Science & Technology

Silk became the preferred fabric for fashionable garments in the late nineteenth century 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 nineteenth century, 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.

Macclesfield, Coventry, and Spitalfields, London had long been centers of silk production in England.  Due to fluctuations in the silk trade in Macclesfield, from the 1860s skilled workers were encouraged to immigrate to the United States, where they worked in the developing silk industry, particularly in Paterson, New Jersey. American manufacturers 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. The skill of the English workers aided by the efficiency of improved technologies led to success of the US silk industry and the ultimate decline of Macclesfield as a center of silk manufacture. 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 nineteenth century, the weighting process used various organic and metallic compounds to swell and deposit the compounds into the silk fiber. However, the compounds introduced agents of degradation that caused a loss of elasticity and tensile strength, thereby making the silk filaments brittle. 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.