Silkworms, Gobelín Tapestries, and Detroit

Silkworms, Gobelín Tapestries, and Detroit

Hank’s Silk Mill. Source:

I’m forever finding connections between people, places, and things. This time it’s silkworms, Gobelín tapestries, and Detroit.

It all started with childhood visits to Greenfield Village, an outdoor American history museum in the Detroit, Michigan suburb of Dearborn. Daytrips with family, a weekend with my Girl Scout troop, my high school prom, and lantern-lit holiday nights. All fun. All memorable.

An early favorite attraction of mine was Hank’s Silk Mill, c. 1810 with its thousands of silk worms and cocoons. I became interested in silk in my childhood when my beloved Uncle Gede sent my mother yards of colorful silk while traveling in Asia. Mom said that silk was rare and special and must be stored in a safe place. I knew where that place was and sometimes without permission I removed the silk and wrapped myself in it, imagining I was a fairytale Silk Road princess.

How excited I was to discover Greenfield Village’s relocated silk mill built by Rodney and Horace Hanks. This last silk mill in the U.S., was moved to the pastoral Greenfield Village from Connecticut in 1931. The first power driven mill in this country, it was converted from water to electricity.  Here, the Hanks brothers produced silk thread for sewing that they proudly called “the oldest and best brand of silk on the continent.” 

Hank’s Silk Mill, Greenfield Village.

The mill I remember looked like a wooden garage with hand-blown glass windows and a grove of mulberry trees standing behind it. It had its own resident expert who shared stories about the historical significance of the mill and did demonstrations showing how silk thread is extracted from silkworm cocoons.

Of course, the expert explained how the process all starts with the silk moth that lays hundreds of pinhead-sized eggs put in cold storage for months until mulberry trees start to bud. After incubation the eggs hatch and the baby silkworms grow quickly living off of a diet of hand-picked mulberry leaves until they become very fat. Someone said that “when you walk by the mill you can hear the sounds of heavy paper being crinkled as thousands of silkworms eat their weight in mulberry leaves.”

When it is time to build their cocoons, the silkworms produce a jelly-like material which hardens after coming in contact with air. For three or four days they spin a cocoon around themselves until they look like puffy, white balls. After eight or nine days in a warm, dry place the cocoons are ready to be unwound. I was always amazed to hear they are steamed or baked to kill the worms and then placed in hot water to loosen the tightly woven filaments. The filaments are unwound onto a spool and twisted together to make one silk thread. Finally, the thread is woven into cloth or used for embroidery.

At the Hanks Silk Mill I could actually see the silk making process at work!  They even had cocoons for sale so I could take one home with me!

When Charles Novacek, my late, Czechoslovakian-born husband and I visited Greenfield Village for the first time together in the late 1990s I suggested we visit the silk mill. To my surprise he had his own “silk” story to share which he eventually wrote about in his memoir Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, Ten21 Press, 2012. There he talks about his family’s move to the village of Hrachovo in Slovakia when he was seven years old as described in this excerpt: 

“Hrachovo had about 400 inhabitants – mostly small farmers and a few tradesmen.  The only significant institution was the Gobelín tapestry school that rivaled the Gobelín works in Paris. . .”

Charles continued, “In the park of the Gobelín school many mulberry trees grew.  We picked the fruit from the trees and collected the leaves to feed our silkworms.  An entrepreneur from the city organized and recruited children throughout the country, where mulberry trees grew, to earn money by producing silk cocoons.  He gave us a starter tray (about four square feet) of worms, trained us how to maintain them, and enlarge them into several trays. I needed many mulberry leaves to feed my silkworms.  When the worms matured, they attached themselves to branches I placed in the trays and began to form cocoons.  This process lasted a few days.  I had to pay attention and ask my father in time to place all the cocoons on a pan to bake them in the oven.  I was not allowed to do that. The worms inside the cocoons had to be killed to stop reproducing themselves into silk moths, which would have eaten through the cocoon, cutting the continuous silk fiber and making it useless. The same man who brought us the starter trays came to the Gobelín school to collect the cocoons from us and paid us for them.  I produced about a pound of cocoons and additional worms to continue the production.  I received about 20.00 Crowns (before WWII in Czechoslovakia $ 1.00 was equivalent to about 5.00 Crowns.)    

Charles’ story fascinated me especially when I remembered that I was seven when I first visited Hanks Silk Mill – the same age as Charles in his story. Once when we traveled to Slovakia Charles showed me the building where he remembered the Gobelín school to be. He also told me that four years after moving to Hrachovo when the Nazis occupied part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, his family was forced to move to the region of his father’s birth to the town of Namest nad Oslavou. The town had (and still has) a renaissance castle with 24 Gobelín tapestries dating back to the 16th through the 19th centuries. I have toured the castle and seen the Gobelíns with and without Charles – most recently in 2015.

When I was in Paris in 2012 I remember riding by the Manufacture des Gobelíns tapestry factory at 42 avenue des Gobelíns, near the Les Gobelíns métro station in the 13th arrondissement. It is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of Louis XIV and later monarchs; it is now run by the French Ministry of Culture. It is open for guided tours, but was unable to visit.  

Tapestry, The Whitney.

I made another Gobelín discovery here in Midtown Detroit. Not far from me is the David Whitney mansion built in 1890, now The Whitney restaurant. I’ve read that lumber baron David Whitney, Jr., the richest man in Detroit at the time of his death in 1900, had a secret vault in his residence to store the family’s most valuable treasures. To hide them, he commissioned panels by Parisian artists at the Gobelín Tapestry Works.

When I visited The Whitney for brunch in December I briefly examined some of the tapestries on the walls. I’m not sure whether these were the original or are reproductions. My future research will be to verify the origin of these tapestries and to do more research on the Gobelín School in Slovakia back in the 1930s.

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