Silk Part 2: American Production & Japanese Products for the American Market

Silk Part 2: American Production & Japanese Products for the American Market

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.

A silk cocoon and silk moths
Duran, Leo, 1883-, Raw Silk: A Practical Handbook for the Buyer, 1921, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

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”[1] Paterson was even referred to as the Silk City or the Lyons of America in the early 1900s.

Silk factories along the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ, including the Madison Silk Co.
Lewis Hine, 1937, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An expansive array of mills in Paterson turned raw silk into a wide variety of silk fabric and silk ribbons, and even produced the machinery used for creating the silk goods. The one area where Paterson was not self-sufficient, however, was in creating raw silk. The raw silk was chiefly imported from Japan, along with China and Italy. In the late-1800s, California had a brief spurt producing raw silk, but this was short-lived [2]. Thus the need for communication and a working relationship with Japan in order to import Japanese raw silk.

Silk Ribbons made in Paterson, NJ ca. 1900, from R&H Adams Silk Mill
On display at the Meadowlands Museum, 2018.

As opposed to Japan whose silk industry was dominated by a female workforce, while many American women were involved in the silk production process, the industry was still shared by men and most highly-skilled weavers were male. Paterson’s silk industry laborers were also dominated by foreign immigrants, whereas the majority of Japanese silk workers were Japanese. The looms attracted many Jewish and Italian immigrants in particular. Skilled silk weavers immigrating to the United States would eschew New York city for the mills of the industrial boom-town of Paterson. Jewish immigrants from Poland, Hungary, Russia, and other Eastern European countries tended to gravitate towards silk weaving, while Italian immigrants generally did silk dyeing.

It is also important to note that Paterson had an especially infamous silk strike in 1913 due to unfair labor practices, which lasted about six months and involved thousands of laborers. One of the leaders of the 1913 strike was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a labor activist and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (photo below). Interestingly, due to the fact that there were so many immigrants from different countries and regions working in the Paterson silk mills, Striking Out: Paterson’s Famous Labor Dispute said that “language barriers prevented workers from organizing on a large scale.” So when Flynn and other activists came to unionize the workers for the 1913 strike they needed to address them in six different languages. While this post does not center on the labor strikes in Paterson, you can read more about them here in this article by Marcia Worth-Baker, Striking Out: Paterson’s Famous Labor Dispute.

Strike leaders at the Paterson silk strike of 1913. From left, Patrick Quinlan, Carlo Tresca, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Adolph Lessig, and Bill Haywood.
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lucky for FFF, photographer Lewis Hine did a series on Paterson silk production in 1937! Hine was known for capturing the plight of the working and lower classes in early 1900s (read more about Hine and see more of his works Here). He used his photographs for social and labor reform. While 1937 is a little later than the usual FFF timeline, Hine provided great photographic examples of the stages of silk production and some American female workers.

As part of the early stages of adapting silk from a raw material to a bobbin, the raw silk is untied from its package (left) and soaked in boiled water (right). This removes the natural gum that surrounds the silk fibers produced by the silk worms.

The woman on the right below is overseeing silk skeins on winding creels or swifts in Paterson, NJ in 1937. The yarn is wound from the skein onto bobbins. As a comparison of this process in the United States and in Japan, the women on the right are overseeing this same process in a Japanese factory in 1910.

Left Photo: Lewis Hine, 1937, Paterson, NJ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Right Photo: University of Victoria Libraries from Victoria, Canada, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Once the raw silk has had its outer gum removed and is wound neatly into skeins, it is ready to be woven. In this photograph below, a warp thread is being entered into the loom. The warp threads hold the tension in the loom, like the backbone structure. The warp threads typically run north to south. The weft threads are then woven across the warp threads and are typically the threads most visible on the surface of the woven fabric.

Lewis Hine, 1937, Paterson, NJ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Here a female weaver is tying ends of broken warp thread on backside of loom. This way the fabric is still continuous.

Lewis Hine, 1937, Paterson, NJ, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And of course, the reason for all of this work was the lustrous, expensive fabric it produced! Perhaps due to further communication with the West and an interest in an expanding market, there are some high fashion examples below that resulted from the intermingling of cultures in silk.

These silk dressing gowns below ca. 1885, were made in Yokohama, Japan for the Western market. They are currently in the Los Angeles Museum of Art. The magenta dressing gown on the left has more of a typical Western silhouette but the black dressing gown on the right is a kimono.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2007.211.784a-b, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

More close-up photos of the incredible embroidery work on the left dressing gown!

And a better view of the kimono dressing gown made for a Western buyer:

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2007.211.783a-b, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to this interchange between East and West, the United States received the raw silk needed to produce its silk fabrics and trim, and the door was opened for further communication and exchange of fashionable goods. Japan had long perfected the art of sericulture, but upon implementing industrial techniques from the West, was able to reassert itself as a dominate figure in the global silk market. And with Japan’s economy open to foreign trade, the U.S. was able to import raw goods that could be transformed into luxurious fabrics in growing industrial hubs, and especially by a skilled immigrant labor force.

For more of the history behind silk in Japan, don’t forget to read Silk Part 1: Japanese Production and Women’s Work if you haven’t already!

-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] Low, George C., Director. The Industrial Directory of New Jersey. Trenton, NJ: 1915, 404.

[2] Essig, E. O. “Silk Culture in California.” Textiles in the Pacific, 1500–1900. Ma, Debin, ed. London: Routledge, 2016, 102.

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