Ribbons are useful and decorative fabrics that are almost infinite in their variety, texture, and color. Modern ribbons are manufactured from every kind of fabric, from velvet and satin to synthetics like nylon and rayon. They are patterned, printed, woven, braided, adorned with embroidery, decorated with pearls or sequins, shaped like ric-rac, skillfully made like lace, edged with metal so they can be molded and shaped, and crafted like motif ribbons. Ribbon is classified by the textile industry as a narrow fabric, and it ranges from 1/8 in-I ft (0.32-30 cm) in width. Its uses may most often be thought of as decorative, but ribbons are also materials for making larger fabrics by weaving, crocheting, or knitting them together.
Ribbons appeared when civilizations began crafting fabrics. They are among the oldest decorative or adorning materials. People have always looked for ways to personalize their clothing and household goods. When all textiles were handmade, items with the finest threads were the most expensive. But the simplest, most coarse textiles in plain colors could be made more elegant and individual with a bit of ribbon as decoration. In the Middle Ages, peddlers traveled throughout Europe selling exotic ribbons; the tales of Geoffrey Chaucer mention "ribbands" used to adorn garments. Medieval and Renaissance patrons bought ribbons woven with gold and silver thread and made from silk and other rare fabrics from the Orient. The modern ribbon with selvedges (finished edges) came into being by 1500. Ribbons were so identified with luxury that, during the sixteenth century, the English Parliament tried to make the wearing of ribbons a right of only the nobility. They were also identified with certain orders of merit; the Knights of the Garter wear broad blue sashes to this day, and the Knights of Bath wear red.
By the seventeenth century, ribbons stormed the fashion world. Both men's and women's clothing of this period were extravagant, and every accessory from gloves to bonnets was festooned with ribbons in many forms. A length of ribbon could be given as a gift to decorate clothing, for use in braiding and curling hair, for ornamenting baskets and furniture, or for brightening linens. Ornately patterned household fabrics were further bedecked with ruchings (gathered ribbons), frills, and rosettes. The huge demand for more elaborate ribbons prompted a manufacturing revolution in which Coventry, England, and Lyons, France, became hubs of ribbon design and generation.
This ribbon industry sprang from the silk trade. Merchants who traveled the "Silk Road" to and from Asia sold raw silk to middlemen in Europe who boiled, cleaned, and dyed the ribbon yarn and sold it in "twists" to weavers. The weavers used specially scaled looms and scores of laborers to weave ribbons on hand-operated looms. The products were sold in the major cities and exported for trade. The enormous demand for ribbon was one of the sparks of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1770s, the Dutch engine loom was developed, and six types of ribbon could be produced simultaneously under the watchful eye of one operator. This development came just in time to decorate the towering wigs in fashion in the courts of Europe. Curiously, in the fledgling colonies in the Americas, ribbons were seldom worn at this time, perhaps due to religious convictions or in opposition to the extravagances of European rulers.
Peasant costumes of many lands are often distinguished by single or braided ribbons that are dyed bright colors, decorated with lace or beads, or patterned. Unique designs came to characterize cultures. During the Napoleonic Wars early in the nineteenth century, the ribbon industry suffered a major decline because skilled weavers from England and Western Europe were recruited for military service. With the supply restricted, the demand for ribbon was even greater, and ribbons were a popular cargo for smugglers. The next ribbon "boom" occurred in 1813, when picot-edged ribbon (with tiny scallops along the sides) became a fashion must. Ribbon-weavers reaped the benefits for the two years picot-edged ribbon topped the fashion charts. Ribbons often followed fashion trends. Deaths at the courts of Europe stimulated the demand for black ribbon; military tapes, jacquards, and medal ribbons became symbols of military regiments and the highest awards nations could bestow.
