North American Silk Industry
ABSTRACT By the early twentieth century, the U.S. silk industry was the largest in the world. It transformed silk, a historically scarce and expensive luxury, into a widely available and affordable fabric. Silk materials filtered into almost every kind of female dress, many articles of male dress, and all sorts of trimmings and accessories. An array of different silks—plain, patterned, colorful, lustrous, soft, rustling, light, heavy—to one degree or another brought the visual aesthetic and sensuous pleasure of silk clothing within reach of the majority of the population. This was not the case at the start of the nineteenth century, when no silk was manufactured in America. A new branch of the U.S. textile industry, American silk manufacturing had its small-scale beginnings in the 1830s. While earlier-established cotton and wool manufacturing were major industries by midcentury, for many reasons silk did not become industrialized until the century’s end. If initial development was slow, progress was fast once pioneering American inventors and entrepreneurs solved technical problems and reliable supplies of raw silk (filament) for thread began to arrive from Japan. American entrepreneurs not only established a silk industry but also created the first mechanized silk industry. In the old European and Asian silk-manufacturing centers, silk remained largely a handcraft well into the twentieth century. Too many mills, overproduction, competition from rayon, and changing consumer preferences contributed to the American silk industry’s decline during the 1920s and 1930s.
This is an abstract of an article from the Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion. The full article is available in the Berg Fashion Library.
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