Toxins in your textiles

Due to erm, unforeseen circumstances, I cannot access certain programs on my computer, including my photo editing software, so no pictures today. Instead I’m sharing some of the interesting bits and bobs I’ve found so far on leaded silk.

You think lead paint in children’s toys is bad? A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. Since the effects of lead poisoning are cumulative, people didn’t always notice it. I found this article particularly amusing and disturbing at the same time:

Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: “No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin.”

Full article available via this link: TIME Magazine, July 9, 1934

The Occupational Diseases by William Gilman Thompson (c. 1914) lists many occupations in which lead is used and the effects on the people involved in them. For example on page 234: “In Vienna, in 1906, several cases of plumbism [lead poisoning] occurred in women and girls who made fringe of silk which had been weighted with lead acetate.” On page 215 we find that seamstresses who are in the habit of biting off their threads are prone to lead poisoning as well. Makes you think, doesn’t it? This text is readable online, so you might find it an interesting, if somewhat unpleasant, diversion.

If lead poisoning is so nasty, why was lead even used in silk production? It makes sense when you think that at one time, silk was sold by weight. To make it heavier and therefore increase its resale value, lead was added to the fibers. Another unfortunate consequence of this we now know is that it makes the fibers less supple and more brittle, causing them to deteriorate much faster than they would naturally. Silk is generally recognized as having a 100 year lifespan (give or take, of course), but leaded silk becomes as delicate as tissue paper long before that. A silk day dress I own from the 1890’s has a heavy, luxuriously thick velvet skirt and a delicate, flimsy bodice made from leaded silk that falls apart at the slightest touch. The skirt may yet be recycled, but the bodice will never be of much use except for pattern and design research.

More to come as I dig it up. Really, the more I find on this subject, the more fascinated I am by the current furor over the whole Chinese lead paint in toys scandal. We seem to be acting as if this was something new…

8 Comments Add yours

  1. laura giblin says:

    I had been told by the niece of a nun that during the early 1900’s, lead was used to stiffen and whiten nun’s habits and that the practice was discontinued due to lead poisoning. Unfortunately I cannot find any online information regarding this.

    And while taking a course on hazardous chemicals I was told that the toxicity of asbestos was recognized in ancient Greece.

    It seems that some things have been forgotten to easily through history, and not for the better.

  2. Excellent! Thank you for sharing.

    Lead was also used in makeup (Marie Antoinette likely wore it), and toys were made of the stuff for a very long time. And then there’s wallpaper… it’s surprising humans have made it this far, isn’t it? We’ve been poisoning ourselves for centuries.

  3. FranIAm says:

    Wow- who knew? Interesting indeed.

  4. Karen says:

    What are the regulations regarding lead in fabrics today? I ask, because I make one-of-a-kind clothing for collectible dolls. While my customers are adult collectors, the CPSIA legislation has me worried that for CPSC purposes, what I make may be considered “toys” for children 12 and under.

    I have written to several fabric companies, regarding the use of lead in their manufacturing process, but have not heard back from any of them. I would hope that those who have moved their textile business offshore, would know the answer to my question, and would have already have addressed the issue.


  5. Karen, I would like assume that leaded textiles are no longer produced, but who knows? So far as I know lead-processed textiles were phased out during the mid 20th century. Perhaps I ought to look into that again.

    Fingers crossed that we will see these CPSC people come to their senses and rewrite this infernal restriction so that it doesn’t punish artists such as yourself.

  6. collectible dolls are expensive too specially if you got the premium and rare ones .

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