Shakers and Silk

Aisha Cupid

Background on the Shakers

The Shaker family or commune was usually comprised of 30 to 80 or ninety persons, men and women, with children who may have been apprenticed to the society. In the family, the men and women did not live as husbands and wives. Instead, they lived celibate lives as brothers and sisters within extended families. A family lived together in one house and the upper stories consisted of rooms that could house between four and eight persons. Each Shaker room contained a simple cot-bed for each occupant, the necessary washing instruments, a small looking-glass, a stove for the winter, a table for writing, and a considerable number of chairs which were hung against the walls on pegs when not in use. A wide hall separated the dormitories of the men from the women.

Around the family house were buildings dedicated to the various occupations of members in the society. In the sisters' shop, tailoring, basket-making, and other "female" industries were pursued. In the brothers' shop, broom making, carpentry, and other industries were pursued by the men. Among the other shops were the laundry, saw mills, wood-house, machine shop, fruit-house and wood-house.

The Shakers were very methodical in every aspect of their lives. Each family would rise from bed at half-past four in the summer and at five during the winter. In the morning, they would make their beds in a very routine manner. They would put two chairs back to back and then take off each piece of bed cloth, folding it neatly against the backs of the chairs. Then the pillows were laid first on the seats. In the men's rooms, the men would remove the slop and then the sisters would go in and tidy up the quarters. Each sister was assigned a brother and she would also take care of both his room and his clothing. She would make any necessary repairs, wash his clothing, and reprove him if he was not orderly. After their chores, they sat down to breakfast at six or half-past six. During meals, the men, women and children ate their meals at different tables in total silence.

After breakfast, each person went to work at the position assigned to them by deacons or deaconess, who tried to keep in mind both the good of the community and the individual. The "caretakers" took their followers to their appropriate places of employment. When extra laborers were needed to work in another place of employment, it was easy to immediately divert sufficient laborers to the place. The women did not labor in the fields, except to do light work as picking berries. The men attended to the heavy labor. The children were given special duties of their own. From an early age, the "caretakers" taught the children such activities and skills that they could master and their products were utilized in the community. The Shakers did not work severely because they were in no haste to be rich. The Shakers motto was "Put your hands to work and your hearts to God" and "work as if you had a thousand years to live and as if you were to die tomorrow." At twelve, they sat down to have lunch.

They had dinner at six and pursued recreational activities in the evenings. The Shakers evenings were spent doing activities that they regarded to be wholesome. Although they sang well, they did not generally allow themselves instrumental music. Much of their time was spent learning new hymns and tunes that they claim to have received from the spirit world. Each night a different activity was planned. On Monday evening, newspaper clippings and letters from other societies were read among the group. On Tuesday evening, they would meet together to sing and to march. On Wednesday night, there was a union meeting for conversation. On Thursday evening, they attended a "labor meeting" which is a religious service. In this meeting, they worked hard to better themselves as individuals. On Friday evening, they learned new songs and hymns. On Saturday evening, they congregated to worship. On Sunday evening, they visited each other's rooms. Three or four sisters would visit a brethren by appointment and then they would engage in conversation on general topics. At the end of every evening, all were in bed with the lights off at nine or nine thirty.

Shakers and Silk

Between 1808 and 1815, sericulture was actively practiced in the western states of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of the Shaker communities tried to raise silkworms, but the industry had more success in the warmer climates of Kentucky and southern Ohio. Writers of the nineteenth century have credited the Shaker community for the introduction of silk production in Kentucky. The Kentucky Shakers developed a viable industry that lasted from the 1810's to the end of the Civil War. Other Shaker communities did participate in the silk production process but Kentucky’s Shakers were more proficient. Kentucky's Shakers had the advantage of ideal temperature, which promoted the growth of mulberry trees and sericulture. The South Union, Kentucky sisters used silk to produce kerchiefs, neckwear, hat bands, bonnets, sewing silk and dolls clothes. Infrequently, the silk may have been used to create entire garments such as dresses. Also, some garments and bonnets were produced from a combination of silk and another fiber. In 1832, each sister used her own silk supply to make neck kerchiefs, which they wore on New Year's Day to a meeting. The brothers were impressed with this and so the following year to date, each brethren was given a neckband and tie by the sisters.

Shaker silk

The height of the shaker silk industry occurred during the 1850's and 1860's. Some evidence shows that by the time of the Civil War, silk production at South Union was high enough to sell a miniscule portion to the outside world. In 1859, silk handkerchiefs made at South Union were sold for $1.00 or, after approximately 40 years of inflation $17.43, a piece. Letters from different Shaker communities indicated that the sisters sometimes used their silk products as gifts. For example one sister wrote, " we have felt a great burden about your giving away so many of your silk neck kerchiefs and here we are receiving another". A Kentucky kerchief made of silk was a well-prized gift because out of the entire Shaker produced textiles; none could be compared to the mystique of the iridescent silk. It was treasured for its lightweight, easy maintenance, and longevity.


In the Shakers' facilities, the sisterhood was the dominant force in sericulture. Although the children were responsible for picking the mulberry leaves in late spring and early summer, the Shaker communities thought that women were more suited to sericulture. The eldresses handled the "crop" of the cocoons. The women attended to the silkworms and ensured that the worms were fed and their environment was clean.

