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  • Gendered Language and the Science of Colonial Silk
  • Allison Margaret Bigelow (bio)

In May 1652, Virginia Ferrar conducted an experiment in her family garden at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, to determine the optimal growing conditions for silkworms. Her father carefully chronicled her methods and results in a letter that he sent to Samuel Hartlib, a Polish émigré and educational reformer who published the letter as the Rare and New Discovery of a Speedy Way, … Found Out by a Young Lady in England, … for the feeding of Silk-worms … on the Mulberry-Tree Leaves in Virginia. The religioscientific paradox of a cultivated commodity whose lowly origins could assume such heights of value—these were emblematic insects whose foul excretions were spun into sensuous silks—appealed to mid-seventeenth-century reformers who sought to refashion the nature of English empire at the height of Oliver Cromwell’s western design. For these writers, some of whom supported the Stuart monarchy, some of whom were aligned with the Protectorate, and most of whom were members of Hartlib’s loosely organized network of correspondents, silk represented the type of material good and spiritual symbol that both sides thought suitable in the reformation of English colonialism.

As they envisioned a new English enterprise, colonial industry, and science of sericulture, “projectors” sought ways to integrate raw goods and uncultivated peoples into a universal mercantile and spiritual economy.1 This new program of silk work, Hartlib explained in the prefatory address to his “Ingenious Reader” in Legacy of Husbandry, would depend less on royal decrees that ordered large-scale landholders to purchase seeds from the Crown and plant mulberry trees on their estates (59–63) and more on empirically tested, commercially viable, gender-inclusive models like “the Experiment of a virtuous Lady of this Nation for the breeding of Silk-worms” (Hartlib, Rare and New Discovery A2). These interlocking programs of religious reformation, new knowledge, and gendered labor were borne out in the second edition of Virginia Ferrar’s silkworm trials, a [End Page 271] series of letters from John Ferrar and correspondents in Ireland, England, Virginia, and Germany that Hartlib published in 1655 under the new title of The Reformed Virginian Silkworm; or, A Rare and New Discovery of a Speedy Way, … Found Out by a Young Lady in England.…2

As Hartlib’s preface and editorial practices suggest, literacy, literary genres, and lettered transmissions of natural knowledge were central to the reformation of imperial silk and colonial Virginia. On the ground, silk works were utter failures. But as they were imagined, debated, and projected throughout the ends of English empire, silkworm letters by women and men reveal new insights into the fashioning of colonial designs, and the ways in which English projectors incorporated Near and Far Eastern methods and indigenous American sericultural practices into the new knowledge that they circulated through poetry and prose. While James I/VI’s instructions of 1607 had gone “wholly out of print,” multiple accounts of the “Lady’s” method, “which seemeth to be brought unto a more perfect and speedy accomplishment than heretofore hath been known either here or in France,” circulated among Anglophone readership communities in England, Ireland, Virginia, and Continental Europe (Hartlib, Rare and New Discovery A2).3

Unlike the “Muck-worms” who “conceal” their work “for private ends,” Virginia Ferrar shared her silkworm techniques for public improvement in England, and the global community of saints more broadly. While the former was ruptured by civil war (1642–46, 1648–60), the latter had been torn into factions of Christians. Virginia Ferrar’s natural knowledge was thus rooted in England and envisioned as part of a universal project to reform English empire and restore Adamic empire. Protestant projectors like Hartlib imagined that the better husbanding of commodities like silk would allow England and its foreign plantations to “overcome the burthen of povertie which for want of employment and decay of Trade, doth lie so heavie upon very many” (Rare and New Discovery A2). Introducing new trades was a responsibility of the blessed to the needy, allowing landless colonists and cash-poor indigenous people a chance to make use of “all the gifts of God” and to experience the spiritual and...