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A collection of special colors, textiles, and activities will soon be on display for guests of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites.
Unspun: Stories of Silk tells the fascinating story of silk in the Lehigh Valley. Starting with the attic cocooneries of Moravian Bethlehem, the exhibition details the region’s rise in the industry and looks at silk’s impact on fashion and the global marketplace.
This colorful show is made possible, in part, through generous support from The Helen & R. K. Laros Foundation (presenting sponsor).
Where: Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts (427 N. New Street); Moravian Museum (66 W. Church Street); National Museum of Industrial History (602 E. 2nd Street)
When: Open through January 2024
How much: Joint tickets to all three exhibition sites are free to all HBMS and NMIH members and children (6 and under); $30 for adults and $22 for children (7-18). Cost includes admission to all exhibition sites.
A combo pass that includes access to all three exhibition sites is $30 for adults and $22 for children (7-18). Children (6 and under) are free. HBMS members and NMIH members get into all sites free for the duration of the exhibition. Tickets are on sale now at historicbethlehem.org.
“Unspun: Stories of Silk explores the rich history of silk in the Lehigh Valley, and the fantastic collections and resources available here that tell the story of how a fabric impacted the community and employed so many women here,” explained Lindsey Jancay, Director of Collections & Engagement at HBMS.
From glamorous silk jumpsuits to life-saving parachutes, silk Torahs, and exquisite silk needlework, the exhibition reveals the transformative power of this sensuous, strong, and resilient textile. Initially, a product only the rich could afford, in a few hundred years, silk became a fabric of day-to-day life in America – and surprisingly, still is today.
A display of hands-on tasks, including feeding silkworms, collecting cocoons, and spinning thread will bring the daily activities of sericulture (the production of silk and the rearing of silkworms for this purpose), to life.
Guests will begin their journey at the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem (66 W. Church St.) where they’ll find a replica of a 1750s coccoonery and learn about the early Moravians’ experiments with silk in the attic of the Brethren’s House.
Visitors will follow the legendary stories of Moravian women and silk — including the Single Sisters’ “secret gifts” to notable historical figures and will be able to try their hands at silk embroidery — as it was taught at the Moravian Ladies’ Seminary.
Guests will likely be shocked to learn about the nefarious “Mulberry Tree Scam,” a bubble and bust cycle in the 1830s that ended silk cultivation for the Early Moravians but not the story of silk in The Valley. By the 1920s, Bethlehem had become one of the world’s leading producers of silk — thanks, in part, to the Laros Silk Mills, and the work of Helen and R.K. Laros — who continued the silk legacy in Bethlehem.
The journey continues at the Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts (427 N. New Street) where visitors will find not only beautiful dresses, undergarments, and housewares, but also displays that bring to life the many remarkable uses of silk — ways that are both to be expected and others that are wildly not so.
The exhibition concludes at the National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH) on Bethlehem’s south side. There, visitors will learn the stories of the women who worked in the factories that mass-produced the amazing products of the silk industry and their place in the push for workers’ rights. Expect to also see the large looms and machinery used in silk production while exploring this fascinating era of manufacturing in the Lehigh Valley. This rich period stretched from the 1880s until the 1950s when mills closed or switched to synthetic fabrics.
Unspun: Stories of Silk at the Kemerer will feature pieces from their own collection that have not been displayed in over a decade as well as pieces on loan from various collections across the Valley and the country. Collaborators range from the National Museum of Industrial History, the Industrial Archives and Library, the Moravian Archives, Moravian University, to the Weitzman Museum of National American Jewish History.
Visitors are guaranteed to see beautiful objects that they have never seen before, including garments from the Annie Kemerer and the Laros Collections, kimonos, kurtas, fans, and even a wedding dress made from a silk parachute.
The show will also include an art installation, featuring silk scarves created by Lehigh Valley-based artist Barbara Schulman and students from Kutztown University’s textile and weaving club. Guests can take home their own piece of this important community legacy by purchasing one of these custom scarves. Schulman and students will also lead a community weaving project where attendees can help to collectively create a beautiful piece of art using recycled silk and ribbons.
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