Exploring Local History Through Textiles

Common Thread: Exploring Local Industrial History Through the Lens of Silk

Discover Northampton’s silk history via this handpainted silk quilt displayed at the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA, one of many community-based resources to support an interest in local history and textiles. For a virtual tour, click on the quilt.

Once upon a time, the Pioneer Valley’s mills bustled with activity, producing all sorts of goods and providing a boost to the local economy. Today, many of these mills are filled with offices, art studios, and spacious high-ceiling apartments.

Despite the creative reuse of such industrial spaces, the area’s ties to industries of the past can easily be explored. In particular, the Pioneer Valley’s connection to the textile industry can be studied through self-guided explorations, museum visits, tree identification and hands-on learning opportunities taking place during the next few months.

Self-Guided Tour

Using resources created through the Northampton Silk Project, families can take a self-guided tour of the Northampton Silk Route. Composed of ten stops, the Northampton Silk Route is an expedition of portions of Leeds, Florence, and downtown Northampton that includes stops at historic homes, former mills, and other places of import. Basic information offered by the Northampton Silk Project will help families in learning a basic history of the silk industry in the Pioneer Valley. Before setting out, families can get an introduction to the silk industry by using Historic Northampton’s virtual tour of Florence manufacturing.

Textile Gallery

At Historic Deerfield, check out “Celebrating the Fiber Arts: The Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery” an exhibit featuring a wide array of everything from costumes to needlework dating back as far as the 1600’s.

For further learning about the history of the textile industry, families can visit a special exhibit at Historic Deerfield. Titled Celebrating the Fiber Arts: The Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery, the exhibit features a wide array of everything from costumes to needlework dating back as far as the 1600’s. The collection displayed is considered one of the best in the country, and includes beautiful and fascinating pieces – each of which spotlighting an interesting element of textile-related history. Open from 9:30am-4:30pm daily, the exhibit will also include special hands-on learning opportunities for families during the summer.

Mulberry Trees

Have you ever wondered why “Mulberry” would be chosen as the name of a business or street in the Pioneer Valley? With it’s reference to Mulberry Street in Springfield, MA, could the Dr. Seuss classic, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, be indirectly related to our silk industry heritage?  Being the sole food source for silkworms, the influence of the mulberry tree craze of the 1830’s still dots our landscape to this day. (Notice the mulberry leaf in the center of the quilt above.)

Look for mulberry trees in and around Northampton. Stop to appreciate it’s origin and how it might relate to our local textile history. – More About the Northampton Silk Industry.

Learning about our local history through the lens of silk can help shed some light on understanding our regions industrial past, how local architecture (mills) relates to this past, and help us connect more with the history of our local landscape.

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