The origin of silk production and weaving is ancient and clouded in legend. What is certain is the silk industry began in China, where it was discovered that the cocoon of one silkworm yields 1,000 yards of thread that can be spun and woven into opulent fabric. Today, China produces 78% of the world’s silk, and America is its number one importer.
Among the first luxury items brought with the early colonists to America were whole cloth quilts made from silk. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scraps of dressmakers’ silk were used to make intricately pieced mosaic quilts comprised of hexagons, triangles and other geometric shapes. The fad for crazy quilts in the late nineteenth century inspired thousands of elaborately embroidered silk quilts made by women of diverse economic classes.
Depending on the weave, silk fibers reflect light and absorb dyes in seemingly magical ways. The unique qualities of this surprisingly strong fabric continue to charm contemporary quilt and textile artists, who sculpt the surfaces of their works with intricate designs and patterns.
In Praise of Silk at the New England Quilt Museum, May 1 through August 4, 2019, spans three centuries of quiltmaking in America and includes gowns from the UNH Irma Bowen Textile Collection. To complement this exhibition, a selection of silk quilts from the NEQM permanent collection will be on view in the Donahue Gallery.