Poison Rubber

Rubber footwear catalogue c. 1880

In 1887, three men who all worked at a New York rubber company were committed to a local Hospital for incoherent insanity. Dr. Frederick Peterson, who specialized in nervous conditions, thought the men may have inhaled fumes from carbon disulfide – a toxic chemical used in the rubber industry.

Rubber is an organic substance but to stabilize it so that it doesn’t get soft in summer and brittle in winter, the vulcanization process was developed in 1845. This process applies heat and sulfur but an improved process called ‘cold vulcanization’ was in common use by 1850. This process used carbon disulfide – the culprit of the rubber workers’ condition. 

By 1851 it was already known carbon disulfide fumes that develop from evaporation, were a danger to the nervous system. The toxins accumulated to create symptoms that resembled intoxication, grew to include weakness and numbness of the extremities, impotence, ‘hysteria’ in the male sex (it was thought at the time that only women suffered from hysteria), and full on insanity.

Carbon disulfide was not limited to just the rubber industry. It was also used in the manufacturing of cellophane and rayon. Many Polish slave labourers during World War II in the third reich’s rayon industry were hospitalized as mental patients before disappearing…

Carbon disulfide is still used in the production of rubber, cellophane and rayon but products made from these materials are safe to handle and use, as the carbon disulfide used during manufacturing is not present in the finished products made from these materials. For more information check out this article.

Canada’s Silk Steam Trains

Bales of silk in the hold of a ship

From 1887 until the 1930s, raw silk from the Far East roared across Canada in trains from the port of Vancouver.  Within two hours of the boat docking at Vancouver, stevedores unloaded the 90-kilogram burlap-wrapped 12-inch by 24-inch by 36-inch bales of silk to waiting custom agents in a warehouse. Because raw silk is perishable, it is necessary to get the silk to the mills as quickly as possible. Special boxcars were developed that held 470 bales of silk each. Built on passenger car trucks for better suspension, the boxcars were also shorter than normal boxcars to take curves at higher speeds. 

The first shipment of 65 bales of raw silk arrived at the port of Vancouver on June 13, 1887, aboard the Abyssinia from Hong Kong. During October 1902, the Vancouver Daily Province reported the arrival of two ships from the Far East with silk cargos of more than 2,000 bales each, worth more than one and a half million. The same paper estimated on October 25, 1902 that “Vancouver, the silk port of North America: Over four and a half million dollars worth of raw silk will be received within thirty days”.

The following year, the Daily Province reported on Jan. 10, 1903, the silk train “makes the regular express time appear as but a snail’s pace.” The train the newspaper was referring to had travelled from Vancouver to Kamloops, 400 kilometres northeast through the mountains, in 10 hours and 45 minutes — an hour faster than the express passenger train. On the prairies, the steam trains could travel up to 90 kph where other trains rarely exceeded 70 kph. Every 200 kilometres there was a pit stop that lasted about seven minutes to add oil and water, or change engines and crew.

Canadian Pacific (CP) operated both a trans-Canada railway and a transpacific shipping line that dominated the silk trade and made Vancouver the major port for silk entering North America. Canadian National (CN) began to compete with CP with its first silk run across Canada in July 1925, however CN lacked ships and relied upon British and Japanese ships to bring the raw silk to Vancouver. CN trains crossed the border at Niagara Falls and handed over their shipments to the New York Central Railroad while CP carried their silk to Canadian destinations including Galt, Toronto, and Montreal. 

By 1929, rayon was becoming more used than silk for underwear, stockings, and ribbons. That October, the Great Depression began a series of cost-cutting measures that made shipping by ship cheaper than rail. The Panama canal, which had opened in 1914, began attracting more business and the railway’s share of shipping silk quickly fell from 94 percent of all silk in 1928 to 40 percent in 1931. The value of silk also dropped to $1.27 per pound by 1934, down from $6.50 per pound a decade earlier, making it less profitable.

