price:  they will rather wait three months than pay more.  The younger generation have the money, just no clue what they could tailor, or even that they could.

And yardage — yardage will only sell if you can sew it.  If you don’t know what to do with it, you’re not going to buy it, are you?

This is how the demise of one profession (tailoring) leads to the demise of another (weaving).  But, hey, no loss without compensation:  you can buy 80-dollar T-shirts from LuLu now, mostly in shades of grey, in machine-spun spandex.

I went out and bought four meters of every length of shot raw silk I liked, figuring that, at this rate, in two years’ time when I return again, there won’t be any left.

How to (properly) read a portrait

Although Gulbenkian will tell you that

the model’s expression suggests his intellect and wisdom.  The artist manages to capture an apparently informal moment and turns the subject into a living, imposing presence.

the truth is the precise opposite and the painting suggests something completely different:  Monsieur Louis Duval d’Epinoy, the king’s secretary, unnamed by any document of any importance other than a brief mention that His Majesty Himself had once gracious agreed to be a witness at his daughter’s wedding, was simply a great guy to be around. Look at that pixish sense of humor, the ebullient delight in life, and the complete and utter lack of self-importance:  everyone simply loved to be in his company, His Majesty included.  (Wouldn’t you?) Monsieur d’Epinoy and his inconsequence (i.e. his lack of interest in social climbing) made it easy to do so. His easy going nature made him the success he was:  his success was founded on not seeking one.

Monsieur d’Epinoy was also a bit of a pot-head (he’s fingering in his snuff box with an expression suggesting he’d already had a hit — and — look at his enlarged, reddish nostril: he clearly was want to have many throughout the day).

And, why not?  When everyone loves ya, life’s a breeze, is it not?  Why not kick back and enjoy it.

We do agree with the rest of the Gulbenkian comment, though:

In its age, this work was considered to be an absolute triumph of pastel painting and the finest portrait that Maurice-Quentin de La Tour had produced.

My first soumak, or, a historically-informed performance ruggery

It is, no doubt, a measure of my superior negotiating skills (not!) that the price of this carpet went up as we negotiated. I tell myself it was a good learning experience and I will be able to do better next time, but I am kidding myself: the truth is that no one ever wins against a carpet seller.

Actually, it is not a carpet (a knot-weave) but a soumak — a kind of flat-weave, similar to kilim, but different from it in that it sports an invisible (“internal”) structural weft. This useful, well illustrated page pretends to show you how to weave a soumak, but doesn’t: what they do there is a kilim; this technique is the one used in making European tapestries. A soumak will in addition have some fixed threads running left to right (“weft”). These threads support the structure of the cloth and make it stronger. They are hidden under the color threads (which make the pattern) but if you stick your finger in the fabric and poke about, you can just make them out under the pattern.

This soumak was woven perhaps 15 years ago in Tabriz by Azeri weavers. It was woven out of old threads pulled out from old cicims, which is why it has the intense colors of historical carpets — few modern carpets look this “authentic” — it is, in other words, “a performance on original instruments”.  A good deal about soumaks is explained here (along with some historical examples).  My favorite page on that website is the page about the Luristan bronzes (mother goddess, totemic animal finials et al.) — which only illustrates how sophisticated was the weaver of my new rug — he knew to play with all the totemic animals and all the rest: it is a “historically informed performance”.  Like a mamluk, it pleases in its ability to surprise:  seemingly symmetrical, when you look closer at it — it isn’t.

Actually, Luristan bronzes are pretty cool as well as mysterious (we don’t know who made them or what they meant). Check out this for some examples, and this for some discussion.

Victoria and Albert: The Triumph of Death

isn’t: it is the triumph of life, symbolized here by The Fates. In the end, of course, death does win, but death only exists where there is life to begin with: the image of the three sisters standing atop overturned Chastity make the meaning plain: for life to go on, Chastity must be overturned. Ladies, think about it.

This is a subversive joke, of course; so the makers felt compelled to pair it with the Triumph of Eternity, an ugly thing showing St Jerome and St Augustine (say the credits, though I think it’s actually Saint Sylvester the Pope) riding in a chariot over the overturned Fates. That pleased the powers that were — but we don’t have to look at it.

