The Early Silk Dyeing Industry In America

Historical Article Series April 26, 2020 > The Early Silk Dyeing Industry In America

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 45, No. 3, September 2009

The following article is an excerpt from L. P. Brockett’s, The Silk Industry in America, published by The Silk Association of America in 1876.  It describes the beginnings of America’s silk dyeing industry in which Gurleyville played a role.

Silk Dyeing
Skeins of silk dyed with plant-derived natural dyes in modern day Laos

  During the period when, in many parts of the United States, the nurture and care of the silk-worm, and the production of silk, constituted a household industry, the dyeing of the silk thus obtained, was embraced among the processes carried on in the household. A good wife was expected in a general way to understand something of the dyer’s art; its application to silk yarns presented few new difficulties. The same kinds of dyes and dyestuffs were used that had given tint to homespun garments or to half worn dresses a new lease of service. The chief dyes were the yellow and red oak, chestnut, butternut, logwood, Brazil wood, redwood, nutgalls, madder, indigo, annatto, and sometimes, though rarely, small quantities of cochineal.   The mordants most in use were alum, copperas (sulphate of iron), bluestone (sulphate of copper), and occasionally, muriate of tin…. 

In Mansfield, Conn., between 1829 and 1838, a woman who had developed peculiar skill in dyeing, monopolized the business furnished by the [local] silk manufacturers…   [This woman was Polly Huntington who later married Stephen Brigham.  She and her brother Asa are mentioned as dyers in The History of Tolland County by J. R. Cole (1888).  She continued dyeing up to 1844.]  The chief complaint against American sewing-silk was that its dye was inferior to the Italian; and a prejudice in favor of the foreign sewing-silk, based chiefly on supposed superiority of color, survived long after the American silks surpassed all others in lustre, brilliance and permanence of hue, as they unquestionably did in strength of material….

When, in August, 1838, Edward Vallentine and Lewis Leigh came to this country and started the business of silk dyeing, at Gurleyville, Conn., they had both these obstacles to meet: a woman had the local trade, and a high reputation as a dyer; and at best it was not popularly believed that American sewing-silk could be the equal, especially in color, of the Italian. With foreign black sewing-silks, the contest at that period seemed almost hopeless; but in the lighter colors the field was more promising. Mr. Vallentine brought with him his own experience as a silk dyer at Spitalfields, England, where he had succeeded to the business of his father…The younger Vallentine well understood his trade and was ambitious in the use of brilliant colors; he was also remarkably successful in making a permanent black dye…

Northampton, in 1839, under the prodigal management of Samuel Whitmarsh, seemed to be fast becoming the focus of the silk industry, and thither Mr. Vallentine removed. [Joseph Conant of the Mansfield Silk Company in Gurleyville and his son-in-law, Orwell S. Chaffee also relocated to Northampton about this time.  Both returned to Mansfield within a few years to establish their own silk mills here.] The products of the mills at Florence [MA] and at South Manchester [CT] were sent to [Vallentine’s] dye-house; and in 1844 he was joined by Wm. Skinner, who had been a dyer in England. The amount of dyeing required about this period by the Nonotuck Silk Co., was possibly 50 pounds of silk per week; by Cheney Brothers, perhaps twice that quantity. Each of these concerns at last resolved to do its own dyeing. The Nonotuck Silk Co. bargained with Mr. Vallentine to have its own dyer, Mr. Atkins, taught the art; applying the threat, in case of refusal, of bringing out from England another dyer to supplant Mr. Vallentine.  

Ward Cheney followed up this entering wedge, and himself spent some months in Northampton, acquiring “all the secrets of the art” from Mr. Vallentine for the sum of three hundred dollars. In Mr. Cheney’s case Mr. Vallentine afterwards occasionally boasted that he kept some of his knowledge in reserve; but at all events, the Cheney Brothers never appeared conscious of the deficiency. The subsequent withdrawal of these two largest customers, probably brought about Mr. Vallentine’s failure in business in 1848. He died in 1851.

Before 1856 when the first aniline dye was discovered, dyes were extracted from flowers, berries, herbs, tree bark, roots and other natural products. Colorfastness was often a problem.  In F. G. Comstock’s A Practical Treatise on the Culture of Silk published in Hartford in 1839, the author includes a section on dyeing silk.  Here is a sample recipe for “Best Blue” dye from Comstock’s guide:

“Take filings of copper, free from alloy of other metals, and put them into a glass vessel, and then pour upon them muriatic acid, sufficient to cover them twice as deep as the space they occupy.  Let them stand for the space of twenty-four hours, or as long as necessary, for the muriatic acid to attain a blue or deep green color.  Then pour off the clear part of the colored muriatic acid into another glass vessel, and add fresh muriatic acid to the copper filings, and continue this process until the whole of the copper filings have been dissolved, when nothing but the earthy and impure parts will remain.

“Mix all these several blue or deep green colored solutions of copper, and add thereto as much spirits of ammonia, as will saturate the mixture.  The silk is then to be moistened with warm water, care being taken that all parts be completely and equally soaked in the water, and wrung out.  It is then to be steeped in the blue tincture, prepared as above directed, and occasionally stirred, until it takes a handsome ultra-marine color.  It must then be wrung, rinsed in a running stream, and dried in the shade.  This makes a beautiful blue, but cannot be called a fast color, as exposure to the sun will give it a greenish tint.”

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