The Victorian Era was the last to see a ribbon boom when the dresses, underclothes, coats and cloaks, and hats of Victorian ladies used yards of ribbon. Trade agreements between European countries killed the English manufacture of ribbon because cheap labor and ever-larger looms could not produce competitively priced products. These manufacturers survived by diversifying and producing braids, cords, fringes, silk pictures, and bookmarks. The development of synthetics and paper fibers for use in making gift wrap quickly extended to the ribbon world in our times, and ribbon became as adaptable to modern living as other fabrics. Many types of ribbon today are colorfast, shrink resistant, and able to be washed or dry cleaned.
Ribbon can be manufactured from a wide range of materials, and their manufacture is classified by type and texture. The three principle categories of manufacture are cut-edge, woven-edge, and wire-edge ribbons. Woven-edge ribbons are most common to the textile industry; they are narrow pieces of fabric with two "selvedges" or woven edges that can be straight or shaped. These ribbons are usually washable because the woven edges prevent them from fraying. Wire-edge ribbons can be cut from broader strips of cloth with their edges wrapped over thin wires, or the wire can be woven into the fabric along the edges or down the middle. Wire mesh can also be woven to make ribbon with or without the addition of yarns or silks for color. Wire-edge ribbon is versatile because the wire allows it to hold a definite shape, but the material can not be washed. Cut-edge or craft ribbon is the type most often used for gift wrap. The fabric is patterned, printed, or decorated with designs transferred by heat then cut to the needed width. The product is then treated with a stiffener that prevents the edges from unraveling. High quality cut-edge ribbon is made of acetate, a thermoplastic, which is cut by a hot knife that fuses the edge instantly.
Ribbon used for decorating fabrics is typically made of fabric. Rayon, velvet, silk, and satin ribbon may be the most common types of fabric ribbon; but cotton, wool, and other synthetics can be processed in ribbon form. Various surface treatments can also be used to change the appearance of cloth ribbon or modify its performance characteristics. The six broad categories of ribbon textures include organdies, satins, velvets, grosgrains, metallics, and natural fibers. Organdies are delicate products made of very fine woven yarns, and they often have metal edges to provide shape. Satins are popular because of their shiny finish (either single- or double-face), their bright and bold colors, and their variety of edges and surface patterns. Velvet ribbon has soft pile, usually on one face only, and can be printed, flocked, or backed with satin. Grosgrains are woven, and the weave usually shows clearly in ribs. Grosgrains are made of cotton, polyester, or fiber blends, and they are very durable. Traditionally, grosgrains were used to decorate ladies' bonnets, but modern techniques give them a range of finishes, including patterns and pleats. Metallics are woven from lurex or other metallic yarns and are favored for their sparkle. Natural fibers include the whole range of paper ribbons, cotton tapes, jute, and linen. Jacquards are a specialized type of ribbon developed in France and overlapping several textural types. Jacquards are prized for elaborate design woven into the ribbon, and they are very expensive to manufacture.
The desired behavior of the ribbon often dictates the material and any surface treatments used. Curling ribbon, for example, is bathed in glue that is pressed thin by rollers and dried. The glue gives the ribbon its curling properties. Other raw materials include ink for printing on finished ribbon, and paper and plastics if the ribbon manufacturers also make their own spools and packaging.
Ribbons are designed in much the same way as fabrics. Colors are chosen depending on fashion trends, seasons, and intended uses. Materials are selected based on use, wearability, cleaning requirements, and fabric trends that the ribbons must match. Sales records are also considered because ribbons go in and out of fashion and are sometimes discontinued.
The width and pattern of the ribbon must also be designed. As narrow fabrics, ribbons are 1/8 in-1 ft (0.32-30 cm) wide, although the ribbon industry has adopted the French "ligne" as its unit of measure. The ligne is about 1/11 inch (0.67 mm) wide. Many patterns and designs can be woven into the ribbon, and ribbon can be printed or ornamented by virtually any type of printing method so the pattern or trim, such as sequins, appears on one side.
