Silk and other artificial flowers manufactured today are breathtakingly real and must be touched if they are to be distinguished from nature's own. Silk trees bring the outdoors into sterile offices, and flower arrangements change the color and feel of a room for a relatively small investment. Hobbyists find them a joy to work with and take pleasure in completing arrangements that make beautiful, lasting gifts and ornaments.
The vast improvements in the quality of artificial flowers as well as lifestyles that demand carefree home decorating accessories have caused a flowering of the artificial flower industry into a multi-billion-dollar business. Many of the individual flowers, stems, and foliage are now imported from Thailand, China, and Honduras where the intensive hand labor can be acquired more readily.
Faux flowers allow home decorators to defy the seasons, not only by having summer blooms in the dead of winter but by mixing flowers from several seasons in a single display. Some manufacturers use real materials to enhance silk flowers, such as inserting artificial branches in real tree trunks. Real touches are also added to the false flora; leaves may have holes that look like insect damage, silk roses are complete to the thorns, and some fabulous fakes are even fragrant. Their ultimate attraction may be their least natural aspects; these plants don't need water, fertilizer, sunlight, or tender care.
Florists call silk and other artificial flowers "permanent botanicals," and for many years, they looked down on both dried flowers and artificial flowers as inferior. Today, silk flowers are prized for their versatility and are used by florists to enhance live plants and mingle with cut blossoms. This tradition is hundreds of years old and is believed to have been started by the Chinese who mastered the skills of working with silk as well as creating elaborate floral replicas. The Chinese used artificial flowers for artistic expression, but they were not responsible for turning silk flower-making into a business.
As early as the twelfth century, the Italians began making artificial florals from the cocoons of silkworms, assembling the dyed, velvety blooms, and selling them. The French began to rival their European neighbors, and, by the fourteenth century, French silk flowers were the top of the craft. The French continued to improve both fabrics and the quality of flowers made from them. In 1775, Marie Antoinette was presented with a silk rosebud, and it was said to be so perfect that it caused her to faint. The Revolution that ended Marie Antoinette's reign also dispatched many French flower artisans to England, and, by the early 1800s, English settlers had taken the craft with them to America.
The Victorian Age was the setting for a true explosion in floral arts, including both living and artificial varieties. The Victorians favored an overdone style of decor in which every table and mantelpiece bore flowers or other ornaments. Flowers were so adored that "the language of flowers" grew to cult status in which floral bouquets carried messages and meanings. During the mid- to late-1800s, artificial flowers were made of a wider variety of materials than any time before or since. Fabrics included satin, velvet, calico, muslin, cambric, crepe, and gauze. Other materials included wood, porcelain, palm leaves, and metal. Wax flowers were popular and became their own art form, and flowers were even made of human hair especially to commemorate deceased loved ones.
In the United States, lavish arrangements and apparel made use of permanent botanicals. The Parisian Flower Company, which had offices in both New York and Paris, supplied silk flowers and other artificial florals to milliners, makers of bridal and ball gowns, and other dressmakers, as well as for room decoration. They sold separate stems and arrangements that were either pre-made or commissioned. By 1920, florists began to add them to their products and services to cover those times when cut blossoms were in short supply.
The trend toward wreaths and ornaments using false fruit in the Italian della Robbiastyle flourished in the 1920s and 1930s and waned by 1940. Celluloid became a popular material for flowers in the 1940s, but the highly flammable flowers were banned from importation from Japan after several disastrous fires. Plastic soon overwhelmed the industry, however, and is still responsible for its versatility in the 1990s. Inexpensive plastics to realistic silk blossoms offer something for everyone.
Artificial flowers are made in a wide variety of materials depending on the market the manufacturer is reaching. In quantity, polyester has become the fabric of choice by flower makers and purchasers because of lower cost, ability of the fabric to accept dyes and glues, and durability. Plastic is also the material used most often for the stems, berries, and other parts of flowers for the market that includes picks—small clusters of artificial flowers on short plastic and wire stems that can be inserted into forms to make quick, inexpensive floral decorations—and bulk sales of longer stems of flowers that are also less expensive. Artificial flowers are made of paper, cotton, parchment, latex, rubber, sateen (for large, bold-colored flowers and arrangements), and dried materials, including flowers and plant parts, berries, feathers and fruits.
For more upscale silk flowers, silk, rayon, and cotton are the fibers of choice. Wire in a wide range of gauges or diameters is used for firmness in creating the stems (and in stiffening some flower petals and parts), but the wire is wrapped with specially dyed, tear-resistant, durable paper. No plastic is used. Other natural materials such as dried flowers, feathers, and berries are also significant in the upper end market. To make fruit and some berries, specialty suppliers manufacture forms that are precisely sized and shaped to look like the real fruit from mixtures of tapioca or flour base. The forms are sold to the flower manufacturer who dyes them and mounts them on paper-wrapped stems or stalks. All dyes and glues are also derived from natural materials.
