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Silk Manufacturing in Westbrook

This slideshow contains 19 items
1
Haskell silk advertisement, Westbrook, ca. 1902

Haskell silk advertisement, Westbrook, ca. 1902

Item 34505 info
Maine Historical Society

When James Haskell founded his silk company in Westbrook in 1874, American silk mills were proliferating.

Silk manufacturing, which had always been a handcraft, was a mechanized industry by the post Civil War years, powered by American inventions.

By the late 19th century, Haskell and others relied primarily on Japanese raw silk (filament), turning out previously unimaginable quantities of affordable silk goods and ending American reliance on expensive imports.

Before the Civil War, however, American interest in silk production was virtually a cottage industry.


2
Cabinet Clyclopaedia, London, 1831

Cabinet Clyclopaedia, London, 1831

Item 31537 info
Maine Historical Society

To help launch the American industry to make silk fabrics and become less reliant on foreign silk textiles the Secretary of the Treasury had published an instructional silk manual known as the "Rush Letter" in 1828.

As a beginning it provided instructions on rearing silkworms to make thread for textiles.

It was the first of a flood of informational books, journals and newspaper features on silk that circulated before the Civil War.


3
Journal of the American Silk Society, Baltimore, 1840

Journal of the American Silk Society, Baltimore, 1840

Item 31532 info
Maine Historical Society

From the Mid-Atlantic to Maine people took up sericulture, which involves raising silkworms and mulberry cultivation to feed the silk worms.

Stacks of worm trays filled attics and barns. Attendant to all this was mulberry growing, leaf harvesting to feed worms and finally cocoon collecting.

Inexperience, and lack of proper care often resulted in small cocoons and poor quality filament.

To improve results people consulted journals like The American Silk Grower, published by the Cheney Brothers who later founded one of the most successful American silk companies.

Maine's ambitious sericulturists included J. Herrick of Leeds and James Walker of Fryeburg.


4
Silk reeling machine, ca. 1830

Silk reeling machine, ca. 1830

Item 31534 info
Maine Historical Society

Silk provided supplemental income. Seasonally, rural women reeled thousands of cocoons. Some used improved reeling machines.

Placed in hot water, cocoon sericin (gum) softens and releases filament ends so that reeling (unwinding) can begin. One filament is too thin to be useful. Groups are reeled at the same time.

Naturally gummy, the filaments stick together forming one strand -- still thinner than a hair.

In the 1830s annual reeled silk production ranged from less than one pound to over 100 pounds per household. It took about 10,000 cocoons to make one-pound weight of reeled silk.


5
Silk skein, Windham, ca. 1840

Silk skein, Windham, ca. 1840

Item 30964 info
Maine Historical Society

To demonstrate industriousness, or as a pastime, leisured young women from financially comfortable families often raised a few silk worms, reeled a little silk and even participated in exhibitions.

At the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association exhibition in 1838, Lucia Deane of Biddeford, a young lady "entirely unacquainted with the business" received a diploma for two skeins of white and two black dyed silk skeins.

Martha Cleaveland of Brunswick earned a diploma with her "specimen of sewing silk."


6
William C. Allen letter to Parker Cleaveland, 1839

William C. Allen letter to Parker Cleaveland, 1839

Item 17168 info
Maine Historical Society

Silkworms and mulberry cultivation interested academics, politicians, agriculturists and others.

In 1836 Maine Senator and later governor John Fairfield wrote of plans to grow Chinese white mulberry (morus multicaulus), a variety propagated by cuttings and grown vineyard-style in rows.

Dr. Ezekiel Holmes, editor of the Maine Farmer newspaper, propagated 2,000 cuttings and frequently published sericulture articles.


7
Silk spinner and twister machine, 1839

Silk spinner and twister machine, 1839

Item 31560 info
Maine Historical Society

New machinery to reel and spin silk started to come on the market in the 1830s.

