Science & Technology

Silk became the preferred fabric for fashionable garments in the late 1800s and subsequently became popular for use in high-style Crazy quilts, as well as for other fancywork. For centuries, silk had been favored because of its fine drape and scarcity. Its manufacture was a time-intensive, manual process requiring specially-skilled workers, producing limited quantities available to only a few. During the late 1800s, an abundant supply of raw silk from Japan and technological progress made industrially-produced silk available to ordinary people in the United States, Great Britain, and other parts of the industrialized world. In addition, chemical processes improved the feel and weight of silk, making it even more desirable, with the bonus of fetching a higher price. These processes, however, introduced elements that would eventually cause the silk fibers to disintegrate—a process called shattering.

In the United States, businesses developed time-saving inventions for throwing silk (cleaning, twisting, and winding on bobbins), increasing the speed of power looms, and improving methods of dyeing, printing, and finishing silk. Competitors in Europe were less willing to adopt the new ways, in some cases continuing to use manual processes. By 1900 the United States was the second largest producer of silk goods (measured by their value) in the world, exceeded only by France. From 1860 to 1900, the value of the silk products produced in the US increased from $6.6 million to $107.3 million. Great Britain produced 13% of what the US produced.

Adding weight to silk is an old practice to improve its body and scroop—the rustling of silk fabrics as a wearer moves about. In the late 1800s, the weighting process used various organic and metallic compounds to swell the silk fibers and deposit the compounds into the fiber. However, the compounds also introduced several agents of degradation that resulted in loss of elasticity and tensile strength, thereby breaking the silk filaments. This deterioration, called shattering, is recognizable in Crazy quilts by areas where a silk patch is completely deteriorated, or the yarns in one direction are gone.