Silk Culture and Manufacture

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SILK CULTURE AND MANUFACTURE. Long known as the Queen of Textiles, silk is valued for its luster, soft hand, and drapability. It is used for both clothing and home décor in a wide range of fabrics including taffeta, chiffon, satin, brocade, and damask, as well as for trimmings such as ribbon and braid.

Silk filaments are harvested from a special caterpillar known as the silkworm, which lives in and feeds on the leaves of the white mulberry tree. Its cocoon is made of a single strand of delicate silk filament, which can be un-wound and converted into thread to produce some of the most luxurious fabrics in the world. When first introduced, the fabrics were reserved for royalty.

While world production of silk goes back to China more than 4,500 years ago, the silk industry (or sericulture) in what is now the United States began in 1603. Having determined that the American climate was better suited to silk culture than that of Britain, and anxious to compete successfully with the French and Italian silk industry, King James I of England sent silkworm eggs and mulberry tree seeds to the new colonists in Virginia. Although cotton and tobacco proved to be more profitable crops, there was some limited silk production in Virginia and Georgia from 1603 to 1760.

In 1762, the struggling industry got a boost when Nathan Aspinwald decided to expand his white mulberry orchard from Long Island, New York, to include his native town of Mansfield, Connecticut. A silk farm and silk-spinning industry sprang up there, and by 1830—once other entrepreneurs became aware of the potential for high profits—the industry spread all along the Atlantic coast.

Small mills in New England produced primarily silk thread, ribbon, and trim such as braid around 1810. In 1827, Edmund Golding brought new technology to Mans-field, Connecticut, from his home in Macclesfield, England (center of a once-thriving silk industry). Using new machinery for doubling and twisting silk that replaced hand spinning, he and his partners opened the first successful silk mill in America.

Favorable trade agreements with China and a blight on mulberry trees from 1840 to 1844 forced American factories to switch to importing raw silk, and the silk fiber industry crashed. The advent of sewing machines in the mid-1800s, however, created a greater demand for silk sewing thread.

Christopher Cross of Connecticut introduced silk production to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1840. Prior to that (since 1807), Paterson's cotton textile mills had been producing silk ribbons. Although his Old Gun Mill silk enterprise eventually failed, there followed a large immigration of skilled workers and manufacturers who brought new silk machinery from Great Britain to Paterson between 1860 and 1880. In 1860, Paterson was home to six silk companies, employing 600 workers in the various tasks of twisting, weaving, and dyeing silk.

By the turn of the century, Paterson was becoming known as "Silk City," the capital of the silk industry in America, as more than one-third of the city's total workforce of 73,000 was employed in the silk business. The lure of work and the desire to escape from poverty brought immigrants, including skilled workers, not only from England, but also from France, Italy, Poland, Germany, and Russia.

The handloom for silk weaving was completely replaced by automation around 1905, and Paterson mills were thus able to steal business away from the European silk industry, which was less mechanized. There were 121 businesses in Paterson, which employed thousands of workers, all making silk products and machinery for textile production. By 1940, more than 175 silk companies were operating in Paterson, with 20,000 workers manufacturing products such as yard goods, ribbons, drapery and upholstery, veiling, linings, braid, and yarn.

Earlier on, however, Paterson had some notable competition. By 1890, there had been fierce rivalry from mills in northeastern Pennsylvania—prices dropped, profits dipped, and labor conflicts were intense. By the end of World War I, Pennsylvania had surpassed Paterson in spindlage and Philadelphia was making knitted silk hosiery, an industry that would sustain it for the next generation.

In 1913, a major labor strike in Paterson by silk work-ers captured national attention, and expanded to include 50,000 workers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. Although it was the result of years of struggle, it was ignited by mill owners' demands that workers operate four looms instead of two, leading to longer hours, lower pay, layoffs, and an incensed labor force. This difficult period of labor problems culminated in many silk mills either closing their doors or moving south in the period from 1930 to 1940.

Also, consolidation of the silk industry in Paterson had been taking place since the early part of the twentieth century. Larger manufacturers, such as the Standard Silk Dyeing Company and Allied Textile Printers, had acquired many smaller businesses. The main focus of these operations was the wet processing of undyed woven cloth, called gray goods. Meanwhile, widespread substitutions of synthetic fabrics like rayon, nylon, and acetate for silk contributed to the end of silk production in Paterson and the United States. Allied Textile Printers closed in 1983.

Consumption of raw silk in the United States fell from an annual high of eighty-one million pounds in 1930 to forty-eight million in 1940, seven million in 1960, and only two million in 1970. Competition from China and Japan began to phase out the American silk industry around the end of the 1980s. By the early 2000s, the silk industry in the United States had virtually disappeared.


Hellwig Silk Dyeing Company homepage. Available from˜wdstock/hellwig.htm.

Paterson Friends of the Great Falls. Available from

"Paterson Strike." National Archives Learning Curve. Available from

Scranton, Phillip B., ed. Silk City: Studies on the Paterson Silk Industry 1860–1940. Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1985.

Silk Association of India homepage. Available from

"Silk Industry in Mansfield, Conn." Mansfield Historical Society. Available from

Rosalie JacksonRegni