CP stopped running silk-only trains in 1933, and instead hitched two or three silk cars onto their regular trans-Canada passenger trains. CN’s last silk-only trains ran in 1935. In 1940 CN shipped only 504 bales of silk for the entire year. The last shipment of silk from Japan arrived in August, 1941, months before the war expanded to include Japan. Existing stocks of silk were quickly used up or were requisitioned for wartime use. For more information on the silk trains see this article.

Express silk train, 1928

Scarf designer Vera Neumann

Vera Neumann (nee Salaff) was born June 24, 1907 and attended art school and the Traphagen School of Design. She began working as a fashion illustrator before going into textile design. After marrying George Neumann, the two founded a silk screen textile printing company called Printex in 1942. Her first signature printed scarves appeared shortly afterwards and quickly became popular sellers. 

In about 1959 she adopted a ladybug motif which appeared alongside her signature scarf, linens, and yardage prints throughout the 1960s. The motif gradually fell from use, disappearing by 1976. Five years after the death of her husband in 1962, Vera sold the business to Manhattan Industries but remained their creative director. The company expanded into sportswear, eventually hiring Perry Ellis to oversee the sportswear and luggage divisions. 

Vera’s artwork was critically praised and shown in galleries during the 1970s, especially her Japanese sumi-e (ink painting) designs that she preferred to use for most of her work. In 1988, Neumann began licensing her name to Salant Corporation, closing her Printex business later that same year. She remained head designer until her death on June 15, 1993. Vera Licensing was sold on to The Tog Shop in 1999; resold to Susan Seid in 2005; and sold again in 2013.

Vera Neumann, 1970s

The Mysterious Disappearance of Jim Thompson

Most fashion designers die of natural causes after long, productive lives: Madame Gres passed away at 89, Givenchy at 91, and Madame Carven at 105! Some leaders in the fashion world survived disasters: Lucile was aboard the Titanic, Philip Mangone was on the Hindenburg, and Issey Miyake’s family lived in Hiroshima in 1945 when the Atom bomb was dropped on the city. However, a few met their ends unexpectedly: Versace was murdered, Laura Ashley either fell or was pushed down the stairs, and Jim Thompson — well nobody knows what happened to him. Jim Thompson is the Amelia Earhart of the fashion industry.

Born in Delaware in 1906, his father was a wealthy textile manufacturer. Jim graduated from Princeton University and was an Olympic athlete. He even represented the U.S. in sailing at the 1928 Summer Olympics. Jim then worked in an architectural firm until 1941 when he enlisted with the National Guard. He then joined the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) and worked with the French Resistance in North Africa. After VE Day he was re-assigned to help liberate Thailand from the occupying Japanese but the war ended before he was despatched. He was sent to Thailand anyway to organize the Bangkok OSS office.

After being discharged from the army in 1946, Jim Thompson stayed in Thailand and joined a group of investors to buy and restore the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. However, he had a falling out and left the group, and instead founded the Thai Silk Company Ltd. in 1948. Business was slow at first, but Thompson was determined to keep silk production as a cottage-based industry so that the weavers could work from home. He became highly respected by the Thai government as his work in promoting and exporting Thai silk saved the silk industry and brought prosperity to Thailand’s poorest class.

In 1951 costume designer Irene Sharaff used Thompson’s Thai silks for the Rodgers and Hammerstein broadway musical The King and I. Soon fashion designers were choosing Thai silk for making cocktail dresses, evening gowns, and pyjama ensembles. With the wealth he had accumulated, Thompson began building a spectacular home in 1958 using parts of old Thai dwellings for its construction. He filled it with his collected treasures: Ming pottery, Cambodian carvings, and Victorian glass chandeliers. The house today is a museum.

On Easter Sunday, March 26, 1967, Thompson attended church services and then went for a walk by himself. He returned within the hour and then went to lunch with three friends. After lunch he went for another walk by himself and was seen a couple of hours later, around 4 p.m. However, by 6 p.m. he had not returned. A search party was formed and over the next 11 days searches were conducted by hundreds of police, military personnel and volunteers but no trace of Jim Thompson was ever found.

