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.
Continue reading “Silk Part 1: Japanese Production and Women’s Work”