A Brief History of Passementerie
The word passementerie has become synonymous with a wide variety of textile trimmings, including buttons, braids, fringing, tassels and other decorative elements.
It derives from the French, and originates from ‘passement’, a gold or silver lace or braid, and ‘parchmentry’, which included trims that used parchment wrapped in silk. Despite the fact that these terms seem to come into the English language during the 16th century, the many items which now fall under the collective term passementerie were made much earlier.
Modern histories usually attribute passementerie skills and industries in the United Kingdom to various immigrant populations from the 16th century onwards, and this is no doubt how the term came into the English language. Certainly, by the 18th century, the French passementerie industry was very well established. However, this completely ignores the work of the English silkwomen, who for centuries before created fine textile trimmings literally fit for a king.
Professional silkwomen could be found in all of the major cities of medieval Europe, including London. They were skilled businesswomen who produced luxury silk goods for the ornamentation of clothing and furniture. Their customers included the merchant classes, aristocracy, and royalty.
In England, many of these women were single or widows, which meant that their business transactions were not subjected to the various property laws which could effect married women. Married women needed the consent of their husbands to acquire or dispose of property - they even needed his permission to make a will. (These restrictions existed until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 - and some were still in place until 1949!) Of course, this did not stop married women from trading as silkwomen, it simply meant that any debt (or profit) they might incur during their business dealings would be the responsibility of their husbands. There seem to be many women who traded this way. There was another option in London, and that was the ability for a married women to declare herself, in front of the courts, as a single woman.
A London ordinance of the early 14th century (Liber Albus book III part 1 p181) stated that: "where a woman couverte de baron follows any craft within the city by herself apart, with which the husband in no way intermeddles, such a woman should be bound as a single woman as to all that concerns her said craft. And if the husband and wife are impleaded, in such case the wife shall plead as a single woman in a Court of Record, and shall have her law and other advantages by way of plea just as a single woman. And if she is condemned, she shall be committed to prison until she shall have made satisfaction; and neither the husband nor his goods shall in such case be charged or interfered with.”
Not as many married women seem to have declared themselves as should have done it seems; there are many records which name women as silkwomen, but very few records of any having registered themselves!
Young girls could be apprenticed to a silkwomen, and records show that many unmarried women in London took up residences close to each other in order to trade. During the medieval period quite a few were in Soper Lane (which was renamed Queen Street after the Great Fire). It is nice to think of a medieval Savile Row, only with ribbons, tassels, buttons, and other beautiful trimmings on display!
Although never formed into an organised guild, for quite a time the work of silkwomen in London was protected by acts of Parliament. Because of this, imports which threatened their livelihood were stopped.
The items that the silkwomen made were, or course, dependant upon the fashion of the time. Some, such as laces, were a necessary part of everyday life. Not the intricate white laces which you may think of when you read the word today - but strings, such as shoelaces - which fastened clothing, were used as drawstrings, belts and for many other purposes.
Wardrobe accounts give tantalising glimpses of the types of items sold to the medieval royal household such as “ryban of silk for points laces and girdelles”, “a mantel lace of blue silk with botons of the same”, “frenge of gold of Venys” and “frenge of silk yelowe grene rede white and blue”, while written sources such as poems describe some items; “…In a jacket of light blue, Flounced at the waist and tagged with laces too,…” Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (The Miller’s Tale)
By the Elizabethan era, the names of men (initially husbands of silkwomen) are beginning to appear on Royal accounts, usually as the persons supplying the goods, but not specified as the maker of those items. The work of the silkwoman also changes; not only is she supplying beautiful trimmings, she is responsible for laundering and starching some of the delicate items, and dealing in fine linens too. She supplies items which previously were not used such as ‘buttons & loupes’ (frog fastenings), ribbon roses, ‘sylver tyncell’, items which reflect the changing tastes of the time.
One of the many theories surrounding the decline of the silkwomen in England is that because they were not protected by guild status, their work was gradually taken over by men organising the businesses. The invention of machines such as the ribbon weaving loom, which could weave numerous plain ribbons simultaneously, also had an effect.
It seems that some of the skills also break away - often according to fashion - and new industries form around them. At one time, all of these small items were made by the same people - tassels, frog fasteners, braids, belts, buttons, fringe and other trimmings, regardless of their final use or the materials involved. The advent of more tailored clothes, with numerous buttons for instance, sees the start of the button making industries in Leek and Dorset, while machinery advances sees the silk ribbon weaving industry begin in Coventry. Some skills get lost - fingerloop braiding, the main technique used to create medieval laces is a prime example. When buttons become the main source of fastening, this technique falls into disuse.
In the 18th century, a great many passementerie trimmings are being imported into England from France. Others are being mass produced, enabling more people to access these trimmings for their garments and interiors. By the Victorian period the fashion for trimming reaches a real high - every edge of fabric has ribbon or fringe, and intricate tassels can be seen everywhere.
Today, passementerie is making a quiet comeback in fashion; think of the recent Royal Wedding - the subtle, decorative passementerie frogs on Carole Middleton’s outfit were talked about in many of the reports at the time. Trimmings can be bold or understated, they add a finishing touch to interiors, and can even be used as a basis for modern jewellery.