Silk is the most beautiful of all fabrics. It is made from the fiber produced by the silk-worm which is a species of caterpillar. So perfectly does this little worm do its work that no spinning is required. This fiber, placed under a microscope, looks like a glass thread. It is the light playing along this smooth surface that gives to silk its beautiful luster.
Silk first came to Europe from China where the industry had been cultivated for many centuries. It is said this was begun by a woman, the wife of an Emperor, in the year 2600 B. C, and the culture of the mulberry, upon the leaves of which the silk-worm feeds and thrives, forty years later.
Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to introduce the cultivation of the silk industry into the United States. As the business requires a large amount of cheap labor for a short time during the year, it has not as yet been found profitable. Machines are of little use, except in reeling the silk.
The moth lays its eggs, about five hundred in number, in August or September, and they hatch the following May, just at the time the mulberry comes into leaf. These little caterpillars are hatched and fed in-doors, and they eat like hungry school-boys for a month or more, until they are about three inches long. At this period they sicken and cast their skins, after which they begin eating as eagerly as ever. In about a month, however, the worms stop eating altogether, crawl up on the twigs which are placed on large trays, and begin to spin their cocoons. There are two little openings in the head of the worm, from which comes two thread-like substances resembling glue, from which the silk is made. These stick close together and form a flat thread. The silkworm by moving its head about, wraps this thread around its body, wrapping from the outside inward, until it has completely inclosed itself in this silken blanket. Then it goes to sleep. If left to itself it would in two or three weeks bore its way out of this silky covering and come forth a feeble white moth. But as the cutting of this hole in the cocoon injures the fibers, only just enough for the next year's crop are allowed to come out. The rest are stifled in a hot oven.
After the outsides of the cocoons are removed they are placed in hot water which softens the gum that is in the silk so that it can be wound off" on reels. The silk fiber is all in one piece, and about one thousand feet long. There is always a portion of the cocoon which is too tangled to be wound, and it is made into what is called spun silk. Spun silk is carded like wool. The removal of the natural gum, by boiling in strong soap suds, effects a considerable loss in weight, the cleansing process, however, causing it to take on very beautiful tints. This loss has led to the weighting of silk by mixing cheaper materials with it.
An artificial silk is made from the fiber of the ramie plant which grows in China and Malay. This is sometimes known as China silk. M ercerized cotton has also been treated so as to very successfully imitate silk.