In use in Hiram in 1833, Brooks Patent machine reeled and twisted finished threads.

Advertised in Maine in 1839, Holland's Improved Silk Spinner was "adapted for factories on the most extensive scale" and "for family use, or for persons wishing to manufacture silk in a small way."

During the 1840s, Captain Dillingham of Turner, used water-operated versions of the Dennis Patent Premium Silk Spinner and Twister.

His neighbor, Luther Carey, claimed an output of two thousand skeins of hand sewing thread – used "to make garments independent of foreign nations" – as evidence of progress from dependency on imported silk thread.


8
Luther Cary petition for bounty on mulberry trees and silk manufacturing, Turner, 1841

Luther Cary petition for bounty on mulberry trees and silk manufacturing, Turner, 1841

Item 33688 info
Maine State Archives

Because silk manufacturing promised economic prosperity States competed with each other, offering bounties to encourage people to produce more silk.

In 1836 Maine offered a silk bounty of 5 cents per pound of cocoons and 50 cents per pound of reeled silk.

In 1841 thread manufacturer Luther Carey, and others, petitioned the legislature to increase the bounty on mulberry trees and reeled silk.

Preferring to allow market forces to take their course, the Maine House of Representatives in April 1842 voted to withdraw the petition.


9
Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1874

Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1874

Item 34343 info
Walker Memorial Library

In Maine and everywhere else sericulture dwindled away. Thread makers imported European or Chinese 100-pound bales of raw silk.

About 1851 Northampton's Nonotuck (Corticelli) Company devised a new thread called “machine twist” that did not break in a sewing machine and solved the problem holding up sewing machine use.

By the late 1860s widespread sewing machine use in garment factories and in homes created a huge "twist" market.

Recognizing an investment opportunity James Haskell established the Haskell Silk Company to make machine twist.

The first Haskell machine twist left the Westbrook factory in December 1874.


10
Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1874

Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1874

Item 34346 info
Walker Memorial Library

In 1874 James Haskell and his son Edwin worked on setting up the mill. Expenses for the premises and machinery amounted to about $15,000.

Sophisticated twist-making machinery came from the Atwood Silk Machine Company in Connecticut.

Haskell hired Charles Fenton as mill superintendent. He had silk experience dating from 1850, including time with Northampton's Nonotuck (Corticelli).

Fenton trained the women workers, whose names indicate they were not French immigrants.


11
Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1880

Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1880

Item 34342 info
Walker Memorial Library

Haskell's customers included dry goods stores and garment makers all over Maine, New England and New York.

In the sharply competitive thread market the Haskell Company prospered. By 1880 growing amounts of Japanese raw silk made dress silk weaving feasible.

In 1882 Haskell was among the first twist manufacturers to switch to weaving. The expanded mill ran 20 looms making black grosgrain.

Again Haskell hired expertise: German silk expert Ernest Gerharts, and Swiss dye chemist Ernest Rathgreb.

The Haskell Silk Company owed much of its success to these two immigrants.


12
Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1889

Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1889

Item 34344 info
Walker Memorial Library

After major mill rebuilding in 1889, Haskell operated 75 looms.

Limited pattern weaving of the early days gave way to a product line consisting of always-popular basic staples, including Grosgrain, Faille Francaise, Peau de Soie, Satin Duchesse, Surah, Taffeta and black Alma Royal (for mourning wear).

Charles Fenton returned to Connecticut in 1888. James Haskell died in 1890. Edwin Haskell continued as general manager, with cousins Lemuel Lane as treasurer and William Poole as president.

By the mid 1890s the workforce, half of whom were women, numbered from 150 to 200 depending on the quiet, or busy season.


13
New Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1935

New Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, ca. 1935

Item 34500 info
Maine Historical Society

In a highly competitive industry good management and direct marketing made Haskell very successful.

In 1901, at a site upriver, the company constructed a new brick mill.

State of the art, it was lighted and run by electricity, had a separate dye-house, 250 looms and about 300 workers.

