“Dynamiting” Silk

In my last post I talked about the process of creating silk thread from cocoons.  To me, silk has always had an aura of leisure and luxury, but in reading about it I have been amazed at the amount of duplicity, scandal, and outright warfare it has engendered.

You may know that old silk fabrics often have holes where iron was used for black dye, as the iron has oxidized and eaten away the fabric.  I always thought that that dyers of the time just didn’t know better, but my 100-year-old textile books have pages of warnings to consumers about damaging mordants and dyes.

After silk is reeled or spun into thread, it is degummed by being boiled in soap and water.  This degumming removes the sericin, causing the silk to lose weight, usually about 25%.  Since it is so costly, manufacturers have always wanted silk to leave their mills at the same weight it came in, and so “weighting” the silk back to its original weight has been an accepted practice.  Some of the substances used were sugar, and “sugar of lead.”

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, mill owners trying to cut costs added many more minerals to the cloth.  This was known as “dynamiting” the silk.  Iron and tin salts were frequently used to add weight, and it was widely reported that 10 pounds of raw silk left the mill as 50 pounds of black silk.

illustration of dyed silk and the metal used in dyeing it

Silk sample and the metals left over after the cloth has been burned away.

The unwitting customer would buy rich heavy silk, only to have it disintegrate in spots after wearing only a few times, or even while it was being made into a garment.  The silk could absorb the metal salts, but they stretched the cell walls and caused them to break.  Tin salts crystallized when exposed to light, and the facets cut the silk from within.  Honest manufacturers couldn’t get a fair price for good, enduring silks, because consumers were reluctant to pay high prices once they had purchased “guaranteed” fabrics that disintegrated.

silk patch

This old silk quilt has held up amazingly well. Here all the patches are intact, even the ones in black, which was often achieved with unstable dyes.

parch with missing cloth

Here, however, some of the cloth has disintegrated entirely, showing the blue backing.

patch with shredded silk

The pink and yellow patches (two colorways of the same fabric) are shredded, while the patches around them are fine.  This could be a result of metal salts used on the silk.

Because of the delicacy of silk, hand weaving hung on in the silk industry long after power looms had taken over the cotton and wool industries.  Even in 1900, many hand looms remained in use.

But as established silk companies faced new mills with more modern equipment and cheaper unskilled labor, they knew they had to update or go under.

In 1912,  Henry Doherty of Doherty Company in Paterson, New Jersey, decided to build a new mill where he could place up-to-date equipment, and bring the workers from his three existing mills into one modern plant.  Silk weavers feared they would be required to work four looms instead of the one or two they were used to, and after negotiations failed, the 1913 Paterson Silk Strike began.

The strike eventually spread to 25,000 workers across five states, and lasted 20 weeks.  Broad silk weavers demanded a 44 hour work week for working only one loom.  Mill owners responded that weavers of intricate designs would stay with one loom, because such valuable material needed focused attention, but that with the new looms for plain goods, one unskilled weaver could easily manage four looms.

Ribbon weavers asked to be returned to the same pay scale they had had in 1894.  Mill owners replied that since they were paid by the piece, and the new looms wove much faster, their pay would rise from three dollars a day to ten dollars, and the mills would go out of business.  They said that Paterson already had the shortest hours and highest wages of any silk district in the world.

Dyers asked for more sanitary working conditions, as they had to breathe fumes all day and the floors were running with water.  They also asked for a 44-hour work week, with no reduction in pay from the 55-hour week they were currently working.  Again the response was that it was not possible to stay in business under those conditions.

The International Workers of the World (IWW) got involved.  The authorities claimed that they had actually caused the strike, agitating until formerly content workers struck, and that they harassed loyal workers who wanted to work.  The IWW speakers were denied the use of the lecture halls in the community, and ended up addressing crowds of workers every Sunday from the balcony of a home owned by Pietro Botto (it was made a federal landmark in 1973, and is now the American Labor Museum).

