University Galleries Exhibition, “A Durable Thread: The Silk Road from China to America,” Reimagines Paterson’s Role in Global Silk Trade

Woman’s Han Robe, c. 1870-80, red silk damask, silk embroidery, natural dyes. Courtesy of the Allentown Art Museum; Gift of the Neel Family, 2007 (2007.05).

A new exhibition at the William Paterson University Galleries reimagines the Silk Road by connecting China to the “Silk City” of Paterson, New Jersey. A Durable Thread: The Silk Road from China to America unites a world of silk objects from Asia, Europe, and North America from the 17th to the 20th centuries.

Rather than positing what silk can tell us about Paterson, this exhibition asks viewers to reconsider Paterson’s role in the global silk trade in relation to longstanding silk traditions. Co-curated by Professor He Zhang and Casey Mathern, director of the University Galleries, A Durable Thread positions Paterson within a global web of silk processing and production through textiles, historical dress, and drawings and documents created  along the historical trade route as well as outside its typical boundaries. Together, these materials embody how silk opened up international and transnational  trade, education, and industrialization, transforming the social lives of the cities it touched. Lenders to the exhibition include the Allentown Art Museum, Cora Ginsburg LLC, the Paterson Museum, Wu Junli, and Zhang He.

The exhibition will be on view in the Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts on campus from August 29 through December 2, 2022. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday, October 16 and Saturday, November 19 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free. A tour of the exhibition by co-curator and professor He Zhang will be held on Thursday, September 22 from 2 to 3 p.m. in the South Gallery. A reception and catalogue launch will coincide with the first day of an international symposium on the topic of the Silk Road on Wednesday, October 26 from 3 to 5 p.m. in the South Gallery.

Silk became desirable for luxury goods early on in history due to its unique structure and luminosity. Chinese silk arrived in Central and South Asia and as far afield as Dynastic Egypt and Imperial Rome via trade. Italy became the center of silk weaving outside of China by the 15th century, followed by France. As sericulture spread and technologies improved over the next centuries, the Silk Road extended westward to the United States. European and American manufacturers including Tassinari et Chatel, Stehli Silk Corporation, H.R. Mallinson & Company, and Warner and Sons capitalized on a growing demand for silk goods fueled by a steady supply of raw silk from China and later Japan, producing bold, fashionable fabrics for upholstery and dress. By the late 19th century, European designers, weavers, and dyers emigrated to Paterson, which earned the nicknames “Silk City” and “Lyon of America” for its dominance in silk cloth manufacturing, especially Jacquard-woven ribbons produced in mills powered by the Great Falls.

Among the exhibition highlights are two satin brocades attributed to the Baker Silk Mills in Paterson. Machine loom cards from the Pelgram and Meyer Silk and Ribbon Co., sample thread catalogues by the National Silk Dyeing Company, and drawings for silk patterns by artist William Geskes contextualize local silk production in this major American industrial center. Elaborately decorated labels from Japanese raw silk shipments at the Paterson Museum attest to the city’s longer, more dynamic relationship with silk before the arrival of artificial and synthetic fibers.

Early modern textiles in the show demonstrate how, in the two centuries before Paterson’s silk manufacture, a taste for all things Chinese—so-called “chinoiserie”—had already permeated textile production and consumption in centers like Amsterdam, London, Lyon, and even Boston. Embroidered and painted motifs imitate actual Chinese patterns, like those seen on imported silks and the embroidered Manchurian and Han Chinese robes on display. Other textiles even bore fake signatures woven in pseudo-Chinese characters intended to fool prospective buyers. Decorative silks from Mughal and modern India and Edo Japan, as well as a Uyghur girl’s etles (ikat) ensemble from the ancient Silk Road oasis of Khotan emphasize Asian silk traditions outside of China.

The exhibition is one of two on view concurrently in the University Galleries. On view from August 29 to September 30, 2022 in the Court Gallery is the 2022 Faculty Exhibition, featuring work by faculty who teach animation, drawing, digital art, graphic design, textile design, painting, photography, and sculpture. The works in the exhibit reveal the faculty’s unique artistic practices as they innovate across diverse media.

Textile Arts from Guizhou, China will be on view from October 17 to December 2, 2022 in the Court Gallery. Guizhou textile artists are renowned for their mastery of embroidery and indigo-resist dyeing, also known as batik. Over the centuries they have created a distinctive visual language that continues to evolve in the hands of contemporary designers. This exhibition brings together a selection of Buyi, Dong, Miao, Yao, and Zhuang traditional textiles with new artworks by Chen Mei, Guo Jing, Huang Di, Ma Li, Pan Mei, Pan Taojie, Yuan Xiaole, and Zhang Sisi. Lenders to the exhibition include Guizhou Minzu University, Guizhou University of Commerce, Qiandongnan Vocational and Technical College for Nationalities, and the Qiannan Normal University for Nationalities.

This exhibition is made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. The William Paterson University Galleries are wheelchair-accessible. Large-print educational materials are available. For additional information, please call the William Paterson University Galleries at 973-720-2654.

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