Friday, October 27, 2017

Bombazine and the 19th Century Widow by Zina Abbott

In my most recent novel, Dead Set Delphinia, my heroine in the fall of 1881 finds herself involved with the furniture store owner in the relatively new mining town of Jubilee Springs. Since he has the skills to nail together a pine box, he has also become the coffin-maker and, by default, the town mortician. This was not all that unusual. While researching Lundy, California for the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series I wrote, I found in real life the furniture store owner, Andrew Barnes, was also the coffin-builder and mortician for that community.

As part of the plot, in Dead Set Delphinia, when Bennett Nighy asks for Delphinia’s help to act as a hostess at the viewing of one of the town’s beloved deceased citizens, she decides it is time to visit the seamstress in order to see if the woman can help her put together an appropriate gown in black bombazine.

I sew, and I have been known to frequent fabric stores. However, my first recollection of being exposed to the fabric bombazine came about as I read The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. This novel, based on a true story, tells about Carnton Plantation, the scene of a horrific Civil War battle in 1864, how the land became a cemetery for the multitude of Confederate dead. It continued to be watched over by the widow of the plantation owner who, until her death, wore nothing but black bombazine mourning dresses.
Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning bombazine
The word “bombazine” struck me as unusual. The way my crazy mind works, it put me in mind of cabaret music – you know: bomba-bomba-bomba.

Exactly what is bombazine?

NOUN:  a twilled dress fabric of worsted and silk or cotton.

Bombazine, or bombasine, is a fabric originally made of silk or silk and wool, and now also made of cotton and wool or of wool alone. Quality bombazine is made with a silk warp and a worsted weft. It is twilled or corded and used for dress-material. Black bombazine was once used largely for mourning wear, but the material had gone out of fashion by the beginning of the 20th century. In the nineteenth century, the fabric was mostly made in Norwich, England.

Bombazine is said to have originated in the United Kingdom in the early 18th century but quickly spread across Europe and eventually called bombazine from the old French word bombasin. Interestingly enough, it first found use as a cloth ideal for mourning widows although subsequent growth of the fashion industry allowed it to flourish towards other uses. 

Bombazine was also used to make the black robes worn by judges.

Here are some interesting facts about bombazine:

• Bombazine used to be exclusively made from silk. However, the subsequent need to make it affordable to the masses necessitated the shift from silk to cotton and wool. In many societies in olden times, the price of silk was too exorbitant to merit buying bombazine. However, because bombazine cannot compete with velvet as a luxury material, it was forced to find another niche in a more affordable price range.

• Twilling or cording are the only known methods known for making bombazine. Twilling is process of weaving where cloth strands are pushed through other cloth strands positioned lengthwise on a weaving machine. The resulting cloth has a characteristic diagonal pattern that is highly resistant to ordinary wear and tear. More modern incarnations of twilled fabric include denim which is used for making jeans.

• The use of bombazine as a mourner’s cloth was precipitated by the observation that the fabric has just enough sheen and sparkle for a mourning widow. Too much sparkle would have been construed as a blatant display of disrespect to the dead while cloth with less shine would have been a symbol of low status in society which was not ideal in an era where Victorian affluence was the prevailing theme.
Mary Wylie King, widow 1920

• While bombazine can be made in a variety of colors, it is predominantly manufactured and sold in black. This is consistent with its status as the cloth of choice for mourner’s dresses.

• Today, bombazine no longer has the same status as it once had in Victorian times. Bombazine is still sold in many shops but in substantially lower volumes. The values of the modern times has pushed the material to relative obscurity so much so that not many people are familiar with this type of fabric.

• Modern applications of bombazine include lining material in caskets and jewelry boxes. The next time you see a casket, check out the inner lining so you’ll know firsthand what bombazine looks like.


Dead Set Delphinia is a full novel and the fourth of Zina Abbott's books in the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs series. You may read more about it by CLICKING HERE.

Her fifth book, Evasive Eddie Joe, is scheduled for publication October 31st.

Zina Abbott has available three other novellas in the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs series.

Book 6:  Cat's Meow
Book 7:  Bargain Bessie
To read and enjoy all of the books in the Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs series, please sign up and follow us on Amazon by CLICKING HERE.

1 comment:

Claire McEwen said...

This is so fascinating. I have read the word bombazine in so many historical novels and never really knew what it was!