Skip to main content

The Swedish trade in Chinese silk

Chinese silk textiles had a reputation for being cheaper than e.g. French or Swedish produced silk pieces. The silk industries in Europe, particularly on the Continent, were highly developed. By regularly changing designs and colour schemes French producers generated new fashions at a speed which the East India trade could not keep up with. In this respect the history of the silk trade with asia differed from that of the trade in South Asian cotton textiles. European import bans on colourful printed, painted and glazed cotton textiles from India formed a starting point for innovations in spinning, weaving and printing in Europe that eventually helped establish Britain as the cotton manufacture centre of the world by the end of the eighteenth century. Up until then Indian cotton textiles were superior to those produced in Europe; the extensive smuggling of such goods indicate clearly that consumers knew where the best printed and painted cotton textiles originated from.

As with the Indian cotton textiles, import bans or high tariffs were also used by the European states to protect their domestic silk manufacturing markets from the Chinese imports. This was also the case in Sweden; in 1741 the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) decided to tax all Chinese silk for the domestic market at a rate of 15 % of the auction price. A total ban was introduced in 1745 but by 1747 in response to the inability of the Swedish silk industry to increase its production, the ban was modified making allowance for single dyed silk pieces for distribution the domestic market (although subject to a levy of 20%).[i] A total ban on domestic consumption of Chinese silk was introduced in Sweden in 1754. The impact of the legislation can be detected in the catalogues, after 1754 the import drops dramatically.

The Chinese silk textiles came in a wide variety of types reflecting how they were made. Silk damask was a patterned silk and came in two main different types; Bed Damask (Meuble- or Möbel Damask) traditionally used for furnishing purposes, and Poesis Damask. Pekins and Taffeta were both simple silk types that frequently came painted, patterned or stripy. [ii] In fact there are reasons to believe that Pekins and Taffeta refers to very similar or even identical types of textiles, e.g. the first catalogue of the Swedish company lists an assortment 812 pieces as “Tafften oder Pequins”.[iii]

Damask pieces listed in the Swedish sales catalogues are sometimes ascribed pattern numbers. Silk textiles could also have different woven textures aside from patterns. One type was Gorgoroons, also Grogram, which according to Hosea Ballou Morse was “stout, corded silk stuff, not very lustrous, and one of the more durable of silk fabrics.” (iv) Other types of silk textiles mentioned in the Scandinavian material are Paduasoy which traditionally refers to a fabric woven in a variation of the Satin weave, with fine cross ridges across the fabric.(v)

Next to different types of weaves the catalogue carefully lists the colour schemes of the goods put up for sale. It is worth noting that the colour nomenclature used in the sales catalogues is European and often French in origin. Using the colour terms as a starting point it is possible to create statistics reflecting the changing colour schemes of the Swedish import of Chinese silk. The excel sheet that can be downloaded here is a summary of the import of Poesis Damask pieces by the SEIC between 1733 and 1761. Of all the types of silk pieces imported from China Poesis Damask came in the widest variety of colours, typically each batch contained silk pieces in 14 different colours. Red coloured silk pieces, particularly in the shade Crimson (Carmoise), were the most common. Blue silk pieces were also regularly imported in great quantities; in the beginning of the period most of them are labelled Sky blue (Himmelsblå). Another frequent colour was Jonquille Yellow (Jonguille), which together with Lemon Yellow (Citrongohlt), Straw (Paille) and White (Hvit) constituted the most common lighter textiles. Next to recording the colour composition of each batch and lot, the excel sheet also lists the buyers and the prices they paid for each silk piece.[vi]

Endnotes

[i] Koninckx, Christian The First and Second Charters of the Swedish East India Company, 1731–1766: A Contribution to the Maritime, Economic, and Social History of North-Western Europe in Its Relationships with the Far East. Kortrijk, Belgium: Van Ghemmert, 1980, pp. 227-228.

[ii] Cumming, Valerie, Cecil Willett Cunnington, and Phillis Emily Cunnington. The Dictionary of Fashion History. Berg, 2010, p. 263.

[iii] See SEIC sales catalogue vol. I, 1733 http://contentdm.warwick.ac.uk/cdm/compoundobject/collection/swedish/id/287/rec/1.

[iv] Quoted in Lee-Whitman, Leanna. “The Silk Trade: Chinese Silks and the British East India Company”, Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), pp. 21-41.

[v] Whiteman, p. 30.

[vi] Hodacs, Hanna. Silk and Tea in the North – Scandinavian Trade and the Market for Asian Goods in Eighteenth Century Europe, Palgrave, Forthcoming.

Any comments and queries regarding the content on this page, please contact Hanna Hodacs (h.hodacs@warwick.ac.uk)