Most silk flowers are sold by the stem. Their designs begin with nature. When a silk flower manufacturer plans to make a new design of a magnolia, for example, the designer takes a magnolia fresh from the tree and dissects it to use the actual parts as models. Dies called tools must be made to cut the silk petals. The exact petals are used to design these tools, and three or four are required to make the different sizes of petals that comprise the flower. The leaves also require several tools. The cutting dies are expensive to machine, so the manufacturer makes a significant financial commitment when investing in a new design.
Silk flower design is also heavily influenced by trends in interior design and fashion. Manufacturers attend trade shows to learn about colors and styles in wallpaper and furniture or summer dresses and hats that are forecast for one to two years ahead.
The manufacturing process described below features high-quality silk flowers that are sold by the stem and are made for custom decorating, millinery, other fashion accessories, displays, package ornamentation, candy companies, and floristry.
- White silk, rayon, or cotton fabric are used for all petals, regardless of their finished color. The fabric is die-cut using the tools described above into the many petal sizes and shapes that go into a single type of flower. The petals are dyed in the first step of a detailed hand assembly process. The dyer uses cotton balls and paintbrushes to touch color onto the petals beginning with the edges of the petal and working in toward the center. Dyeing a single petal can take an hour of concentrated work.
- To give them their distinctive curves, wrinkles, and other shapes, the petals are inserted in molds to which heat is applied to press the petals into individual shapes. After they are pressed, some petals and leaves are stiffened with thin wires. The wires are inserted by hand, and glue is touched on to fix the wire in place.
- The separate flowers and sprays of leaves are assembled individually, but several of each may be used to construct a single stem. Another skilled worker has taken wire precut to specified lengths and covered it with floral paper or tape that has a waxy coating to make it self-sticking. Finally, assemblers add the individual flowers and sprays of leaves to the stem.
- The finished stems are taken to the packing department. Each stem is wrapped in florist's paper, and the stems are placed in boxes as if they are to be delivered like a bouquet of real flowers. The boxes are sealed and stored for shipment.
As with most hand-assembled products, silk flowers are inspected by workers at each step of the process. The assemblers are responsible for rejecting imperfect flower parts; for example, if the presser receives petals that have dye spots on them, the presser rejects the petals rather than proceeding with inserting them in molds for pressing.
Before the finished stems are wrapped and packed for shipping, they are subjected to three separate inspections. The finish inspectors work independently, but all three must approve the silk flower before it is hand wrapped and taped for boxing.
There are no byproducts from the manufacture of silk flowers, but the manufacturer's line may include hundreds of different varieties. Waste is very limited and includes wire and fabric scraps that are disposed. Dyes are all natural and can be recycled. The materials also do not subject workers to any hazards. The die-cutting machines are enclosed to protect the operator's hands, and other metals like the florists' wire arrive at the factory in pre-cut lengths. Both glues and dyes are non-toxic, and assemblers wear latex gloves as an additional safeguard.
New technologies like the permastem or permasilk processes that fuse flowers to their stems and makes them more durable continue to improve the functionality and beauty of faux flowers. Technology is also used to produce dried-look and soft-touch (velvet touch) plants; foliage especially has benefited from soft-touch processing that varies the sizes of leaves on a single branch and gives them a warm, gentle feel.
The future of artificial flowers is likely to imitate its long past. People like to be surrounded by beautiful representations from nature, but they also want the convenience of low-maintenance, everlasting flowers. Our homes and fashions benefit from the addition of artificial flowers, and many other businesses from millinery to confectionery rely on silk flowers to add the finishing touch to their products.
Where to Learn More
Beveridge, Ardith and Shelly Urban. "Permanent Botanicals" In A Centennial History of the American Florist. Topeka, KS: Florist Review Enterprises, 1998.
Blacklock, Judith. Silk Flowers: Complete Color and Style Guide for the Creative Crafter Radnor, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1995.
Miller, Bruce W. and Mary C. Donnelly. Handmade Silk Flowers. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1986.
Caldera, Norman J. "How Honduras developed exports of artificial flowers." International Trade Forum (January-March 1990): 4+.
Kelly, Mary Ellen. "Fake flowers evolve further." Discount Store News (November 4, 1991): 21+.
Mastropoalo, Dominick. "Artificial flowers: looking better, selling more." Home Improvement Market (June 1997): GSR10.
American Prestige Silks, Inc. http://www.americanprestige.com/.
Koehler & Dramm, Inc., and the Institute of Floristry. http://www.kdfloral.com/.