Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Types of Silk for Costuming and Veil Work in Belly Dance

    From my notes on my Silkdancer page on Facebook written Wednesday, July 25, 201. 

          Sericulture, or production of silk, has been practiced in China for more than 5000 years. Silk is a natural protein fiber, much like your own hair. The best-known type of silk is obtained from the cocoons of the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bombyx mori reared in captivity.[1] Just as the shape of your hair strand can create the curl and texture of hair, the unique molecular structure of the protein gives silk its lustre. The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.[2]

          No other fabric has the loft of silk as a dance veil. It sometimes appears to have a life of its own, and to move like a partner to the dancer, as opposed to merely being manipulated as a prop. Its weight is measured in units called momme (mm). It is akin to thread counts in cotton fabric but calculated in a very different manner. As with cotton the higher the number of mm, the denser and heavier the silk fabric. Different weights and weaves of silk produce a wide variety of appearance and manner in which the fabric will fall or move in motion. The size and shape of a silk veil used in dance can also greatly affect the venue in which it is most appropriate to be used.

          The most common silk weaves used for veil work are Habotai (or Habutai) and Chiffon, with Charmeuse a distant third.  Most commonly called China Silk, Habotai is one of the most basic, simple weaves. It has a lofty float and also the appearance to hang in the air while used in dance. Chiffon is usually very sheer. While it also floats well, when used as a dance veil, its movement is more fluid and water like. Charmeuse is a satin weave. One side is matte, one is shiny. It is generally a heavier fabric and takes a bit more energy to utilize it to its full potential. The shiny smooth side of the fabric will reflect flashes of light, and it moves like a matador cape or flag.

          After many years of observing and speaking to dancers, as well as personally manipulating silk and dyeing silk, I have found the properties of various weights and weaves influence how they are used as a dance prop.

          5mm Habotai – A very light silk, this fabric has the most “air like” quality and stays afloat the best. It is best used for rectangular shaped veils whether standard size (45” x 3 yard) or extra wide and extra long. This quality allows for beautiful movement in performance. This silk appears to have a life of its own. I have heard many dancers anthropomorphize and refer to their veils as “naughty”, “mischievous”, or “misbehaving” when it blows the wrong way despite hours of practice. This silk also lends itself very well to large half circle veils, whether used singularly or in pairs. The curved edge of the veil in connection with the light weight creates a beautiful ripple when moved in a circular motion. I have seen it used beautifully in semi or petite half circles (45” x 3 yard or 45” x 2-1/2 yard) but the light weight of the fabric in these sizes does not seem to hold the shape of the veil as well as a slightly heavier fabric might. 5mm is also the preferred weight for Fan Veils as it is light and allows the silk to flutter beautifully.
          6mm Habotai – Just the tiniest bit heavier than 5mm, 6mm Habotai gives up a little of the float but allows for a little more control over the veil. I have also found its slightly denser fabric produces a deeper color when dyed. It works beautifully as a rectangle and large half circle, and I have found the added weight to be an asset when manipulating semi circles as well.
          8mm Habotai – 8mm is the heaviest I would recommend for use of this fabric as a dance veil. While it still has the movement properties of the lighter weights, it does not hang in the air as long as the 5mm silk does.  Its density makes the colors richer yet. It is easier  to handle and is an excellent introductory weight for the dancer who has never used silk. 8mm works beautifully as a semi and small half circle, particularly as poi. It holds the curved shape of the veil a little better than the lighter weights and the centripetal force exerted while spinning poi flares out much more than a 5mm silk would. It takes more work to use large half circles made of this choice, but the effects are gorgeous. The silk looks like large wings. This is the minimum fabric weight for Habotai circle skirts. 10mm also makes a beautiful skirt.
Habotai ripped on the grain will not fray, giving dancers the option to hem or not to hem, given personal choice. Veils cut as circles must be hemmed. I have found a tiny, flat hem the best choice. It does not impede the float of the silk.
          Silk Chiffon 6mm-8mm – While I compare Habotai to air for its ability to float, I liken Chiffon to water. While a little heavier than Habotai, it moves more softly and fluidly though the air.  Chiffon is a sheer fabric. It does wrinkle easily, so it must be stored carefully when not in use.  This see through quality creates mystery - as a wrap entrance as it allows a hint of what is yet to be revealed. It is best used as a rectangle veil or for circle skirts. Iridescent chiffon is a shimmering, sheer fabric that changes color in light. It is created by weaving two color threads in the warp and the weft. Combined with the luminescent quality of silk, it appears to glow on stage, flashing several colors at once.
          Silk Charmeuse – This fabric, no matter the weight is matte on one side and shiny on the other. It is opaque, generally much heavier than both Habotai and Chiffon.  Although I have seen it used as a veil, this fabric is very fluid in movement and more suited for skirts. Veils made of Charmeuse have a cape or flag like quality.

          Silk, no matter what weight or weave moves like no other fiber. The key to working with it is experimentation and practice. Silk has a life of its own as a dance partner. Once I experienced my first silk veil, I was mesmerized. The passion grew my business and deepened my love of Oriental dance.

[1], 2

           © 2012


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