Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.



This paper is part of a larger project that focuses on the historical sericultural industry of Connecticut, based in the town of Mansfield during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this paper, I focus on one specific role in the production of raw silk: silk reeling. In the heyday of its sericultural industry, Mansfield was situated in Windham County, Connecticut. The particular perspective that I bring to this study of silk reeling is one shaped by my experience as an anthropologist who has conducted research on another sericultural area: Shunde County near Guangzhou (Canton) in South China. In both Windham and Shunde counties, sericulture was practiced more intensively than elsewhere in the United States and China, respectively.

This fact in itself seems to invite cross-cultural comparative analysis. In the discussion that follows, I use the South China case as a lens through which to examine the development of sericulture and the practice of silk reeling in Mansfield. Of particular interest to me is the issue of the cross-cultural transmission of a skill: Is it possible to learn the highly skilled role of silk reeling from a printed manual? In Mansfield, and in New England more generally, instructional manuals, some with illustrations, and all translations from the original languages, were the means to learn an industry and a skill. I return to this interesting issue later in the paper.

Mansfield Sericulture. Mansfield, Connecticut, occupies an important position in the history of silk production in the United States. It figures prominently both in the practice of "sericulture" (or raw silk culture) in this country, as well as in the development of the technology of industrialized silk thread and textile production. Mansfield was an early site of experimentation in sericulture, which was established in the 1760's. Local families cultivated mulberry trees for their leaves, which they fed to the silkworms that they raised at home in attics and sheds. Each family nurtured hundreds of silkworms at once across the several weeks of their lifecycle, from newly hatched eggs, through several moultings, to mature silkworms, which at last spun their cocoons, the goal of the family enterprise.

Cocoons were unwound or "reeled" by hand, by women in the family, to produce filaments of raw silk, the basic component of silk thread. Filaments from several cocoons were wound off together at hearthside onto the common reel. Later, the reeled silk underwent further processing by twisting it into thread, which was wound onto a "wool wheel" and measured off into skeins of standard length as "sewing silk." This was the most common product of the Mansfield sericultural industry. Some of it was refined still further, twisted into a denser product called "silk twist."