Immediate speculation was that he had been kidnapped, but no ransom note was ever received. As no body was ever found and no clues ever emerged, it wasn’t clear if he had been murdered, had an accident, was eaten by a tiger, or had disappeared on purpose. Blood hounds lost track of his scent at a road, suggesting he had entered a car. In 1985 some bone fragments were found in the area of his disappearance, but it was not determined if they were even human, and DNA tests were not conducted at that time.

A few years ago a death-bed confession led investigators to reinvestigate an old theory as to why and how he had disappeared. The conclusion was that Thompson had been commissioned for one last mission. His lone walks were to meet with rebels from the Communist Party of Malaya. They grew suspicious after Thompson requested a meeting with Chin Peng, the party’s secretary-general, who was at that time Malaysia’s most-wanted man. It is conjectured Thompson went willingly expecting to meet with Peng, but was instead killed and his body disposed of in such a way that it would never be found.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Backing the Bandage Dress

Hervé Peugnet was born in 1957, and after working as a hairdresser and milliner, he turned his hand to fashion. In 1981 he got the chance to work for Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi. Lagerfeld advised Peugnet to change his surname as it was too difficult for Americans to pronounce. Hervé chose Léger when he created his first collection in 1985. 

In 1986, Azzedine Alaia created a collection that used Lycra bands, spawning the age of ‘body-con’ fashion. Léger may have copied Alaia’s idea or independently developed a similar style. He said he had been inspired by seeing scraps of Lycra trim in a work room and wondered how they would work sewn together. Léger launched his ‘bender’ dresses, as he called them, made of knitted bands of Lycra in 1989, and offered them every year for the next eight years. Although he used other materials to create other fashions, it was these bandage-like dresses for which Léger became known.

The Canadian Bronfman family who owned Seagram’s Group bankrolled Léger’s business when they were diversifying their portfolio (outside of liquor) in the 1980s. However, due to the economic recession of the 1990s, over-extended projects, and many poor business decisions, like the Canary Wharf development in London, Seagram’s sold off Hervé Léger in September 1998 to BCBG Max Azria Group of Los Angeles. Not liking his new boss, Léger quit in 1999, losing the rights to his own name. Hervé took the new last name of Leroux in 2000.

Max Azria was surprised to discover that the Léger bandage dresses weren’t as simply made as they appeared. The back catalogue had been ransacked before the buy-out, so Azria had to buy back samples for the company archives, mostly on eBay, as well as from a former muse of Hervé Léger. In April 2007 Max Azria relaunched the Hervé Léger ‘bender’ or bandage dress, and the next year presented the Hervé Léger by Max Azria collection at the Fall 2008 New York Fashion Week.

Basotho Heritage Blankets

Blankets featured in the film Black Panther were manufactured in Randfontein, a small mining town in South Africa by a company called Aranda Textile Mills. The company was started by Dr. Magni, an Italian who immigrated to South Africa with his two brothers after World War II to rebuild their family’s weaving industry that had been destroyed in Prato during the war. The first blankets were produced in 1953. In the 1980s, the Basotho heritage style blankets, which are worn every day in the colder higher regions, were designed by two Englishmen, R.D. Shrubsole and Colin Tunnington, who were experts in Basotho culture. The stripe, which was originally a weaving error, has become a trademark of the blankets. The stripe is worn vertically to denote growth. The blankets began to be sold in Johannesburg about 30 years ago with a branch store in Ficksburg, on the border of Lesotho.

Canadian Fashion Connection – Newlands

Andrew Newlands was born in Scotland in 1840, and was married with two children when he immigrated with his family to Canada in the late 1860s. In the 1871 census he is recorded as working as the superintendent of a woollen mill in Preston, Ontario. In 1884 he opened his own mill in Galt, Ontario making jersey cloth, glove and shoe linings, among other products.

By 1890 he had opened another business called the Galt Robe Company that made “Saskatchewan Robes” – a brand name lap rug for use in sleighs and carriages. With the extinction of the vast herds of Buffalo on the Western Plains, the large haired buffalo hide robes, which had been popularly used as sleigh and carriage rugs, could no longer be found. Newlands created a substitute robe he felt imitated the qualities of the buffalo robe by using multiple layers of wool blankets, a rubber membrane (for waterproofing), an imitation lambskin for softness, and a piled wool that loosely resembled buffalo hide.

