Silk Part 1: Japanese Production and Women’s Work

Silk Part 1: Japanese Production and Women’s Work

Silk was incredibly important around the turn of the century for many reasons. It was first cultivated and produced in China in the Neolithic period and later spread to Japan. The process of extracting silk from the silkworms is referred to as sericulture. You can read more about sericulture, silk history, and the Silk Road here and here.

While silk was produced in many other countries during this time, this post series will concentrate on Japanese and American silk production, as the two were intertwined and offered a rare opportunity for interaction. This first post of the 2-part series will discuss silk manufacture in Japan at the turn of the century, and the important role of women in the industry.

What is silk in its most basic form? A great description by Chris Heidenrich of the National Museum of American History says,”Silk is the filament a silkworm produces for its cocoon. The filament is finer than a human hair—it takes 10 filaments to make one thread. A pound of silk takes 3,000 cocoons.”

Silk cocoons, photograph, 2012, Yodgorlik (Souvenir) Silk Factory – Margilon – Uzbekistan, Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Synthetic fibers were not yet widely available in this period prior to WWI, although early experimentation had begun. There was still a heavy reliance on actual silk fibers for a luxurious looking material. Silk was very important in terms of its beauty in fabric and a skilled labor force required to produce it.

The industrial revolution caused the production of silk to change but the labor involved still required more skill than wool or cotton fabric production. Major centers of silk fiber, silk fabric and silk trim production in the late 1800s and early 1900s were found in France and Italy in Europe; in China and Japan in Asia; and the United States did its fair share of silk production as well along the East Coast and in the South.

As to raw silk, Japan was producing over half of the world’s silk at the turn of the century and Asia reasserted its dominance in this market. Japanese women below ca. 1910, are reeling silk in small skeins and appear in their kimono robes with their hair kept long in the traditional manner.

Photographic glass-plate transparency; part of a set of color-tinted transparencies depicting life in Japan ca. 1910, University of Victoria Libraries from Victoria, Canada, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

The 4 female silk weavers in the photo below exemplify the otherwise infrequent crossing of cultures in 1920. They traveled from Japan to Seattle, WA, a major American port for distributing Japanese silk, as one of the visiting silk trade commissions. Silk was an important opportunity for West and East cultures to interact in the 19th and early 20th century as, “The Modern Silk Road: The Global Raw-Silk Market, 1850-1930” notes:

“From the mid-nineteenth century, the raw silk trade served as the most important trade linkage between the then still largely closed economies of East Asia and the industrialized West.”

Ma, Debin. “The Modern Silk Road: The Global Raw-Silk Market, 1850-1930.” The Journal of Economic History 56, no. 2 (1996): 330-55. Accessed April 25, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123969.
1920, University of Washington, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Japan, ancient silk producing methods were met with Westernized industrialization techniques, and in fact, Japan was the only country in Asia to industrialize in the 19th century. [1] Based on recommendations of French engineers, the Japanese incorporated new machinery to scale-up production, and Japan’s first silk mill, Tomioka Silk Mill, was built in the late 19th century. This mill employed women from all across the nation and became a touchstone of modernization in Japan. Today it is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[2]


Silk production was also an important opportunity for women to find work outside of the home at the turn of the century. Specifically, in terms of women entering the labor force, Japan was far ahead of most other countries. Silk was Japan’s largest export, and it’s textile industry was 80% female. This is likely due to the fact that in Japan, silk production was considered to be women’s work, except for the mulberry trees (food for the silk works) which were grown by men. This was highly unusual for most industries of the era (besides nursing, teaching, and secretarial work)! In “Women in the Silk-reeling Industry in Nineteenth-century Japan,” Gail Bernstein spoke to the long-established importance of women silk producers and weavers in Japan:

Working with the silkworm cocoons. Photographic glass-plate transparency; part of a set of color-tinted transparencies depicting life in Japan ca. 1910, University of Victoria Libraries from Victoria, Canada, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

“Women reeled and wove not only for home consumption, but for the han tribute and the market as well. Consequently, they became recognised [sic] as valuable workers. Wage scales for female agricultural workers show that weaving ability in particular was a major determinant of women’s wages. According to the recollections of an eighteenth-century Buddhist monk, ‘Buyers in the market, when they pick up a piece of cloth, can tell immediately that it was woven by so-and-so’s wife or daughter in such and such a village.’

Bernstein G.L. (1988) “Women in the Silk-reeling Industry in Nineteenth-century Japan.” In: Bernstein G.L., Fukui H. (eds) Japan and the World. St Antony’s Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-08682-5_4 , p.55

Bernstein mentioned that girls were trained as early as 6 to spin silk, and that weaving silk and cotton was a prerequisite for brides in some areas of Japan, like Osaka. [3] Clearly, silk has had a long tradition of skilled female spinners and weavers and this translated into factory jobs for Japanese women when machinery was introduced into the process. Later in the century, just as Western machinery was slowly introduced, Western clothing styles would begin to infiltrate everyday dress as well. At this time, however, you can see from the early 20th century images that this was not yet the case.

Japan was certainly a powerhouse of the silk industry for many years and this period at the turn of the century was a time of reassertion in the market after adopting new industrial machinery. Next month’s post will discuss silk production on the other side of the globe in the United States and a further crossing of cultures.


-Danielle Morrin

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If you liked this post you might also enjoy:

Seersucker History

The Origins of Mackintosh

A Stitch in Time: Clothing and Textiles of the Meadowlands 1890-1915

[1] Bernstein G.L. (1988) “Women in the Silk-reeling Industry in Nineteenth-century Japan.” In: Bernstein G.L., Fukui H. (eds) Japan and the World. St Antony’s Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-08682-5_4, p. 54

[2] Hashimoto, Yoko. “History.” International Sericulture Commission. 2013. http://inserco.org/en/japan

[3] Bernstein G.L. (1988) “Women in the Silk-reeling Industry in Nineteenth-century Japan.” In: Bernstein G.L., Fukui H. (eds) Japan and the World. St Antony’s Series. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-08682-5_4, p. 55

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