Bizarre Silks

Bizarre Silks

Bizarre silks were popular in Italy, France, and England at the end of the 17th century through the beginning of the 18th century. Antique bizarre silk textiles are easily identifiable with a strange asymmetrical design, bold colors, and lavish use of gold and silk threads.  They are woven on a drawloom, with the motifs brocaded in supplementary weft or with floating pattern weft (lampas).

Their design was influenced by Asian textiles that reached Europe at that time.  At first it featured mostly floral and other botanical elements.  The design is not symmetrical and includes diagonal elements, with the flowers large and distorted and arranged along bulbous Baroque scrolls.  Later bizarre elements included architectural elements, Chinese and Japanese motifs, as well as abstract and enigmatic shapes.  The overlapping patterns, mixing fantasy with realistic motifs in witty juxtapositions developed into the complex and strange creations that were labeled as bizarre in the 20th century.

Antique bizarre silk textiles were used for both furnishings and clothing.  The density and largeness of the brocaded design fit well with women’s wear of the period, gowns with few seams and long flowing lines, as well as men’s waistcoats and heavy drapery.

Bizarre silks reached the peak of their popularity in the early 18th century.  However, when fashion changed and pleats became popular, the size and heaviness of the bizarre brocading did not show well resulting in the new patterns featuring small naturalistic floral designs in sprigs and bouquets in addition to lace patterns.

As bizarre patterns fell out of favor, the costly fabrics were usually donated to the church where the dresses were taken apart and repurposed as altar covers, vestments, and other religious textiles.  It is as religious materials that most bizarre textiles survive and when looking at these one can see evidence of their previous life in their curved patterns and stitching.