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Profitable Pleasures

Jan van der Straet. Aspersa vino tersaq oua vermium Papillulis solent fouere virgines ... Engraving, 1600?

Rather than condemning vanity and excess of apparel, James I sought to foster the domestic manufacture of silk, glass, tapestries, and other luxury goods to satisfy consumers and also to create work, develop a trained labor force, and diminish import costs. James's most successful initiatives, which included the manufacture of glass and tapestries, shared common strategies: copying continental practice and design; importing skilled workers and designers from Italy, France, and the Low Countries; and, ultimately, creating goods for export as well as domestic consumption.


By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the English love of fine apparel led to a dramatic increase in imports of silk fabric. Paintings and miniatures, like the one included above, highlight the desire of English to dress themselves in a rich array of fabrics like silk and velvet, in a rainbow of colors, to demonstrate their prosperity and fine tastes.


Responding to increased demand for fabrics, James I developed a thriving silk industry in England. Henry IV had already built silk works in France, and James I began to encourage the production of raw materials for a silk industry in England. He promoted Nicholas Geffe's translation of Olivier de Serres's work on silk worms, which reproduced woodcuts from another French work by Jean Baptiste Letellier showing how to care for silk worms, harvest raw silk, and spin fabric.


Flemish artist Jan van der Straet's engravings in Vermis sericus perhaps best illustrate the production of silk. The complete set consists of six scenes, beginning with the presentation of silk to the emperor Justinian in the sixth century by Persian monks, who revealed the secret that silk was produced by a species of worm. The scene shown here shows aristocratic women embroidering silk textiles perhaps for use as clothing or in the home.



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Royal, military and court costumes of the time of James I. Watercolor, early 17th century

Olivier de Serres. The perfect use of silk-wormes, and their benefit. London, 1607

Related Items

The fall of sumptuary laws


Sumptuary legislation enacted over the centuries to reenforce hierarchy and status distinction had long lain unenforced, and ended in 1604. Aided by the slackening of these laws, the English bought more and more luxury goods.


Imports increased perhaps as much as 50% between 1628 and 1640. The value of imported silk fabrics doubled between 1560 and 1622. In 1559-60, raw and semi-finished silk had made up 1.1% of London's imports; by 1622, it had risen to 7.5%.* 


*Statistics are derived from Christopher Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change in England (Cambridge, 1984) II: 124-5.


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