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American Textile History Museum December 4, 2010

Posted by flashbuzzer in History.
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I recently visited the American Textile History Museum in Lowell. As expected, this museum presents the history of the U.S. textile industry.

Here are ten nuggets that I gleaned from my time at the museum.

1. Chinoiserie is a European art form, and its adherents typically depict scenes from Asian culture. Perhaps its foremost exponent was Jean-Baptiste Pillement, who enjoyed creating somewhat fanciful scenes of people and flowers. Exaggeration was a distinctive element of his work; in his finished pieces, people were dwarfed by the surrounding fauna.

2. It was not uncommon for rural Americans to turn flax into linen, at least until the middle of the 19th century. It should be noted, though, that linen production was somewhat involved. The multi-step production process included retting, which was used to loosen the binding between flax bark and its internal fibers, and hackling, which was used to separate short, coarse fibers from the more highly prized long, thin fibers.

3. It may be somewhat enlightening to discover that wool and worsted are actually not identical. If one terminates the production of wool at the carding step, one would obtain a relatively disorganized bundle of fibers, which actually constitute the heat-trapping components of a sweater. Now, to obtain worsted, one must then apply the combing step to obtain a more fine material that can be used to make suits.

4. One of the key steps in the production of silk is the act of heating, which breaks down the sericin that binds the silk fibers together. The act of heating silk is actually a critical moment in a legend regarding the birth of silk production; in this story, the Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was relaxing when a silkworm cocoon fell into her cup of tea. The silk strands then unwound relatively easily due to the heat of the tea, and the rest is history (if the legend is to be believed).

5. Samuel Slater, in some sense, triggered the rise of the American textile industry by establishing the first water-powered cotton mill at Pawtucket. Slater had actually been ordered not to leave England, since English cotton magnates feared that he would reveal valuable trade secrets to overseas entrepreneurs. Seeking a better life abroad, he disguised himself and slipped onto a ship bound for the United States, and the rest is history.

6. Purple dye was a precious commodity during ancient times. The production of this dye relied on obtaining a substance that snails would secrete through their hypobranchial glands. Unfortunately, only about one ounce of dye could be produced from the gland secretions of one thousand snails, and so scarcity ruled the roost in terms of determining the dye prices of antiquity.

7. William Henry Perkin was able to overcome the above-mentioned scarcity of purple dye by a rather fortuitous discovery. While experimenting in a chemistry lab at his childhood home, he obtained a reaction by-product that was usually found in coal tar. Even though coal tar had no discernible value at the time, Perkin took note of his by-product’s intense purple color. This spurred him to start a company to produce dyes such as mauve, and the synthetic dye industry was born.

8. The competitive attire of world-class swimmers underwent significant changes over the past 100 years. In the early part of the 20th century, swimmers would actually wear woolen undergarments during races. This uncomfortable situation had been rectified by the time of the 2008 Summer Olympics. During the build-up to that competition, scientists designed racing suits that mimicked the skin of sharks. In particular, they covered the suits with structures resembling placoid scales, which reduced the friction at the water-skin boundary by channeling the water into specially placed grooves.

9. Haute couture is actually a fairly narrow designation; in fact, only ten fashion houses currently belong to the Chambre Syndicale. To be a member of the Chambre Syndicale, a fashion house must have its workroom in Paris. It must also employ at least 20 seamstresses and exhibit at least 25 of its outfits at major fashion shows in January and July. Some notable examples of haute couture fashion houses are Christian Dior and Chanel.

10. Betsy Bloomingdale was one of the foremost exponents of haute couture during the 20th century. She established solid relationships with top-end fashion designers such as Marc Bohan, and she wore many of their outfits at high-class social gatherings. She was also good friends with Nancy Reagan and accompanied the former First Lady on numerous occasions, including the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

The museum was filled with a treasure trove of interesting items, including a reproduction of an 1820s-era general store, placards commemorating labor actions against cotton mill owners, and various dresses worn by Betsy Bloomingdale. I was especially impressed by the exhibits’ attention to detail and the desire of the museum staff to educate their visitors.

In terms of quibbles, I should note that the museum’s directions for visitors are somewhat ambiguous. In particular, it is noted on the museum’s website that one can turn left into the museum’s parking lot after passing through four traffic lights. This is actually impossible, as a concrete median divides Dutton Street.

Overall I enjoyed my time at the museum, and I would definitely recommend browsing its exhibits and gaining an appreciation for the rich history behind our nation’s textile industry.

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