Here is part of a speech made by Bill Haywood, leader of the IWW:

Not many years hence the work will be in one mammoth plant, conducted by the workers.  There will be a wonderful dining room where you will enjoy the best food [with] sweet music by an unexcelled orchestra, a gynasiom and swimming pool and bathrooms of marble.  One floor will be devoted to masterpieces of art.  a first-class library.  Your work chairs will be Morris [reclining] chairs, so that you may relax in comfort.
Quoted in the Bergen Sunday Record, Sept. 30, 1973

Well, between that vision of a workers’ paradise and the mill owners’ vision of profits slipping away, there was not a lot of ground for compromise. Workers’ resources were running low, and they faced having to return to the mills.  IWW leader Frederick Sumner Boyd coached them to commit sabotage if they went back, to take away the owners’ profits.  On March 31 he suggested that dyers “fix a little something up in the dye boxes which ruin the goods without anyone knowing who was responsible.”

The next day he said:

Workers, when you go back to the mills, if there are any scabs when you go in, let them know that they can’t stay in the Paterson silk mills….Use no physical force, but do with them what they are trying to do with you, starve them out…. You weavers, take a cloth soaked in vinegar, and with it rub the reeds of the scab loom, in a very short time that scab will have to stand up while the loom is being repaired so that it will work.  He will be earning no money during that time.  If that should not fix him then take a piece of sand paper and rub the spindle of silk.  You can give it two or three rubs and then all its threads will break on him, and there he is , down and out.

As the strike wore on, the leaders came up with an unusual idea for a fundraiser – they planned a huge pageant at Madison Square Garden, in which 1000 textile workers would portray their experiences through tableaux. Since the performance was one night only, and many of the 15,000 spectators got in for free, they did not make a profit, but they did get the publicity they hoped for.

Their 35-page program detailed the ways bosses cheated the textile workers, by writing down fewer yards than they actually wove, and making them pay for yardage with mistakes, but keeping the yardage to resell.  It also informed readers that the real sabotage was that done by the silk bosses, when they sold adulterated silk.

At the end of June, Boyd was arrested on two counts of encouraging sabotage.  He ended up serving a year in prison, even though he had not committed any damage himself, nor was there any evidence of someone sabotaging equipment due to his advice.  In 1916, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn published a small booklet, Sabotage.  She described the “dynamiting” process, and defended Boyd with the argument that the real sabotage perpetrated on the public was that done under the guise of profitable business practices, and that it was criminally more far-reaching than labor agitation.

And I can’t imagine — even in a court of law — where they can find the fine thread of deviation — where the master dyers’ sabotage is legal and the worker’s sabotage illegal, where the[y] consist of identically the same thing and where the silk remains intact. The silk is there. The loom is there. There is no property destroyed by the process. The one thing that is eliminated is the efficiency of the worker to cover up this adulteration of the silk, to carry it just to the point where it will weave and not be detected.

Suppose that he had said to the dyers in Paterson: “Instead of introducing these chemicals for adulteration, don’t introduce them at all. Take the lead, the zinc, and the tin and throw it down the sewer and weave the silk, beautiful, pure, durable silk, just as it is. Dye it pound for pound, hundred pound for hundred pound.” The employers would have been more hurt by that form of sabotage than by what Boyd advocated. And they would probably have wanted him put in jail for life instead of for seven years.

Now, I am normally a person who is just full of solid middle-class sensibilities, but even I can see her point.  If the whole system is set up to work dishonestly, how can you discern which dishonest practice is acceptable and which isn’t?

It’s been 100 years since the strike.  About ten per cent of the workers left Paterson, never to return.  Doherty’s was the last silk mill built there.  The eight-hour-day caught on within a few years, but as late as 1928, Paterson was advertising for 12-hour-a-day textile workers.  With the Great Depression and the rise of synthetic fabrics, Paterson never recaptured its earlier success.

Mr. Boyd was released from jail, and was later seen in a restaurant in Washington DC on April 6, 1917.  The US had just entered the Great War that day, and in patriotic fervor, restaurant patrons rose to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the hour.  Boyd and his companion Jennie Ashley (who had also participated in the 1913 Silk Strike) would not rise even when asked to do so by the German waiter and then a deputy sheriff.  They were pelted with lettuce by the other diners.   Miss Ashley threw salad and mayonnaise at the waiter and then disappeared into the crowd.

The deputy sheriff said, “Why don’t you get up?  Don’t you know this is the United States?”  Boyd replied, predictably, “To hell with the United States!”  But then he raised his glass and said, “Here’s to the King!”  Our friend may have been an anarchist but he had come from England only six years before, and was apparently very loyal.  He was hauled off to the police station and charged with disturbing the peace.  He only made Page 10 in the Washington Times the next day, and that is the last I can find of him!