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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Elmira’s Silk Mill

By Diane Janowski 
Elmira City Historian

Silk became an important industry in Elmira at the turn of the 20th century. In 1880 the heart of the silk industry was Paterson, New Jersey. When labor relations fell apart, mill owners began looking for other locations that had a large supply of low-cost labor to tend the new machines that were changing the way in silk was spun, knitted, and woven. That location was the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The coalmines and heavy industries of eastern Pennsylvania were providing work for immigrant men, whose wives and children were available to work in silk mills.

The first mill in Allentown was a success, and soon communities all over the Valley were hoping to lure or create a silk mill. By 1914, the Lehigh Valley was the silk manufacturing center of the world. One of the mills that left Paterson in the 1887 was Read and Lovatt who opened a factory in Weatherly, PA, outside of Hazleton. They opened a second factory in Elmira and a third in Palmerton, PA. The Weatherly operation was the largest spinning mill in the US at the time.

Jerome C. Read was president of Read & Lovatt, and was the president of the Silk Association of America from 1910-1913. He started the business in Elmira in 1887 in the abandoned Barnett Mill at Madison and Fifth Streets. Read & Lovatt began operations with 40 employees. Any boy or girl, 13 years of age or older, could apply for a job at the mill. The owners spent $60,000 for a new building designed by Pierce & Bickford at the same location in 1893.


Simply put, silk is made from the cocoon of the silkworm. Over a period of forty-eight hours, each silkworm extruded 1000—1300 yards of silken fiber until it was entirely enclosed in its cocoon. Four to six days later, the cocoons were treated to kill the chrysalis. Then gum from the cocoons had to be removed by soap and hot water. Finally, the much-wanted silk could be reeled. Multiple strands reeled together formed one silk thread, the size of a single human hair.

Silk worm farms were started in the Allentown area but the endeavor involved more work than expected. Because of the silkworms extreme sensitivity to temperature and conditions, the cocoonery had to be kept at a constant 75 to 80 degrees, and the silkworms protected from drafts, tobacco smoke, thunder, and lightning.

Read & Lovatt is listed in the Elmira city directory as “silk throwsters.” Silk throwing is the industrial process where silk that has been reeled into skeins, is cleaned, receives a twist and is wound onto bobbins. The yarn is twisted together with threads, in a process known as “doubling.” At our factory, the silk “throwsters” or spinners prepared the material for the looms, and the output amounted to about 200,000 pounds annually.

The Read & Lovatt silk mills had many honors over the years, especially making the silk threads for the Inauguration Gown of Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt on January 13, 1905. Her gown was a vision in blue silk with birds woven in gold thread. To make sure that the first lady’s dress was never copied, the pattern was destroyed upon completion. Read and Lovett also spun the silk used in the gown worn by Teddy Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and inspired the popular song “Alice Blue Gown.”

By 1912 Elmira’s Read & Lovatt employed 250 and operated 40,000 spindles. A large addition in 1912 included two new boilers to power the spindles. A night shift provided the opportunity for women and girls to work day hours, and men and boys to work night hours.

Elmira’s silk mill production peaked in the late 1920s. After that the Great Depression, increasing labor unrest, and competition from rayon began to affect the industry locally and nationally.

At some point around 1920 the name changed to the A & R Silk Mill. The mill eventually ceased operation in 1939 with only 60 employees. The mill was resurrected for a brief time by the Epstein Underwear Company of Scranton with 100 jobs, but did not last long.

Today, the silkworm moth lives only in captivity. Silkworms have been domesticated so that they can no longer survive independently in nature, particularly since they have lost the ability to fly. All wild populations are extinct, although presumably old relatives exist in Asia.

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