- The process of manufacturing a particular kind of thread can vary widely, from the spinning of silk to the carding and processing of wool. After the particular thread for ribbon has been spun, dyed, and treated, it is rolled on bobbins. The bobbins are placed on a ribbon loom that consists of a series of miniature looms, each with its own shuttle and warp (lengths of yarn) sized to produce the desired width of ribbon. The ribbon loom may weave as many as 144 pieces of fabric simultaneously. Today's ribbon looms can be very elaborate and computerized to produce detailed designs like jacquards less expensively than the looms or weavers of the past. The threads leading from the bobbins are guided by a series of eye hooks that hold the position of each thread and raise and lower it as the fabric is woven. The bobbins (also called cheeses) control the warp and are a major difference between ribbon loom and a fabric loom, which uses a warp beam to raise and lower the warp and cloth. The bobbins may also be curved to save space on the machine. The tension of the warp thread on a ribbon loom is maintained by a series of pulleys. A rack and pinion mechanism is used to adjust the lay (flatness or slope) of the loom.
- To produce fancy effects, ingenious devices, selection of fabrics, and weaving techniques are used. Threads of different colors or multiple fibers can be woven together. Odd color effects can be achieved because the fibers may take dye differently. The woven product emerges on rollers that carry it forward for further processing such as adding glues, stiffeners, or fabric treatments. Machines equipped with pairs of rollers press and dry the treated ribbon, and large reels are used to collect the treated product.
- As the ribbon is wound onto spools, the tension is maintained by a governor so the ribbon does not fall slack on the spools. If the ribbon is to be printed or embossed, it is then processed through a calendar that smoothes the surface to be printed and through a printing or stamping machine. A winder then places the ribbon on spools for packaging and sale.
The machines used to process one type of ribbon, but perhaps multiple varieties or colors of it, are arranged in a series and in a layout so that one operator can monitor one ribbon loom producing many ribbons in a series. Careful attention is paid to the detail in the ribbon, and the operators control the quality of the product as well as maintain the machines.
Ribbon mills produce some fabric waste at the start and end of each ribbon production, and this is disposed. Ribbon mills usually produce a range of other ornamental products as well, such as braid, cord, and ric-rac.
Ribbon manufacturers seem to have guaranteed the future of their product by the variety and ingenuity of their output. While fashion trends may cause particular types of ribbon to fade in and out of favor, the outcasts are quickly replaced by new products. Computer techniques have enhanced both design and manufacturing processes. They allow infinite combinations to be generated on screen, and intricate procedures that were previously cost-prohibitive may be possible with computer-controlled manufacturing.
Where to Learn More
Collier, Ann M. A Handbook of Textiles. Pergamon Press, 1974.
Corbman, Bernard P. Textiles: Fiber to Fabric. Gregg Division, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.
Evans, Hilary. Ribbonwork. Bobbs-Merrill, 1976.
Hall, A. J. The Standard Handbook of Textiles. Heywood Books, 1969.
Kerridge, Eric. Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England. Manchester University Press, 1985.
Lewis, Annabel. The Ultimate Ribbon Book. Trafalgar Square Publishing, 1995.
Linton, George E. The Modern Textile Dictionary. Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1954.
Miller, Edward. Textiles: Properties and Behaviour. Theatre Arts Books, 1970.
Allen, Frederick. "The Ribbon Factory." Invention & Technology, Spring 1995.
"Make silk ribbon embroidery." Woman's Day, July 16, 1996, p. 23.
"Stylist secrets." Redbook, January 1995, p. 25.
The term "ribbon" refers to narrow loom-woven strips of cloth, often with a visible selvage on each side that helps them to maintain their form. Ribbons can be made of any fiber and are usually woven in satin, plain, gauze, twill, and velvet weaves. The origins of the term "ribbon" and its earlier forms, ruban or riband, are obscure, but they may be Teutonic and a compound of the word "band"—the ancestor of the modern day ribbon. As early as the Neolithic period, people wove very narrow, dense, often utilitarian strips of fabric on small portable looms. Impressions of warp-faced plain weave bands dating back to 6000 b.c.e. were excavated from the Turkish archaeological site of Çatal Hüyük. While their purpose was primarily functional, some evidence suggests that bands also could be used for more flirtatious and decorative
purposes. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has suggested that dancers waved strips of fabric while performing beginning in the Middle Bronze Age. Evidence exists that in the Aegean cultures of 2000 thruogh 1200 b.c.e., specialized weavers used a warp-weighted vertical loom to weave decorative edgings and bands to ornament and trim garments.