Silk manufacturing never existed on the scale of the cotton and woolen industry. Some silk mills were very small.

Haskell's 300 workers placed the company among the hundred largest of the more than 1,000 American silk mills in 1920.


14
Raw silk, Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1907

Raw silk, Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1907

Item 18826 info
Maine Historical Society

To earn currency to help finance modernization, Japan turned itself into a raw silk producer. From about 1870 Japan began to reel silk specially suited to American machine manufacturing.

By the early 1900s Japan was the dominant American source of (reeled) raw silk. Without this reliable, growing supply the American silk industry would never have existed.

Imported bales contained about 30 "books" of similar quality raw silk. A book consisted of about 30 skeins in a rectangular package that weighed between 4 and 4 1/2 pounds.


15
Spinning room, Haskell Silk Company, Westbrook, 1907

Spinning room, Haskell Silk Company, Westbrook, 1907

Item 18823 info
Maine Historical Society

To manufacture silk, the continuous (reeled) silk was graded, washed, and wound onto swifts.

Spinning joins short fibers like cotton and wool into a continuous thread. But reeled silk is already hundreds of yards long.

Spinning silk, called throwing, means closely twisting the strand of raw silk and winding it onto wooden bobbins. From the bobbins two, three, or more these twisted strands are then "doubled" or twisted together.

Several doubled threads are "thrown" (twisted) tightly to make strong warp threads called organzine. Loosely twisted filling threads are called "tram."


16
Warping silk, Haskell Silk Company, 1907

Warping silk, Haskell Silk Company, 1907

Item 18824 info
Maine Historical Society

A rack, called a creel, is filled with hundreds of spools of organzine. Threads from the creel spools fan out, and feed into a narrow comb-like frame in front of the reel.

Now close together, hundreds of threads are wound round the reel forming a strip only an inch or two wide. One strip at a time, the process is repeated, until the reel is full.

Reel threads are threaded through heddles or knotted onto loom threads left from fabric just cut off the loom. Finally they are wound onto the loom beam.

Haskell made some fabrics with 500 threads to the inch, making a total of 18,000 in a 36-inch wide silk fabric.


17
Loom room, Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1907

Loom room, Haskell Silk Mill, Westbrook, 1907

Item 18827 info
Maine Historical Society

The warp is run through a sizing or stiffening bath to increase strength. Haskell high-quality silk fabrics often had 600 picks or threads woven across per inch.

Silk weaving was skilled work. Breaks or knots show in the finished fabric.

The workforce and weavers who first built the Haskell name were women. From photographic evidence it is apparent that by 1907 men did the weaving and women worked spinning, throwing and warping.


18
Silk wedding dress, Westbrook, ca. 1912

Silk wedding dress, Westbrook, ca. 1912

Item 6679 info
Maine Historical Society

James Haskell's granddaughter, Mabel, wore a satin wedding dress in 1912. It is one of the few known Haskell silk fabrics that still exists.

Identifying the fabric maker is difficult. The custom of printing the manufacturer's name on the selvedge became more common after 1920, but it was not wide spread.

Haskell sold millions of yards of silk to garment makers and stores nationwide. Every length leaving the factory was guaranteed "not to break, crock or shift."


19
Haskell Silk Company puzzle, ca. 1900

Haskell Silk Company puzzle, ca. 1900

Item 18730 info
Maine Historical Society

This jigsaw puzzle is a promotional item from Haskell's heyday.

In the 1920s Haskell and the entire America silk industry declined rapidly due to unstable raw silk prices, industry overproduction and growing competition from the first man-made fiber — artificial silk — now called rayon.

Haskell went bankrupt and ceased business in 1930, the year Edwin died.

A local attempt to save the mill with help from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation failed. Unknown individuals leased the factory, operated as Westbrook Weaving Mills, advertised throwing and rayon weaving, and vanished from the record by 1935.


This slideshow contains 19 items