April 20, 2012

Three Quaker Women and Home Silk Production in Colonial America

We featured two beautiful quilts made by American Quakers in our March 23rd and April 11th postings.  Both of these quilts are now in the collection of the American Museum in Britain.  They were made in the mid-19th century, but the tradition of Quaker-made silk clothing and quilts in this country extends back into the 18th century.  During this time, many well-to-do colonial families not only imported silk fabric from Europe, they also raised their own silkworms, harvested their own silk cocoons, spun the silk, and either dyed and wove it into cloth at home or engaged others to do this for them.

Elizabeth Buffum Chase, daughter of Quaker abolitionist Arnold Buffum and a noted anti-slavery advocate in her own right, kept diaries in which she recorded memories of her childhood and her involvement in the anti-slavery movement.  One of her childhood memories was of her aunt's silk production.  "Patience, my father's eldest sister, when a young girl, raised silkworms, wound the silk from the cocoons, doubled and twisted it, had it dyed, wove it herself, and made it into a gown in which she was married in 1793 to Pliny Earle.  I have a piece of the silk still, but it was woven long before my day." (Two Quaker Sisters, 15.)  Patience and Elizabeth's father were raised in the family home in Rhode Island where the climate was conducive to raising the variety of mulberry tree necessary to support silkworms.

Elizabeth Buffum Chase (1806-1899).  Photograph courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the Revoluntionary War, there were several attempts by the English to encourage the commercial growing and harvesting of raw silk in the colonies.  In the early 1600s, James I attempted to compel planters in Virginia to raise mulberry trees and silkworms in lieu of, or in addition to, tobacco.  Another attempt was made in the 1730s when the English encouraged Georgia and Carolina to produce silk by providing trees and silkworms, instruction in silk production, and exemption from duty on the silk exported to England.  These and other efforts failed in the southern colonies due to the greater profits to be had from growing tobacco and the intense, manual labor required to produce raw silk.  However, the small-scale growing of mulberry trees and the home production of silk in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and some other areas in the mid-1700s proved productive and profitable to the families engaged in the activity.  Notably, widespread silkworm raising was found in both the Quaker and Shaker religious communities during this time, the resultant silk being used for personal attire and also for export to England.

Silkworm feeding amongst the leaves and berries of a mulberry tree.  Photograph
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; author Gorkaazk.

Susannah Wright (1697-1784) was one of the successful home producers of silk.  Her Quaker family emigrated from England to Pennsylvania in 1714 and, by 1728, had settled at Wright's Ferry (now Columbia) on the Susquehanna River.  Susannah never married and lived at the family property, called Wright's Ferry Mansion, for her entire life.  She did, however, become a famous poet and writer, continued her family's support for the abolition of slavery, raised silkworms, and produced both silk fabric and sewing-silk thread.

Wright's Ferry Mansion built in 1738 and later a station on the Underground Railroad. 
Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Susannah had 1,500 silkworms in 1772.  These were enough for her to reel and weave, from her home-grown cocoons, a length of silk measuring 60 yards which was presented to Queen Charlotte of England and subsequently made into a dress for Her Royal Highness.

Painting of Queen Charlotte by Benjamin West, 1779. 

A contemporary of Susannah Wright, Grace Fisher, grew silkworms and made silk in Pennsylvania during the same period.  She was a noted Quaker preacher and is known to have made some silk fabrics that were presented by Governor Dickinson of Pennsylvania to historian Mrs. Catherine Macauley.

This is just a "snap-shot" of home silk production by three Quaker women living during the colonial period in this country. We will explore the use of silk in Quaker quilts in a future post.  For now, it's enough to say that the labor-intensive production of raw silk and the subsequent processing to produce fabric made silk a commodity one didn't want to waste.  The bits left over from dress-making and other uses often made their way into American quilts.


de Koning-Stapel, Hanne Vibeke.  Silk Quilts, From the Silk Road to the Quilter's Studio.  Lincolnwood, IL: The Quilt Digest, 2000.

Manchester, H. H.  The Story of Silk & Cheney Silks.  New York: Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturers, 1916.

Two Quaker Sisters, From the Original Diaries of Elizabeth Buffum Chase and Lucy Buffum Lovell.  New York: Liveright Publishing Corportion, 1937.

Wyckoff, William Cornelius.  Report on the Silk Manufacture Industry of the United States.  New York: Louis Belcher, Printer, 1883.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012

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