In order to prepare them for sericulture, mulberry trees were meticulously grown to obtain the leaves to feed the silk worms. In some instances, two different types of mulberry trees were grown for the cultivation of silk. However, in other instances, several variety of the mulberry trees were planted but occasionally the sisters used the leaves of indigenous Osage orange trees. One sister believed that the above leaves were as good as white Mulberry leaves. There were two hundred mulberry trees planted per acre and in three years they had expected ten to twelve ponds of leaves per tree.

They then prepared for the construction of silk houses or cocooneries. In the Northern US, the silk houses were situated approximately two stories above the ground with a heating furnace in the cellar. The South Union communities did not require heating devices since the silkworms were raised in the warmer months. The number of silk houses depended on the community's commitment to silk production. In South Union, the number of cocooneries is unknown but there was more than one.

The Silkworms were grown on shelves known as hurdles, which were stacked at irregular intervals on an open framework. A hurdle was composed of a frame about five feet long and two feet wide of thin boards re-enforced with two braces. Tacks were placed into the frame and tow twine was laced around the tack creating a mesh. Dampened and taut mesh was shellacked. A similar hurdle was produced with a strong cotton or tow cloth cover, which was fastened by tacks. This hurdle rested below the meshed one to collect any of the silk worm droppings.

After the production of the orchard and the silk house, the eggs were obtained. It is not apparent how the South Union Sisters were able to procure the eggs in the early years. However, in the later years they ordered them from the Shaker communities of Mississippi and Pleasant Hill. This was done because it was recommended that the eggs be from a similar climate to their hatching environment. The good eggs were considered to be those that cracked under your nails! In 1882, when the Sisters received their order of eggs too early for hatching, they placed the silkworm in an icehouse of a nearby community. They hatched their eggs when the first bud started to appear on the mulberry in order to provide the silkworms sufficient food.

Different mechanisms were used in the hatching process. Most growers placed the eggs in small flat boxes that were kept near a stove. Some growers opted to use the human body as a heat source. One grower recalled using her armpits to hatch eggs in three days. Some placed eggs in bags that remained under their clothes during the day and under their pillows during the night. The desired hatching time was two days and so the eggs that did not hatch in that time period were usually destroyed.

Once hatched, the worms would be moved to the hurdles by placing finely chopped mulberry leaves on heavy paper and waiting for the silkworms to attach themselves. The worms were fed two or three times a day with tender cut mulberry leaves until the first molting. Feeding time was a very busy season for the sisters and so sisters employed in other tasks were asked for their help. It was noted in South Union that even though there were some sisters sewing, most of the family was involved with raising the silk.

When the worms were prepared to spin their silk, the hurdles were cleaned and straw, preferably rye straw, was placed upright in bundles so that the worms could attach their cocoons. Once the silk was spun the attendants killed the chrysalis inside the cocoons chosen for their silk. Frequently they baked the cocoons and then suffocated them in blankets. To reel the silk, the shakers followed the same techniques as other reelers. A silk reeling machine was created by Abner Bedell of Union Village, Ohio in 1837. No information is available on how this machine worked but presumably it may have helped wind the silk mechanically.

Once the worker had reeled the thread into raw silk, she removed the skein carefully, placed it into a cotton bag and submerged it for several hours in one hundred degrees Fahrenheit water. This process helped to soften the gum and prepared the silk for the next step - throwing. Throwing was the process of twisting the raw silk together to produce a thicker strand of thread. Different products required different amounts of twisted threads. For example, sewing thread required 25 strands of silk but fabric silk required fewer. Any silk saved from broken and deformed cocoons were saved and used sometimes in the production of handkerchiefs.

The next step in the process was to dye the silk. The typical colors used, as shown by the Shaker handkerchief collection, are rose, lavender, purple, and white. However, other colors such as green, mustard, and brown plaid did exist. Many times, the sisters wove handkerchiefs to have a glistening or shimmering quality. They accomplished this look by using one color for the warp thread and another for the filling. Doing this allowed their item to appear a different color depending on the angle viewed.

After dyeing, the sisters wound the threads onto individual spools and set on a rack. The wrap threads could then be unwound from the spool rack and measured simultaneously. The women taught each other the special skills of textile production.

The Shaker kerchiefs showed great craftsmanship. Sisters wove the striped borders by alternating the weave structure of the fabric or by inserting a different color of thread. The hem was done neatly, evenly, and in almost invisible stitches of fine handwork. Sometimes the sister would stitch her initials in the kerchief's corner.

The Shakers silk industry terminated during the end of the civil war. During the war, the Shaker community of South Union, Kentucky suffered a tremendous amount of losses. A sawmill and gristmill, with all of their contents were burned, creating a loss of seventy-five thousand dollars ($1,307,250 in today's dollar). They fed both the Union and confederate troops at least fifty thousand meals. One eldress was quoted to have said that the war cost the Shaker community one hundred thousands dollars (1,743,000 in today's dollar). They lost money by bad debts in the Southern States. They also lost seventy-five thousand dollars ($1,307,250 in today's dollar) in bonds which was deposited in a bank and stolen by an officer. As a result of these financial losses, the Shakers stopped participating in the silk industry and devoted their time to nullifying these losses.

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This page was last modified on Monday, August 26, 2002.