This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Ribbon. A strip of fine fabric, as silk, satin, or velvet, having two selvages. Ribbons in this sense were introduced into Europe in the 16th century Prior to this time they were not made separately, but were woven onto the bands or borders of garments and were narrow like a rib, hence the origin of the word ribband, which was the old English and the present French term for our ribbon. During the early days of their manufacture they were frequently made of gilt, intermingled with threads of gold and silver. These were regarded as articles of luxury, and in order to suppress the tendency of the public in this direction the English parliament passed an act forbidding their use by tradesmen, artificers and yeomen, reserving the right to wear them to the nobility. In the 17th century, silk ribbons were worn in great profusion, and it was then that they acquired that hold upon public favor which has lasted to the present day, the fashion of wearing them and their general structure in all that time indulging in but few fluctuations. History relates that in the years between 1650 and 1700 ribbons were worn in the greatest profusion by the men of Europe. Every portion of their attire was trimmed with them. Evelyn, an authority on the costumes of his time, in describing the dress of a fop of the period, says: "It was a fine silken thing which I espied walking the other day through Westminster Hall, that had as much ribbon about him as would have plundered six shops and set up twenty country pedlars. All his body was drest like a May pole. A frigate newly rigg'd, kept not half such a clatter and flutter in a storm as this puppet's streamers did when the wind was in his shrouds; the motion was wonderful to behold, and the well chosen colors were red, orange and blue, of well grain'd satin, which argued a happy fancy."
The terms blue ribbon and red ribbon, bestowed by county fairs and other competitive exhibitions as marks of excellence, originated in England, on account of a badge of blue ribbon being used to designate the Order of the Garter, which is the highest order of English Knighthood, and the red ribbon badge designating the Order of Bath, the next highest in rank. [See Garter]
Ordinarily ribbons are made of widths varying from one-fourth of an inch to seven or eight inches, though sash ribbons are occasionally made of much greater widths. The different widths or numbers of ribbons were formerly denoted by the thickness of so many penny pieces. The old English penny was nearly the size of our silver dollar, and a ribbon the width of one of these pennies set up edgewise was called No. 1; a ribbon the width of two pennies set up edgewise was a No. 2; a ribbon as wide as seven of them was No. 7, and so on. Thus the custom of numbering originated and is still retained. Ribbons all measure ten yards to the bolt and never exceed nine inches in width. The city of St. Etienne, in France, is the principal seat of ribbon manufacture in the world, (the ribbons being chiefly the product of 18,000 hand looms distributed among the homes of the weavers) though many are made at Basel, in Switzerland, Crefeld, Germany, at Coventry, England, and in the United States. The great local industry at St. Etienne is as important as all the rest combined, the value of the ribbons annually woven in that city amounting to $16,000,000, and the amount of pure silk consumed 12,000 pounds. France and Switzerland make the best ribbons on account of using only hand looms, which preserves a perfect evenness of tension and disposition of the threads; the product of power looms is disposed to cockle or crimp in places. The principal seat of the ribbon industry in the United States is Patterson, New Jersey, where they are woven on looms made especially for the purpose, called ribbon looms, or needle looms. [See Loom] The raw silk which enters into their construction comes in bales from Japan, Italy and France, and is worth from $5 to $5.25 per pound. The silk from Japan is mostly pure white, while that from Italy is a beautiful gold, resembling very much golden blonde hair. Before the silk is ready to be made into ribbons it has to go through the hands of throwsters, dyers and twisters. In the weaving of the finest ribbons the slightest difference in temperature, the breaking of a single silk thread as fine as a hair, spoils all. The greatest care has to be exercised to turn out perfect goods. In former years all our ribbons were imported but at present our home mills produce about one-half of the amount consumed. [See Velvet Ribbon, Picot, Silk, Moire, Weaving]