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Unwinding the History of Silk

By Jillian Hanson

Smith, silk, Northampton -- what’s the connection? If you’re stumped, you’re not alone.

Thanks to several members of Smith’s faculty, staff and student body, Northampton is unraveling a forgotten but important thread of its history—the silk industry. Although it’s not widely known amongst local residents that one of the leading 19th-century silk thread manufacturers in the world was located in Northampton, a close look at Northampton’s city seal reveals an intricate outer ring of silk moths and mulberry leaves.

“Delving into the silk industry that used to exist here illuminates so many things about social history and Northampton’s history,” says Smith Professor Marjorie Senechal. “And yet there has been little or no study of it until now.”

Senechal, the Louise Wolff Kahn Professor in Mathematics and History of Science and Technology, is the driving force behind the community-wide project that has become known as The Northampton Silk Project. The Silk Project grew out of Senechal’s own curiosity and long-standing interest in the history of textiles. After visiting Albania, where they raised silk from silkworms until very recently, Senechal became interested in learning more about the connection between Northampton and silk. “I knew there had been some kind of silk production here,” she explains, “but I found out that no one had ever really studied it in a local context. The library had nothing but a few archived newspaper articles and 1830s manuals on silk growing.” Theater professor and designer Kiki Smith shared Senechal’s fascination with textiles, and together they began organizing a variety of community members, professionals, academics, students and local historians to study and celebrate this elusive period in the city’s history.

Senechal set her first- and second-year students to work re-creating some of the equipment used to make silk thread back then. It took them several months to research, design and put together an authentic 1850s-style reeling machine that was used to unravel silk cocoons (each white oval the size of a robin’s egg is made up of a single, half-mile-long thread) and wind the delicate thread on a reel. With the help of Greg Young, science shop technician and lab instructor, students also created a 200-thread, punch-card loom, which would have been used to make silk ribbons in the 19th century. Young says the basic weaving method employed by this loom is still being used today, although modern looms are, of course, computerized. Both of these intricate, graceful machines provide a glimpse of the complexity of this industry.

While students were busy in the machine shop re-creating 19th-century machinery, others in the community were also getting involved. Community volunteers and staff from Historic Northampton started researching the local silk industry, and a middle school curriculum was developed with teachers at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton. “Students at JFK successfully raised 3,000 silkworms,” Senechal recalls. “Another teacher did a unit on one of the incarnations of the silk industry associated with the abolitionist movement.” JFK students explored the unlikely connection between Sojourner Truth and Northampton’s silk production: Truth was a member of an abolitionist utopian organization opposed to cotton production, the Northampton Association for Education and Industry. It was formed when silk production was first catching on in this area and helped finance the industry’s early years.

The silk industry dominated life in and around Northampton for almost 100 years, starting in the mid-1830s and ending during the Great Depression. Initially, silkworms were raised here, setting off a short-lived mulberry tree craze (silkworms eat only mulberry leaves). Raising silkworms soon became too cumbersome, however, and by 1850 the local industry was importing raw silk from China. By the end of the 19th century, the Nonotuck Silk Company (later renamed the Corticelli Company) was known throughout the world as a leading manufacturer of silk thread. Sewing machine manufacturer Isaac Singer was delighted with the silk thread produced by the Nonotuck Silk Company because of its ability to withstand the tension of his machines, and his business put the company on the map.

Starting in September, a year-long celebration of this multifaceted, multiyear community endeavor will kick off here in Northampton, building on and featuring the work that has already been done by a variety of Silk Project participants. Historic Northampton and local galleries will feature silk-related exhibits, the Lyman Conservatory will highlight fiber-producing plants, and the new Smith Museum of Art will open its doors with, among other things, a spectacular show on silk. In late September, the Textile Society of America will hold a symposium, cohosted by Smith, titled “Silk Roads, Other Roads,” and another symposium, in March 2003, “Silk Unraveled,” will draw people from all over the world to explore why silk production succeeds or fails. Smith faculty have also created a self-guided walking/bicycle tour of silk sites in and around town. (For a more detailed listing of events and exhibits, as well as historical background and walking tour maps, visit the Northampton Silk Project Web site at

In the meantime, folks at Smith and in the wider community continue to unwind this fascinating thread of history. “I can’t think of any area the local silk industry hasn’t touched--science, fashion, the economic development of the town, immigration,” says Senechal. “The cocoon metaphor is so appropriate. You pull and tug on it and all this stuff comes to light. The history of Northampton just unravels before your eyes.”

Silk artist Sally Dillon has been part of the Northampton Silk Project since it began. She recently completed a detailed “story quilt” that features hand-painted images from the high points in Northampton’s silk history. Hand-painted silk by Sally Dillon. Hand quilting by Janet Hale, 2002.

Exhibition to Explore Silk Industry
The first large exhibition to be held in Smith’s renovated Museum of Art will be a show examining the history of the silk industry. “Silk in New England Society, 1730-1930,” an exploration and celebration of the local silk industry’s history, organized by the museum and two local arts organizations in Northampton, will be on view from March 28 to June 15, 2003. The guest curator is Madelyn Shaw of the Rhode Island School of Design.

The exhibition looks at the role of silk throughout New England over two centuries. By examining portraits, costume and accessories that belonged to New Englanders over this span of time, the exhibition demonstrates how silk became increasingly democratized as the process of producing it changed. In colonial times, silk was a priceless luxury associated with royalty, but by the early 20th century, silk stockings, braids and flounces had become commodities accessible to all but the poorest Americans.

The official grand opening of the museum will be held on April 27. For more details, see the Web site.

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