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.
Taffeta (Taf'-E-Ta). [From Persian taftah, to spin] A term of somewhat general application in the silk trade. It was formerly applied to all plain silks simply woven by regular alternations of the warp and weft, and is supposed to be the first kind of silk weaving known, even to those ancient people, the Chinese. For many hundreds of years, taffeta was a sort of generic title for all plain silks, regardless of weight or color, but in more recent times has come to signify a thin, glossy silk fabric of plain texture or woven in cords so fine as to appear plain woven, being thus distinguished from gros-grain, which is corded, and surah, which is twilled; it is usually dyed black. The city of Lyons, France, which has long been the most important center in the world for fine silk-weaving, was once the largest producer of taffeties in Europe, but the fabrics which she produced were not always as lustrous as the article made nowadays. Chamber's Encyclopedia of 1741 gives a valuable and interesting account of their manufacture at that date, with a narrative of a change in their fabrication: —"There are taffeties of various colours, some plain, others checquered and flowered; with various others, to which the mode, or the caprice of the workmen give such whimsical names, that it would be as difficult as it is useless to rehearse them; besides that they seldom hold beyond the year wherein they first arose. The chief consumption of taffeties is in summer dresses for women, and linings, in scarves, coifs, window curtains, etc. There are three things which contribute chiefly to the perfection of taffeties, viz., the silk, the water and the fire. The silk, must not only be the finest kind, but it must be worked a long time, and very much, before it be used. The watering, besides that it is only to be given very lightly, seems only intended to that fine luster, by a peculiar property not to be found in all waters. Lastly, the fire, which is passed under it to dry the water, has its particular manner of application, whereon the perfection of the stuff depends very much. Octavio May, of Lyons, is held to be the first author of the manufacture of glassy taffeties, and tradition tells us the occasion of it. Octavio, it seems, was going backward in the world, and being unable to retrieve himself by the manufacture of taffeties, such as were then made, was one day musing on his misfortunes, and, in musing, chanced to chew a few threads of silk which he had in his mouth. His reverie being over, the silk he ejected from his mouth seemed to shine with more then ordinary luster, and on that account engaged his attention. He was led to reflect on the reason, and after a good deal of thought, concluded that the luster of that silk must come, 1st, From having pressed it between his teeth; 2dly, From having wet it with his saliva, which had something glutinous in it; and 3dly, From its having been heated with the natural warmth of his mouth. All this he executed upon the next taffeties he made; and immediately acquired immense riches to himself, and to the city of Lyons the reputation it still maintains, of giving the gloss to taffeties better than any any city in the world." [See Gloves]