Reminiscences of the Industry Called Forth by the Effort to Revive It…The Story of a Silk Vest
Some time within the early 1830s a number of families in the Hawfields section of Orange County, now embraced in Alamance, raised more or less silk, though not in large quantities. The subject of silk raising has been agitated more or less from and before the settlement of the Swiss in New Bern and the surrounding country. The came from a mountainous country, ignorant of sanitary precautions and the requirements of a malarial climate. Many died, and most of the survivors met with a worse fate at the hands of the mistreated and outraged Indians, and perished horribly in the massacres of 1711 and 1713, after which the country from the coast to the Catawba River was almost entirely freed from the presence of the Red Men by a great battle fought near Kinston, where fully 1,000 men perished. Notwithstanding, the large grants of land made to Lord George Burrington, Governor of North Carolina, on condition that the grant should be settled by Swiss Protestants, no more Swiss emigrants and silk-growers ever came, and the only traces of Governor Burrington’s efforts to introduce silk culture in the Hawfields grant (afterwards the property of Samuel Strudwick and heirs) is a colossal stump of what is called English mulberry, still standing on the Orange and Alamance county line at the corner of William Kirkpatrick’s yard. For more than a hundred years it was property of the Mebanes, and for at least 75 years the militia were accustomed to assemble under its wide-spreading branches. Here stood the Colonel and other mounted officers on their prancing horses, while John Cox and Maj. Allen Jones, now an octogenarian, made their fifes squeal to the tunes of “Yankee Doodle” and “The Campbells Are Coming”; and George Tate, though only turned into his teens, with stooped shoulders and head turned aside, made his kettle-drum rattle; and Henderson Fowler, with the bass fully as large as a 50-gallon barrel, made the surrounding hills and vales re-echo with its thunder sounds, while under the shade of the tree in a corner of the fence stood the cake wagon of the mother of a United States Senator. (Pardon my digression.)
My father, having faith in the future of silk culture, never destroyed a mulberry, so his plantation had many trees on it. While my sisters, three in number, had been raising some silk for years, it was not till about the year `838 that they undertook to raise a considerable quantity. With 12 or 15 persons, including the slaves, the gathering of the mulberry leaves was not a heavy task. There were three little brothers of us, however, who needed a stimulus, for the novelty of caring for the worms soon wore off, and it was amazing to see the quantity of leaves the worms could eat. Feeding them interspersed with our fishing. Sister Margaret, who was the manager, promised each of us a vest, and from this time on she had little trouble about help. We little folks did little in gathering leaves, as those on the bushes and lower limbs had been gathered. It was our duty to feed them, and once or twice within their short lives to shift them and clean the tables on which they were raised.
As very few have seen silk-worms, a few words about them may be interesting to some. The moths do not fly. They are placed on clean, strong paper and soon afterward mate and deposit their eggs in thick patches. These adhere to the paper very closely. The paper must then be carefully folded and put away in a close place, excluding light, warmth and dampness as much as possible. Early in May the paper on which the eggs are laid should be placed on a table in a warm room where the papers will not be moved about. Within a few days they will begin to hatch. Care must be had not to have the eggs begin to hatch until the leaves are at least as large as a silver dollar. A few leaves may be laid on the eggs, but he worms when first hatched do not crawl much, nor do the eggs all hatch at the same time. With tender care the scattering ones must be lifted with the wing feather of a chicken or guinea fowl (the quill of the turkey and a goose is too large), and carefully placed on the leaves.
Their growth at first is slow. When about one-fourth or half grown they moult or shed; after this the growth is very rapid. At this period they are very delicate and must be kept dry and not fed on wet leaves.
Rats, mice, wrens and ants prey upon them. The depradations of ants may be prevented by setting the legs of the tables or benches upon which the worms are raised in water, dry ashes, or ringing them with tar.
Within a month or a little more the worm gets its growth. It then quits eating and begins to hunt a place to spin. The twigs of an oak left a day in the sun to make the leaves curl should be placed upon the tables. The worm soon takes to the curled leaves and spins its cocoon from its own body. The click of each turn can easily be heard. When this ceases the little spinners’ work is done. The cocoons are then gathered and subjected to heat to kill them. The rough outside is pulled from the cocoon and a sufficient number of them to make a thread the size wanted are placed in a pan of warm water. The end is easily found and is not easily broken.
When my vest was spun it was upon the old wheel used for spinning cotton. I suppose it took 40 cocoons to make a thread. From that to finish it was treated as all other weaving, being reeled into hanks, dyed and filled on quills. The warp was the finest cotton striped with vermillion, called turkey red, and sold in all the country stores. It was woven for Sunday wear and was practically indestructible, maintaining its gloss and bright colors to the last. My father wore his silk vest to Hillsboro. Colonel Shields, the leading merchant of the place, offered my sister the finest silk dress in his store to make him a pattern, but she did not accept the offer.
--B.F. White, Alamance County