Victoria and Albert: The Gilbert Collection: Table of Two Sicilies

Rome, Michelangelo Barberi (1787-1867), glass micromosaic and gilded bronze support. Commissioned by the Russian Tsar
Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855): it shows the profile of his daughter Olga in the center. (Wikipedia tells us that she met her future husband, Crown Prince Charles of Württemberg, in early 1846 in Palermo, Two Sicilies, so perhaps the table commemorates that meeting, though we are not told what she was doing there, so far away from home and — presumably — her chaperons). The table represents views of famous bays of the Kingdom of Both Sicilies: Naples, Taormina, Palermo, Paestum, Tindari.

Victoria and Albert: The Veroli Casket

Byzantium was the center of production of ivories like this. This one, made perhaps in the 10th century AD, has eventually made its way to the Cathedral of Veroli, in central Italy. There are 43 such caskets from the period surviving, decorated with scenes of classical mythology, illustrating what was perhaps a fashion for classical antiquity in 1oth century Byzantium. The scenes’ references aren’t very clear: there is Bacchus riding a chariot pulled by lions (rather than panthers); and elements of the stories of Europa, Iphigenia, and Bellorophon; put together, says Kenneth Clark, with little understanding of the original significance.

To paraphrase a great philosopher: if it looks good, it is good [and damn the meaning].

One of London’s small saving graces

Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and
Saints Edward and Edmund (‘The Wilton Diptych’),
Anonymous, ca. 1395, egg on oak, 53 x 37 cm, National Gallery

If I were condemned to serve time in this frustrating, joyless city, the daily lectures at the National Gallery would be one of the few things I’d use to sweeten my sentence.  Such as the one I attended recently on the topic of the Wilton Diptych.  The lecture covered the provenance (of which we know nothing except that before it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1928 it was in the Wilton Hall of the Dukes of Pembroke), the iconography — the two less familiar saints on the left are the two English Edmunds — the Martyr (with arrow) and the Confessor (with ring), and some details of workmanship, which, even at the maximum magnification of the National Gallery’s Flash viewer are not visible, such as, for example, that much of the visible gold has been stippled (covered with gold leaf, then varnished, then chiseled with the stipple — a tiny-point chisel: every blow makes a tiny, round impression which looks like a minute nail-head).  Thus, the Infant’s halo contains within it — stippled, i.e. drawn using lines made up of separate tiny points — the instruments of the passion:  the crown of thorns and three nails.  You can just barely make the outlines of their shapes in the online version (below) at the 9, 12 and 3 o’clock positions of the halo:

Stippling is a demanding technique:  not only does the artist have to have good eyes but also a steady hand:  the gold leaf is about 1 micron thick, hammer the stipple just a tad too hard and you tear the gold-leaf and — ruin the whole job.  You can perhaps see the stippling a little better below:  the background design and the crown are drawn using small gold points — the dots made by the stipple.

What you cannot see above is that the jewels in the crown are three dimensional objects — congealed blobs of lead white.  (Really, NG, what is the point of giving us these impressive magnifications if they stop just short of perfection?)

The lecturer went on to discuss some design elements of the painting. For instance, here you may see Richard II, the sponsor of this painting, wearing a broach with a design of a white hart:  which he used as his personal emblem.

The same emblem can be seen on the king’s brocaded coat.  There, it is surrounded by a wreath of pea-pods — the same pea-pods which hang around his neck. The plant is broom cod — whose name in French may be the origin of the family designation:  Plantagenet (planta genista).  The same symbols are worn by the angels, of course:

Another possible heraldic design used in the painting may be this coat of arms on Endmund the Martyr’s coat:  its double bird — Imperial Two-headed eagle? — might perhaps reference Richard’s first wife, Ann of Bohemia, daughter of Charles IV, the Czech speaking Holy Roman emperor:

The lecturer then turned towards clues which may indicate the origin of the work — i.e the place of its manufacture.  The stippling, he said, was an Italian technique; so is the pose of folded arms seen in the angel standing to the right of Mary.  On the other hand, Mary’s pose looks Bohemian and the miniaturist technique used to paint the flowers on heaven’s lawn looks Northern French or Flemish:

And, to make things even more complicated, St John’s camel coat — complete with the camel’s head — looks English.  (As far as we know, only the English represented St John’s coat with the head still on it).  There, look, there is the head:

My favorite part of the whole painting is its reverse:  the King’s personal emblem of a White Hart.  The golden crown and golden chain around its neck suggest that it was not perhaps called a White Hart but rather a Rich Hart — i.e. Richard.  The graceful animal rests on a bed of rosemary, which was Ann’s personal symbol.

