University Galleries and Collections

A Durable Thread: The Silk Road from China to America

South Gallery & East Gallery, Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts

August 29 – December 2, 2022

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


Press Release

Rather than positing what silk can tell us about Paterson, A Durable Thread: The Silk Road from China to America asks viewers to reconsider Paterson’s role in the global silk trade in relation to longstanding silk traditions. 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, and He Zhang.

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 immigrated 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.

This exhibition is made possible in part by funds from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Related Events

Exhibition tour with co-curator and professor He Zhang
September 22, 2 to 3 pm
South Gallery, Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts

Across Time and Space: The Silk Road and the Silk City
October 26-27, 2022
This two-day international symposium at William Paterson University will place the “Silk City” of Paterson, New Jersey on the global Silk Road, and will strive to establish an ongoing cultural, artistic, and scholarly exchange with cities and regions historically shaped by the silk trade.

The Silk Road from China to America
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
12:00 p.m. - 1:45 p.m.
Martini Room, Hamilton Hall
William Paterson University
Zoom link

 Zhao Feng, curator and honorary director, China National Silk Museum
Intriguing Looms: Silk Patterns from the Silk Roads

Martina D’Amato, gallery manager, Cora Ginsburg LLC
Novelties in Pigment and Thread: 18th-Century Chinoiserie Silks and Their Afterlives

Donna Ghelerter, textile and fashion historian
“World Famous Artists Designed These Silks for You”: AUDAC and 1930s American Silks

Claire McRee, assistant curator, Allentown Art Museum
Designs for the Loom: The Work of William Geskes

He Zhang, professor of art history, William Paterson University
Silk Trading and Making in Western China and Central Asia in Early History

Opening Reception
October 26, 3 - 5 pm
South Gallery, Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts