Shaker costume demonstrated and reinforced unity throughout the society. Brethren were opinionated about their hairstyle and cut and wore their hair in a distinctive way: short in the front and long in the back. Women found a style that worked for them and kept it throughout the years, even after it had gone out of style in “the world.” They maintained 18th century style throughout the 1800s.
One staple of the Shaker women’s every day wear was the neckerchief, worn around the shoulders for modesty. These were typically made of cotton or wool; silk neckerchiefs were reserved for Sunday meeting. Before 1840, neckerchiefs
were usually made of dark blue cotton with a border made of white stripes or dark silk. Borders were used as frames that completed the piece and represented the Shakers’ insular community. After the mid-19th century, white became the standard color for these garments. Many neckerchiefs, like this pink silk neckerchief from our collection, were made of brightly colored silk. Usually these vibrant, beautifully made pieces were woven in southwestern Shaker communities, such as South Union, Kentucky. The warmer environment in these communities was much better for raising silk worms, and so they produced more silk items for sale. The Watervliet community attempted to start their own silk industry; in 1837, a portion of the Seed House was converted to raise silk worms. On October 19, 1837, Polly Vedder recorded in her journal: “The sisters have reeled the (cocoons) and got 7 runs of silk.” Unfortunately, the cooler climate was not good for the silk worms, rendering this particular business venture unsuccessful.
The southwestern Shakers sold their silk goods to the world and gave the colorful neckerchiefs to eastern sisters as gifts. This particular neckerchief was made with two different colored silk threads, giving the illusion of iridescence. This method was one way the sisters could create beautiful and unique garments that still followed the rules of Shaker dress. Many of these colorful neckerchiefs remain in good condition, indicating that they must have been highly prized.