Nantucket Tries Its Hand at Silk Production

Jun 26, 2017

Remnants of silk produced at the Nantucket Silk Factory.
Credit Nantucket Historical Association

In the 1830s, silk was all the rage in fashion. And Nantucket decided to get in on the action.

“There was a lot of speculation along the eastern seaboard about establishing silk in the United States,” said Nantucket resident and historian Barbara White.

So, two Nantucket entrepreneurs planted 4,000 mulberry trees in the Polpis area of the island.

“The trees got established, and in 1832, they opened a silk factory,” said White.

It was thought that the mulberry trees and the silk that they fed would thrive on Nantucket.

“Silkworms have to grow on the mulberry bush, and they eat them, and then they spin their cocoons, and then the cocoon is taken to the factory, and then it has to have the silk strand extracted from it,” White explained.

The spinning machines were crucial to the factory operations.

“Nantucket had four, 12-foot long spinning machines where they would take the cocoons and wind them on bobbins. Each of the four machines had 500 bobbins,” said White.

The spinning process was extremely laborious.

“Every thread had to be wound on a separate bobbin, so it was a lot more complicated than other textile industries, which is partly why it was so difficult,” said White.

At its peak, the factory employed about 50 women, but the silk produced there was mainly used for men’s clothing. They factory produced some 50,000 silk coats, vests and handkerchiefs.

In 1836, the fabrics made at the Nantucket Silk Factory won a prize at a New York City exhibition, prompting one newspaper to proclaim that if Nantucket could supply enough of its highly-regarded product, it soon would supplant all the silk goods from France and India.

But it wasn’t to be. The island’s mulberry trees failed to thrive in the island’s inhospitable climate, and the Nantucket Silk Factory closed after only six years.

Parts of the old factory building still stand today as a bed and breakfast inn.