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From hanging on by a thread, to buying a thread: the rise of the U.S. silk industry

What do the popularity of luxury quilts have to do with the difficulty of feeding bugs? More than you think.

Our new exhibition Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection unravels the relationship between the silk industry (in all its complexity) and quilting crazes of the 1800s.

A detail shot of a crazy quilt, with different fabrics attached by being sewn together every which way.
Crazy quilts of irregularly shaped pieces of fabric and quilts with other geometric shapes are just some of the silk quilts made during this time and on display in Everyday Luxury. They were not used as bedding but rather displayed as parlor throws where visitors could see them.

Quilting was especially popular in the United States during the 1800s, as the booming American textile industry provided access to fabrics at many price points. After the Civil War, this included the development of a domestic silk industry. Thus silk, once a luxury item, found use with home quilters.

A detail of a log cabin quilt.
This silk quilt made by Laura Baldwin Clark from 1870 to 1885 uses the Log Cabin pattern, rectangular pieces stitched into a block with contrasting light and dark sides around a central square. Log Cabin designs came into fashion in the 1860s.

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.

A jar of silk cocoons.
These are examples of silk cocoons.

Attempts had been made to develop a U.S. silk industry since the early 1600s. King James I of England encouraged settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, to abandon tobacco for sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms to create silk), explained curator Madelyn Shaw. German-Swiss immigrants also brought sericulture with them to South Carolina and Georgia.

While sericulture was never successful long-term in this country, manufacturing of silk yarns and threads started around the Revolutionary period. Benjamin Franklin was one of the supporters of a Philadelphia filature (silk reeling mill) that opened in 1770.

A silkworm model.
A model of a silkworm.
Large models of white moths.
A large model of a silkmoth, what a silkworm looks like when it leaves the cocoon.

The care and feeding of the silkworms is very involved. Shaw explained, “They’re temperamental beyond belief.” Changes in temperature or humidity, even sudden drafts, can affect their growth. They must eat mulberry leaves several times a day. This made sericulture challenging. For instance, in the 1820s and 1830s, a plague killed off many of the mulberry trees, limiting silk production.

A poster showing different stages of the silk making process
This Cheney Brothers poster explains the work-intensive process of creating silk. For instance, once the cocoon is spun, in order to obtain one long filament, the cocoon must be treated to kill the worm before it becomes a moth and eats its way out, breaking the filament. Then in order to reel the filaments, the cocoon must be heated in water to dissolve sericin, a gummy substance that holds the cocoon together.

In the mid-1800s several factors came together to help the industry, reducing the price of silk thread and fabric for quilters and other consumers. To help finance the Civil War, the government taxed imported silk goods, but not raw silk. Instead of cultivating silkworms, companies like prominent silk manufacturer Cheney Brothers in Connecticut imported raw silk to make thread, fabric, and products like neckties and socks from Europe. The United States industry was better able to adjust to mechanization than its international competitors. Silk manufacturers also sold silk wound on spools for use on newly popular sewing machines.

“By 1910, we have the largest industry in the world,” Shaw said.

A worker at the loom in Cheney Brother silk factory.
Workers in the Cheney Brothers silk factory.

The industry’s heyday lasted until about 1940. New synthetic fabrics like rayon, and later nylon, were cheaper, and more clothing could be bought ready to wear, so consumers weren’t buying as much fabric for custom-made clothing. World War II also stopped silk imports from China and Japan, and available silk was needed for wartime uses like parachutes. The industry never recovered, and silk again was a luxury item.

Domestic silk’s popularity, and its use in quilts, was relatively short-lived, but today that history is preserved in the museum’s collection.

Chris Heidenrich was an editorial intern in the museum’s Office of Project Management and Editorial Services.

Everyday Luxury is made possible by the generous support of the Barbara Coffey Quilt Endowment and
Ambassador Nicholas F. Taubman and Mrs. Eugenia L. Taubman.