In Europe, the weaving of lightweight ribbons as opposed to the sturdy, warp-faced bands of antiquity probably began as soon as the horizontal loom was introduced during the eleventh century. Lightweight ribbons were not unknown, however; archaeologists working in London uncovered several plain weave ribbons of unspun, undegummed silk, which were probably imported from the East.
References to ribbons occur with increasing frequency during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as more tailored clothing developed and ribbons with aiglets (metal points) at each end were used to lace garments together. Ribbons also trimmed garments as they had in the past, encircled waists as girdles, and were worn in the hair. London archaeologists excavated ribbons of spun silk (probably woven locally) found in digs dating to the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. While ribbons continued to be an aspect of fashionable dress throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they did not become a focus of fashion until the seventeenth century after a loom was invented that could weave more than one ribbon at a time. This new loom allowed multiple ribbons to be woven at once by providing a separate warp beam and shuttle for each ribbon. An Italian abbé, Lancellotti, was the first to write about such a loom, which he said was invented in Danzig around 1530. He also wrote that the loom so threatened traditional ribbon weavers that it was destroyed and the inventor secretly strangled or drowned. The new loom was not totally lost, for it appears again in Leiden by 1604 and in London by 1610. However, it was in France that the use of ribbons took hold when Louis XIV turned them into a fashion obsession.
The city of Paris was well known for its ribbons, as were the cities of Saint-Étienne and Saint-Chamond, where ribbons were woven as early as the beginning of the fourteenth century. Charles VII published the first statutes of the master tissutiers and Rubanniers of Paris in 1403. Statutes were again published in 1524 and in 1585, when the rubanniers were assigned their own guild. Ribbon weavers during this period worked on small looms that were light, compact, and sat on tabletops. Men, women, and even children easily wove on these looms, producing one ribbon at a time, and small workshops predominated. When the new ribbon loom was introduced during the seventeenth century, it revolutionized the trades and, as in Danzig, at first encountered resistance among the ribbon weavers of France.
Despite the reluctance of the French ribbon weavers to use the new loom, Louis XIV's finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert strongly encouraged its acceptance and, because the king adopted ribbons as an important element of fashionable dress, the trade flourished. Ribbons of silk and gold and silver thread were woven in many different structures, including plain weave taffetas, satin, and velvets. A wide range of brilliant dyes was employed to color the ribbons, including cerulean blue, yellow, and a variety of reds such as crimson, scarlet, cherry, and Louis XIV's favorite couleur de feu, or flame. Courtiers attached ribbons to hats, sword handles, shoes, sleeves, around the knees, and even to the lower bodice front, where yards of ribbon loops emphasized the wearer's masculinity. Diana de Marly writes in her book on fashion during the reign of Louis XIV that the Marquis de Louvois and the Marquis de Villeroi would shut themselves up in a chamber for days discussing the best placement for a ribbon on a suit.
By the end of the seventeenth century, ribbons began to lose their popularity with men as the more somber three-piece suit came into favor. Women continued to wear ribbons, but not to the extent that they were worn during the previous decade. By the middle of the eighteenth century, ribbons again came to the forefront of women's fashion when dresses were trimmed with silkribbon bows. Stomacher trims, known in French as the echelle and used to close the front of the dress, had horizontal rows of large bows down the front. Bows further decorated the elbows and were often worn around the neck. By the end of the eighteenth century, dressmakers and milliners began to use ribbons in increasing quantities as fashion's focus turned to the trimmings of dresses and hats.
