I’d never thought of the 16th century as a time of mechanical breakthroughs for the textile industry…wow, I was wrong about this! The earliest knitting machine, a stocking frame knitting machine was invented in England in 1589. It could ACTUALLY knit stockings! Although I believe that the back seam still needed to be sewn by hand. Not bad for the late 16th century!
I’ve moved to Pittsburgh this week! I’m the new curatorial assistant of decorative arts and design at the Carnegie Museum of Art. There won’t be many textile or costume related duties in this new position, although one of our upcoming exhibits will show the work of Iris Van Herpen and I’ll be sure to cover the exhibit here later this winter! Pittsburgh is very different from the eastern part of the state and the old factories (in various states of reuse now) are one thing that really stick out to a new resident.
With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the women who worked in the textile industry in central and western PA, and this website, created by Lycoming college, has a few wonderful rabbit holes to fall into. This page is especially interesting because it features interviews with former textile workers.
The Nonotuck Silk Company holds a fascinating place in textile history. The company began in the 1830s with a failed attempt to breed silkworms in Massachusetts. Silkworms only eat mulberry leaves, and when the health of the imported mulberry trees declined, silkworms had nothing to eat and efforts to raise them for their cocoons failed.
The remnants of the failed silk thread business were later operated by the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, an abolitionist commune in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group imported silk cocoons and used the mill to spin thread. They funded their abolitionist work with income generated from this business. Curiously, you may recognize one of their members:
The association’s community operated like a commune, with shared meals, group housing, education for their children and assigned work duties for every member in the mill or farm. The community fell apart by 1846, but one member, Samuel L. Hill, retained the silk mill and continued to operate the silk thread business. They were operating under the Nonotuck name again, and in 1852, Corticelli silk was their signature product. They developed a high quality silk thread (known as machine twist) strong enough for use in sewing machines. Elijah Singer (the sewing machine manufacturer) placed a large order for this new product. Sewing machines were just becoming the rage at the time, and machine twist thread business boomed for Nonotuck.
In 1922, this company merged with another and operated the new business under the Corticelli name. The business records of the association are held by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. I had the chance to take a look at a few of their financial books and membership logs when I was in graduate school.
Before I was introduced to Ann Lowe, I was hoping to create a thesis from this story. A lot has been written about the New England Silk Industry though, and the amount of information available about the Northampton Association’s work (in direct relation to their textile production—I was a Decorative Arts student and needed to have a solid textile history focus) was pretty light.
Getting an informative and innovative thesis out of this would have been quite a process. Looking back, I think things worked out in the best way for my thesis—although I wish I could find time (and a few incredible sources) to pull together an interesting paper about the Northampton Association someday.
Archive.org has some related documents: A Color Card, And a fantastic needlework instruction book from 1898. And the youtube video below will show you the location of the Association’s silk mill in Northampton, Mass. I’m visiting Northampton at the end of the month and one of these days, maybe during this trip if the weather is nice, I’m going to hunt for old spools at the banks of the little Mill river!
The fashion publications of the late 19th century featured colorful and highly detailed illustrations of the latest looks. The details needed to be crisp: affluent women were sharing these pictures with their seamstresses to recreate European designs.
Archive.org is an amazing resource for early fashion illustration and this search will get you started down a fun historical fashion rabbit hole. The website also has the added benefit of being easy to navigate. Perfect viewing for a lazy summer day when you aren’t feeling particularly academic! I’ve spent most of this sunny holiday weekend drinking lemonade on our deck while hiding from academic projects.
In the mail this week? Textile industry trade journals! Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly exciting at first glance, but trade journals are always a great resource if you are looking for period information about industry and manufacturing. Fashion magazines featured full page advertisements for fabric companies and their latest and greatest fabrics until the 1970s or so (the cotton industry was probably the longest holdout, their Cotton advertisements showed up in fashion magazines into the 1990s.)
But industry journals were geared toward garment and automobile manufactures, so their ads are more technical (and for me, that makes them more interesting!)
As a textile historian, the most helpful trade journal I’ve found so far is American Fabrics. This week, I was excited to find some issues in great condition on Ebay.
American Fabrics began publication in the mid 1940s, and they quickly became leaders in the industry because of a new method they developed to add fabric swatches to their pages. While manufacturers regularly added swatches to their production catalogs for use as salesman samples, this was the first time a journal with a significant circulation could do the same. There are around 50 fabric sample swatches in each issue—although that number declines significantly in the 1970s issues I’ve seen. Adding so many swatches was an expensive process. They are SUCH fun to handle though. Vintage clothing (if it isn’t Dead Stock) and household textiles have often lost their crisp original finishes and can be a bit dull in color from years of washing. These swatches are crisp and bright….they’ve been shut away from light for 60 years!
These issues give such interesting play by play coverage of the growth of the synthetic fiber revolution taking place during the middle of the 20th century.
And….because somedays I feel like I run into Ann Lowe information everywhere, this advertisement for the Stehli fabric company (formerly Stehli Silks and they also expanded into synthetics) is from a period when Mrs. Stehli was a partner in one of Ann’s early Madison Avenue dress shops. I’ve tried to figure out if Ann was able to get a better price on silks with this connection, but it was a brief partnership, and I keep running into dead ends. The Stelhi family member I was able to contact a few years ago didn’t know very much about the supply side of Ann Lowe’s business. This advertisement ALSO has me wondering if an Ann Lowe wedding gown ever appeared in a Stehli silk trade ad…more research rabbit holes to explore!
I’m working on an article about Fiberglas (One “S” is the original trade spelling) fabrics for HFH, and there’s some fantastic and in-depth coverage about the topic in one of these issues of American Fabrics, showing the production process and its “exciting new” use in household textiles. I was thrilled to see Fiberglas fabric swatches and filament samples also—-that I am NOT handling of course…want to avoid getting these samples to shed glass splinters into my fingers!!