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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Silk industry once thrived in NH

Jessie Salisbury

Our part of New Hampshire has long been associated with textile manufacturing, cotton and wool – but silk?

I associate silk with China, or at least warmer places than this where they can grow mulberry trees, the only food the silk worms eat. ...

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Our part of New Hampshire has long been associated with textile manufacturing, cotton and wool – but silk?

I associate silk with China, or at least warmer places than this where they can grow mulberry trees, the only food the silk worms eat.

Ours was a short-lived industry, lasting from about 1840-80. Apparently, the closest mill to us was in Antrim, where Harold Kelsea opened a business in a former woolen mill in 1857.

It lasted about 10 years.

Kelsea invented a trebling machine for the silk thread, the process of twisting the silk filaments into a stronger thread for weaving.

The company made more than 100 shades of thread, as well as ribbons, laces, braids and trimmings. His products were considered some of the finest in the world.

The silk business came up in conversation at a meeting of the Wilton-Lyndeborough Significant Trees Group, which is cataloging the area’s important and historic trees.

In North Lyndeborough, there are two mulberry trees that are thought to be the proper age to have been planted at that time.

New Hampshire has been a center of textile manufacturing since about 1800. The state’s first cotton mill was opened in New Ipswich in 1804. Warwick Mills is still weaving a variety of specialty cloths, but not the blue denim it began with.

The introduction of merino sheep and the establishment of such mills as the Amoskeag in Manchester caused the clearing of much of southern New Hampshire before the South, with its better climate, prompted our mills to move.

A source I encountered said one reason was New England’s soft water. The invention of water-softening devices lured the mills to the South.

A fascinating timeline in the history of Newport notes that in 1850, the Amoskeag Mills were weaving a mile of cloth every day.

From 1838-50, Newport had many mulberry trees. The silkworms were raised, yarn was spun, and cloth was woven and made into clothing.

A tour of Internet sites produced some interesting tidbits, but they weren’t easy to find.

Concord’s Silk Farm Road, the location of the Audubon Society, was where several local businessmen decided to “develop a unique industrial base.”

They planted hundreds of mulberry trees, but the business failed after a few years. Only the name remains, since most of the mulberries were cut down.

The silkworms, and the trees they eat, are native to China and other parts of Asia.

The industry was imported to Europe and eventually to this country, where it thrives in Virginia and the Carolinas.

The process of obtaining the silk from the cocoon is labor-intensive even with mechanization.

While there is no way of proving why North Lyndeborough’s mulberries were planted, they are lovely trees. The Significant Tree Group is hoping to make more people aware of such historical tidbits and to preserve that heritage.

Keep up with the past with Another Perspective, which runs every other Sunday in The Telegraph. Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or jessies@tellink.net.