A History of Silk Maps
By Estelle Plous
Someone gave me a map scarf
recently. Since I have a lousy sense of direction and hate carrying maps, it
was truly the perfect gift. Now I can wrap Rome or New York or Paris around
What a great idea. I wondered who
thought of it.
The concept of silk maps is far from
new. Archaeological evidence from ancient Chinese tombs indicates that maps
showing trade routes were being drawn on pieces of silk as long ago as the
second century AD. In Europe, novelty silk scarves decorated with maps of
spa towns were popular during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this
tradition continues with US States, tropical islands and even whole
countries occasionally being printed on commemorative and souvenir scarves.
It was with the outbreak of World War II, however, that the idea of printing
maps on fabric really came into its own. From early in the war, British
aircrews were issued with 'survival kits' to help them evade capture or
escape imprisonment should they be shot down over hostile territory. These
kits were packed into a small oilskin pouch and typically included a small
saw blade, needle and thread, currency, phrase cards, a tiny compass the
size of a thumb nail and, most crucially, a silk map.
It had been quickly realised that maps printed on silk, or its manmade
equivalents (such as rayon-acetate or nylon), were far superior for escape
and evasion purposes than conventional paper or linen-backed maps. Silk maps
are extremely durable, do not disintegrate in water, are not damaged by
repeated folding and unfolding or by being screwed up into a ball, and are
silent to unfold and use. Most importantly they are easy to conceal. Sewn
into the lining of a jacket or the hem of an undergarment, or hidden in the
hollowed-out heel of a boot, a silk map was unlikely to be found, at least
in an initial prisoner search.
Moreover, the silk maps provided welcome warmth to airmen shot down over
Europe, while those in sub-tropical areas such as Burma found them
invaluable as head and face-wraps to keep off the swarms of mosquitoes.
The silk maps were developed by MI9, the escape and evasion wing of British
Military Intelligence. The cartography was supplied by the Bartholomew map
company, with all copyrights waived in support of the war effort. Waddington
plc, known for games such as Monopoly, employed its experience of detailed
printing on fabric to print the maps with the required detail. The silk was
specially treated for durability and the impressive printing clarity was
achieved by adding pectin to the ink.
The maps were double sided, with 'RESTRICTED' printed along the border and a
sealed selvage to prevent fraying. Enormously detailed, they showed cities,
towns and villages, lakes and rivers, population densities, elevations,
roads, railroads and mountain passes, military installations and sometimes
even ocean currents, navigational star charts and, for northern regions, the
seasonal limits of ice cover.
Inspired by the success of the British maps, American Intelligence adopted
the idea. Escape maps were standard issue to all USAF servicemen from 1942.
Several hundred thousand silk maps were produced during World War II, and it
is estimated that of the 35,000 Allied troops who managed to escape from
behind enemy lines, more than half used a silk map. A number of these maps
have survived and are now highly collectable.
Silk maps continued to be produced throughout the Cold War era. More
recently, they were issued to airmen during the Gulf War, indicating that
despite advances in the technology of war, silk maps still have an important
part to play.
Interested in your own map scarf?