Ribbon embellishments are a recurring feature across the history of clothing, from the heavily trimmed petticoat breeches of the seventeenth century to the tri-coloured cockades of Revolutionary France. The Victorians were obsessed when it came to ribbons, covering some 19th century gowns with a profusion of bows and rosettes.

Flat, narrow woven bands and ribbons have long been used in the decoration of clothing and accessories.

Originally woven by hand on small looms, plain ribbons tended only to be used as edge or seam bindings, while fancier, more time-consuming ribbons were used as decoration. 

These elements tended to be sewn flat to a garment as opposed to being tied in any decorative manner. Much of this had to do with the process of the decorative weaving: many used expensive metallic threads that caused the resulting ribbon to be stiff, heavy, and not at all suitable for shaping into bows.

By the 16th century ribbons, especially plain ribbons, were being used more decoratively. Initially they began to take the place of laces, first as bows that can be seen as opposed to simple ties beneath the outer garments, and finally culminating in the 19th century’s almost overuse of ribbons and bows.

A loom that could produce more than one ribbon at a time was invented in Germany sometime in the middle of the 16th century. Although not in common use, by the late 16th century some looms could weave four to six simple ribbons at one time, greatly increasing output. By the early 17th century, the Dutch had looms that could weave 24 ribbons simultaneously. The increased output reduced the price of ribbons considerably, and we can see this reflected in fashion of the period. Ribbons became decorative items as they became more affordable.

By the beginning of the 18th century the famous Coventry weaving industry in England had been established, which in itself was believed to have employed 40% of the population at its height. Similar industries in London and Staffordshire also produced ribbons in vast quantities. Not all ribbons were produced on multiple looms; fancier ribbons were still produced individually. But this increase in production succeeded in reducing prices even further, until plain ribbons (at least) were affordable across the spectrum of society.

Making Your Own Ribbon Embellishments

A huge variety of ribbons can be purchased today, of course, and in an even wider range of materials than ever before. Silk ribbons provide the most authentic look, but can be difficult (and expensive) to find in the sizes and colours required. The Victorians did use cottons for some ribbons, but generally speaking ribbons made from other materials continued to be used for binding or re-enforcing, not for decorative purposes.

I have used plain, everyday ribbon as available in any haberdashers for the following examples, except where stated. Much of this ribbon is polyester or a polyester mix. This will enable you see what can be created, and hopefully encourage you to practice with affordable ribbons – you can then feel better about splashing out for that special project!

Remember that very stiff ribbons do not work as well – avoid nylon ribbon if you can, though this is harder to find these days. Ribbons with a natural fibre content work better for the projects that require steaming, although some mixed fibres can still be steamed into place with good results.

Other equipment you’ll need:

  • Scissors
  • Good quality pins (glass headed are especially good, so that you can see the pin)
  • A firm pincushion, or piece of foam art board, cork board, etc. (something which can withstand high steam temperatures – your ironing board will do if you don’t mind poking pin holes into it! If using any type of board, cover it with fabric before laying the ribbon on it to avoid any marking)
  • Fine needle and thread (a fine needle will cause less damage to ribbons)
  • Knitting needle or pencil
  • Two posts – ie, the Trimmings Table, warping posts, pencils or knitting needles propped upright, or clamps.
  • A steam iron, water, ironing cloth
  • Brown paper, or greaseproof paper [US: baking parchment]

Knot bow

The knot bow is best suited for little bows, and is first tied around an object to give it structure. It cannot be taken apart easily.

 

     
     
1. Lay your ribbon flat and place a fine knitting needle (or similar) over it.  2. Bring the ends of the ribbon up, right over left.   3. Wrap around and pull the ends to form the first tie.

 

     
     
4. Repeat to form a second tie...  ...in exactly the same way.  5. Trim the ends to create a bow shape. 

 

Should you not want the little loop created after Step 1, you can choose to not use the knitting needle. Basically, you will then create a knot with long decorative ends.

 

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Traditional crafts for the modern maker

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