Fashion's growing interest in ribbons increased during the early nineteenth century as the jacquard mechanism was adapted for use with ribbons looms. Weavers wove intricately patterned silk ribbons that became extremely fashionable during the nineteenth century. These ribbons trimmed the lavish and large bonnets of the 1820s and 1830s. The town of Saint-Étienne adapted itself to these new developments and became a leading center in the ribbon trade, specializing in weaving floral patterned ribbons. Saint-Étienne also specialized in weaving the ribbons that played an increasingly important role in national dress, especially the dress of French women from Brittany, Savoy, Alsace, and Provence. Ribbons ornamented bonnets, caps, aprons, blouses, and skirts, and their color could be used to indicate the religious beliefs of the wearer, as in Alsace, where a red ribbon indicated a Protestant background and black, a Catholic one.
Fashionable dressmakers and milliners continued to use ribbons in their work throughout the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries, although not as frequently as in the past. During some periods ribbons enjoyed more popularity than others, such as the mid-nineteenth century, when trimmings on dresses became increasingly fashionable and ribbons edged flounces and were folded and braided to create complex trims. Ribbons again took on importance during the years between 1910 and 1920, when they were formed into flowers and trimmed elaborate evening dresses, known as robes de styles. Couturiers such as Lucile and the Callot sisters were well known for these gowns. Ribbons played less of a role in fashionable dress during the rest of the twentieth century, but they did not escape the notice of several designers. Charles James, Karl Lagerfeld, and James Galanos all designed dresses composed entirely of ribbons stitched together to form a cloth.
While the jacquard was adapted to create ribbons patterned with complex floral designs for fashionable and national dress, novelty ribbons and pictures also were woven with extremely detailed imagery that resembled the work of etchers and engravers. The weavers showed many of these pictures and ribbons at international expositions, trumpeting the jacquard's technical achievements. The ribbons often were woven to commemorate special occasions or events, such as elections and political or historic anniversaries, and they point to another aspect of the use of ribbons, to honor and remember.
It is impossible to say when ribbons took on significance outside of their role in dress, but the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that as early as the sixteenth
century they were given between men and women as favors and that by the seventeenth century wide blue ribbons were worn across the chest by members of the Order of the Garter, the highest honor bestowed by the British ruler. Ribbons were also used to attached medals to the chests of honored military men, and today small pins covered with ribbons patterned in a variety of stripes are worn on American military uniforms in place of the medals. The use of blue ribbons and red ribbons as first and second prizes in competition appears to have begun in the late nineteenth century.
Ribbons also served to commemorate the dead. Mourners wore black armbands and hatbands, while narrow black "ribbons of love" decorated the caps and blankets of babies. The use of ribbons as a token of remembrance took on particular significance in the later part of the twentieth century. In 1981, Americans bedecked their trees with yards of yellow ribbons as a sign of remembrance and to welcome home American hostages taken in Iran. While many believed the custom started during the Civil War as a way to welcome home returning soldiers, in reality, Penne Laingen, the wife of one of the Iran hostages who began the tradition in 1979, was inspired by the act of another woman. In 1975, Gail Magruder festooned her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome home her husband, Jeb Stuart Magruder, who had recently been released from prison after his conviction during the Watergate investigations. The number one single of 1973, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," sung by Tony Orlando and Dawn, inspired Gail Magruder's act. The song was in turn inspired by the legend of a man released from prison who told his wife to tie a yellow ribbon on an old oak tree if she welcomed him back. Yellow ribbons again appeared in Americans' front yards after the first Persian Gulf War of 1991 to greet returning soldiers.
The symbolic use of ribbons increased toward the end of the twentieth century, and the wearing of a small colored ribbon pinned to one's clothing came to indicate a sympathy toward one cause or another. In 1990, the art activism group Visual AIDS introduced the custom of wearing a small loop of red ribbon as an international symbol of AIDS awareness. A small pink bow is indicative of an awareness and support of breast cancer research.
