Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).


Copyright © 1998 by the author(s)


The Cheney Brothers turned a failed venture in seri-culture into a multi-million dollar silk empire only to see it and the American textile industry decline into near oblivion one hundred years later. Because of time and space limitations this paper is limited to Cheney Brothers' activities in New York City which are, but a fraction, of a much larger story.

Brothers and beginnings

Like many other enterprising Americans in the 1830s, brothers Charles (1803-1874), Ward (1813-1876), Rush (1815-1882), and Frank (1817-1904), Cheney became engaged in the time consuming, difficul t business of raising silk worms until they discovered that speculation on the morus morticaulis, the white mulberry tree upon which the worms fed, might be far more profitable. As with all high profit operations the tree business was a high-risk venture, throwing many investors including the Cheney brothers, into bankruptcy.

Failure however, was not part of Ch~ney vocabulary. In 1838, with a friend from New York, Edwin H. Arnold, they built a water power mill on the Hop Brook in Manchester Connecticut with financing supplied by their successful artist brothers, Seth (1810-1856) and John Cheney (1801-1885). The Mt. Nebo Silk Manufacturing Company hired young women to unravel cocoons to produce silk sewing thread that Ward took to Philadelphia to sell under the name "Fratelli Chinacci," since all fine sewing thread at that time came from Italy. Uneven and imperfect, their thread was not suitable for the newly invented sewing machine until the family tinker, Frank, perfected a machine for winding and twisting a double-strand of uniform silk in 1847.