Saskatchewan ‘buffalo’ carriage robe, c. 1890s

Newlands died in 1899. Who owned the mills for the next 16 years isn’t clear, but the company continued to operate under the Newlands name. In 1916, 36 year old George Dobbie bought a half share interest with his partner Joseph Stauffer, merged Galt Robe with Newlands, and officially changed the name of the company to Stauffer-Dobbie Ltd., although the Newlands brand of yarn continued to be made until around the time of George Dobbie’s death in 1951. The yarn brand’s name was then changed to Lady Galt (a line of towels was also called Lady Galt which were produced into the 1970s.)

1948 Newland’s knitting book (and apparently the last one printed under the Newlands’ name) with 1947’s Miss Canada on the cover.

Sea Silk

Sea silk is a rare textile made from byssus, silky filaments made of proteins hardened upon contact with seawater secreted by mollusks to attach themselves to the sea bed. The Pinna nobilis (aka pen shells), which can be up to a metre in length and are found in the Mediterranean sea, produce byssus filaments that have been spun and treated with lemon juice to produce a golden colour thread that never fades. The resulting textile is extremely fine and has been historically used to weave and knit garments including gloves and stockings.

Stocking made from sea silk dating from the late 17th century, from the collection of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Braunschweig, Germany

The Chinese recorded importing ‘mermaid silk’ from the west as early as the 3rd century, and by the 5thcentury there were Roman edicts limiting who could wear garments made of lana pinna. More recent references to sea silk include the crew of the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, who wore clothes made of ‘seashell tissue’.

The Pinna nobilis is now a threatened species due to overfishing and habitat destruction. A few women on the island of Sant’Antioco near Sardinia still make sea silk, but harvesting Pinna nobilis byssus is now protected by the Italian coast guard, and fabric made from byssus cannot be bought or sold.

Thanks to Melanie Nute for alerting me to this 2018 song by Kitty MacFarlane about sea silk and an interesting interview with Kitty Macfarlane (starts about the 40 minute mark) about her trip to the island and meeting a woman who gathers and spins sea silk

Ersatz – German Paper Fashions from the Great War

The Great War caused great shortages of wool, leather, and linen – materials required for making uniforms and airplane wings. These materials were in especially short supply in Germany and Austria where paper was developed as a substitute textile for making civilian clothing.  

Before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, American publications ran articles about Germany’s inventiveness in developing ersatz materials. In January 1917, the New York Sun reported that the Germans had developed paper-based threads for making “…girdles, doilies, aprons, working garments… the inventors have discovered a way to give the ‘paper cloth’ great resistance to dampness…” Paper cloth, woven from tightly twisted paper threads, resembled a coarse linen or hemp burlap that had been originally developed for making sacks.

German corset made of paper cloth, c. 1917 – 1920

Shortages did not end with the war in Germany and Austria, where paper clothing continued to be made. In 1920, the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce imported a selection of Austrian paper clothing items to display on a tour around the country. When the Washington exhibit opened in September 1920, the Associated Press reported that “one suit is quoted at fifteen cents, and is washable…” The Washington, D.C., Evening Star reported, German-made suits were selling in London for the equivalent of 46 cents to $1.95, and that a man could buy a new suit each week of the year for less than the cost of a wool suit.

The U.S. trade publication Textile Worldnoted “It seems quite evident now that the German and Austrian manufacturers intend to cover the markets of the world with their paper substitutes for real clothing… Officials in Washington do not believe that this competition will ever be felt in the United States. The material used in the German product is too coarse and crude to meet with favor here to any extent unless many refinements are adopted.” 

close up of paper fabric

Although paper clothing piqued curiosity, the public remained unconvinced and consumers preferred to wear cloth made of traditional fibres. Ironically, rayon, which was made from chemically processed wood pulp (the same raw material as paper), became the best selling new fibre of the 1920s.