The second part of this two-part series on silk will focus on American production, particularly within New Jersey. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, you can read that Here. While New Jersey was not the only state to manufacture silk products during this time, a very large portion of the American silk industry was set in Paterson, NJ.
As mentioned in the last post, silk production provided a unique opportunity for the Eastern and Western worlds to interchange with one another. While silk production had long been integral to societies in the East, long before the United States even became a country, the improvements of the industrial revolution soon catapulted the United States into the silk economy. The ancient Silk Road now evolved to conduct the export of raw silk across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to further connect the United States with the East.
Today New Jersey is not known for its textile production, but in the late-1800s and early 1900s this was a major industry in the area. Paterson in particular became known for its silk mills. Prior to silk, cotton had been produced in Paterson, but when cotton production moved to the Southern United States, the vacant mills were eventually refurbished for silk production. In 1915, the NJ Industrial Directory wrote, “Approximately one-third of this nation’s product of this beautiful [silk] fabric comes from the looms of New Jersey mills, and fully ninety percent of this great total is credited to Paterson. Upwards of 160 silk mills and dye houses, employing an army of operatives numbering nearly 30,000 men and women are now in operation” Paterson was even referred to as the Silk City or the Lyons of America in the early 1900s.
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.”
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.