While ribbons are still manufactured and can be found trimming hats and lingerie, they are no longer an important element of fashion. Their place as commemorative tokens and in the work of crafters has ensured the continued production of ribbons; however, manufacturing methods have evolved to make them cheaper to produce. Ribbons woven on a loom are more rarely produced today, and cut-edge or fused ribbons are more common. Thermoplastic fibers woven in satin or plain weave taffeta are slit in the desired width with a heated cutting tool that fuses and seals the edges of the ribbon—a far distant cousin to the luxurious silk, silver, and gold ribbons of the seventeenth century.
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
de Marly, Diana. Louis XIV & Versailles. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1987.
Kerridge, Eric. Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England. Manchester, U.K., and Dover, N.H.: Manchester University Press, 1985.
Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires. Rubans et Galons. Paris: Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, 1992.
Pamela A. Parmal
rib·bon / ˈribən/ • n. a long, narrow strip of fabric, used esp. for tying something or for decoration: the tiny pink ribbons in her hair | cut four lengths of ribbon. ∎ a strip of fabric of a special color or design awarded as a prize or worn to indicate the holding of an honor, esp. a small multicolored piece of ribbon worn in place of the medal it represents: old horse show ribbons and rosettes. ∎ a long, narrow strip of something: slice the peppers into ribbons lengthwise. ∎ a narrow band of inked material wound on a spool and forming the inking agent in some typewriters and computer printers. • v. [intr.] extend or move in a long narrow strip like a ribbon: miles of concrete ribboned behind the bus. PHRASES: cut a (or the) ribbon perform an opening ceremony, typically by formally cutting a ribbon across the entrance to somewhere. cut (or tear) something to ribbons cut (or tear) something so badly that only ragged strips remain. ∎ fig. damage something severely: the country has seen its economy torn to ribbons by recession. DERIVATIVES: rib·boned adj. rib·bon·like / -ˌlīk/ adj.
1. The means by which an impact printer forms the printed characters on the top copy of printer stationery, ink being transferred from ribbon to paper. The characteristics of a ribbon depend mainly on the printer for which it is intended. There may however be two or three varieties of ribbon available for one printer type, depending for example on whether maximum utilization of the ribbon (and thus minimum ribbon cost) is important at the expense of print quality, or vice versa. Color variety is available.
Ribbon materials are normally nylon fabric, in various thicknesses and thread types, or polyester film. Fabric is soaked with ink, film is coated with ink-bearing wax. Thinner fabrics give better print quality, usually at the expense of ribbon life. Nylon ribbons can be continually reused until print quality is unacceptable due to ink depletion. The printer recycles such a ribbon continuously, either by use of a continuous loop or by reversing it at each end. With film ribbons a much greater proportion of the ink is transferred at each strike, leading to shorter ribbon life. They can however provide much better print quality than fabric ribbons. Degree of inking in a ribbon is a carefully controlled parameter.
Ribbon dimensions depend on the printer type. Wide ‘towel’ ribbons may be up to 17 wide, and travel vertically through the printer. Narrow ribbons, 0.2–2 wide, traverse across the printing area. Narrow fabric ribbons may be on open spools or contained in purpose-designed cartridges to facilitate ribbon handling. All narrow film ribbons are in cartridges. Fabric ribbons in cartridges are often ‘stuffed’ (packed in concertina fashion) in continuous loops rather than being on spools.
Thermal transfer printers also require a ribbon, in this case a film ribbon coated with a thermoplastic or wax-based ink.
2. In some graphical applications, a horizontal row of control icons that can often be redefined to suit the user's requirements.
1. Any ribbon-like strip of decoration, or a riband.
2. Lead came around the pieces of glass in a leaded window.
3. Representations of ribbons binding festoons, garlands, trophies, wreaths, etc.
4. Light timber fixed to the faces of studs forming a continuous tie around the building and supporting the ends of beams in US balloon-frame timber construction.