Rayon fabric

The original “Artificial Silk” was crafted into crochet!

Crochet is my favourite textile craft and I am always delighted when I see it being acknowledged or even celebrated in the public arena. A particularly historic example of significant crochet was on display on our recent visit to the exhibition “A Brilliant Mind: Sir Joseph Swan 1828-1914” at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne. Let me tell you more about this.

In my earlier post about the exhibition, I was showing you Joseph Swan’s most famous invention, the lightbulb – or more correctly, the Carbon Filament Lamp. He had first demonstrated the lamp in the early months of 1879. In his subsequent efforts to improve the filaments for his lamps, Joseph Swan began experimenting with extruding nitro-cellulose that had been extracted from plant fibre.

Swan’s experiments built on previous work by others including the German-Swiss chemist, Christian Friedrich Schoenbein, who had discovered nitro-cellulose around 1846. Initially, nitro-cellulose or ‘guncotton’ was used as an effective propellant for military purposes. Nottingham University has produced an informative and dramatic video on the chemistry of nitro-cellulose and guncotton as part of their Periodic Table series on YouTube.

Swan was looking to make strong thin filaments rather than dramatic flashing flames and he found that by squirting nitro-cellulose dissolved in acetic acid through a small hole and into a bath of alcohol, he could produce a thin continuous thread. This thread was thin enough to be used as a textile fibre. Joseph Swan called his invention ‘artificial silk’. Hannah Swan, Swan’s wife, crocheted the new ‘artificial silk’ fibre into doilies, table mats and the edging of this silk handkerchief. This exhibit is currently on loan to Newcastle’s Discovery Museum from the Science Museum in London.

Joseph Swan's 'artificial silk' crocheted by his wife, Hannah
Joseph Swan’s ‘artificial silk’ crocheted by his wife, Hannah, into a handkerchief border

Hannah Swan’s crocheted textiles were displayed as part of the Exhibition of Inventions in London in 1885. (You can see a clearer image of the crochet edging on this webpage.)

International exhibitions were something of a feature of the cultural scene in the later years of the 19th century, starting with the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the purpose-built Crystal Palace in London. With over 2 million visitors attending the Exhibition of Inventions during the Autumn months of 1885, I can imagine Hannah Swan was very proud that her crochet had taken its place in the history of inventions.

Joseph Swan understood that his fibre could be an alternative to silk but although he did obtain a patent for the production method, Swan’s ‘artificial silk’ was not produced commercially in Britain. It was the French chemist, Chardonnet, who had also been working on the use of nitro-cellulose for fibre production, who became known as the ‘father of Rayon‘. Rayon was the name by which this type of cellulose-based fibre became known. The header image I have added to this post shows an example of woven rayon fabric on a vintage shirt of mine. However, it was another cellulose-based substance, viscose, that became the basis for the artificial silk industry in Britain.

From the early years of the Industrial Revolution right through the Victorian era, the ingenuity of the human mind leapt on at a great pace, with discoveries and inventions of all kinds. Joseph Swan was in his element during this period. In 1906 he was quoted as saying:

“If I could have had the power of choice of the particular space of time within which my life should be spent I believe I would have chosen precisely my actual lifetime. What a glorious time it has been! Surely no other 78 years in all the long history of the world ever produced an equal harvest of invention and discovery for the beneficial use and enlightenment of mankind.”

I liked that Joseph Swan saw the technological developments of his lifetime as being beneficial and could stimulate future developments – though I would like to think he meant ‘womankind’ too 😉 … especially given his wife Hannah’s assistance with the historically important crochet!

J Peggy Taylor

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12 thoughts on “The original “Artificial Silk” was crafted into crochet!

      1. Well, I thought this post was so interesting, I sent a link to Pauline Turner of the International Diploma in Crochet. As it happens, expert that she is, Pauline hadn’t heard this piece of crochet history! I also sent the link to the editor of Inside Crochet, suggesting this would make a great magazine article!

      2. Gosh! I didn’t realise I was sharing something that is seemingly so little-known within the crochet world! I did find it a fascinating subject to research myself and found several references online. It will be wonderful to share Hannah Swan’s historical crochet with other crochet enthusiasts. Thanks for letting me know that my crochet discovery was so interesting to yourself and others. I am so pleased to have spotted and spread this particular piece of crochet history! 🙂

      3. Hello again. Heard back from magazine editor. She reckons it would make a nice tidbit item, or if you could find more info, make a feature of it. The way she worded the email made it sound like she thought I would do it, but I as it’s your discovery I think should write it! If you’re interested, contact me at thehookstook@gmail.com, and I’ll forward you on the details..

  1. Wonderful piece of information Peggy! Never knew the man behind Rayon when we studied about it long ago… Happy to see the crocheted hanky made by Hannah. Yes, yes, even I think, he meant womankind itself 😉

    TC! Keep smiling 🙂

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