Pretty cool stuff, eh?

After the lecture I dropped in on the exhibition on identification of fakes again, checked out some books at the bookshop, and then took the murderous bus trip back home — a bloody hour in stop-and-go traffic in a stuffy, crowded, un-airconditioned bus.  And I live downtown!  How do most of these people hack it — who commute from places 20 or 30 miles away?  To make, like our lecturer today, less than 38,000 GBP pretax a year?  Can life in London, and the income one makes it, possibly be worth the pain of being here?

A few days ago I asked a nice pianist I met — all too briefly because he had to leave early enough to catch last train home (and it was well before midnight) — why he lives in London.  “For the same reason, he explained, why I am a pianist”.  Oh?  I said:  can living in London possibly be a vocation?  Or a passion?  No, no, he said, there is so much to enjoy culturally here.  Yes, quite:  except he does not go to National Gallery lectures, for instance; because life in London, while it offers the possibility of that pleasure, denies him the time to enjoy it.  What is the good of immense cultural riches when one just can’t use them?

My guess is that my pianist friend lives here on account of his thrownness.

(Clau: Didn’t observe any sleepers… on the other hand… can’t say anyone there lived up to Chris’ girl on the train standard, either).

Victoria and Albert: The Ardabil Carpet (details)

More details for Sir C. (Note the situational photo: we’re at the limits of the TX-1’s technical capabilities)


Victoria and Albert: Ardabil Carpet

By request.

This 10 m long carpet is hard to photograph: it lies behind reflective glass, flat on the floor under a very dim lights which are turned on for 5 minutes twice every hour: they don’t do much lighting but — because they are hung low — prevent camera’s eye to be raised higher for a better view. It was woven in Iran, in the 16th century, as part of a set of two. In time, they became so worn that, in the end, one had to be restored using the other for “parts”. Read more about it here. Some photos follow.

A high renaissance murder mystery

Sometime in early 1930s, the National Gallery purchased this strange object.  It appears to be two vertical panels — perhaps once small doors of some object — now remounted in red velvet to make a comic-book-page-like picture of four.  What the original object was we are not told — perhaps it was something analogous to the renaissance portable altar.  As the story represented in it is one of a hopeless lover (Damon, hopelessly in love with  Amaryllis) — did the “altar” contain the portrait of the sponsor/ hopeless lover’s love?  If so, I wonder:  did it work?  Would any woman be able to resist a man who went to such lengths to declare his love for her?  Probably not — we’re all here precisely because, in the end, women must turn out unable to resist; but for poetry’s sake one hopes she did:  successful lovers are not as attractive as hopeless ones.

The Gallery paid 14,000 pounds for the painting — an equivalent of today’s 3.9 million American dollars in gold — a huge sum even by today’s inflated standards.  They paid it because at the time the work was thought to be Giorgione’s, but only the following year a scholarly reattribution was published, identifying the author as Andrea Previtali.  The reattribution, still accepted today, knocked out a huge hole in the valuation and a huge brouhaha followed — waste of nation’s money!  Though just why it should, I don’t know:  there are no deaccessions at the National Gallery; as its holdings will never be liquidated for profit (or loss) what does it matter what price the museum pays?  Think about it, anything that is forever must, by definition, be priceless because even a ha-penny multiplied by infinity is infinity itself.  Besides, surely, if a painting is good enough to be a Giorgione, it must certainly be good enough to command a Giorgione-like price?  (If not, why not?)

What interests me in this painting — other than the fact that it is perfectly respectable — one of the better paintings in the miniaturist genre — indeed, one of the best Previtalis anywhere (if, indeed, it is one), is that it is just possibly another crime-mystery clue.  I mean, take a look above:  there is Damon committing suicide — in the mountains.  And here — his bloodied body is discovered — by the sea.

Has someone moved the corpse?  Why?  Or was it perhaps not really a suicide?  I have the hunch that a careful analysis of evidence just might reveal multiple stab wounds; some perhaps where the shepherd could not have stabbed himself (like his back); and that — the ship at sea above will turn out to be the murderer’s get-away vehicle.

Tara, embodied compassion

Nepalese, 16th century. Painted and guilt copper, with semi-precious stones. Note the short legs and the round belly.

The right hand is in the gesture of varadamudra — the gesture of granting wishes.

BBC here has a program on a different Tara — from Ceylon.