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Report By Consul Peixotto, Of Lyons
In my dispatch, No. 140, dated September 1, 1880, I referred to the fact that new machinery for reeling silk had been invented, which, in my opinion, was destined to be of great importance, and to make this industry extremely valuable and profitable in our country. I beg now to submit some additional observations upon this subject, and for the purpose of being definite, to entitle them
Silk reeling is at present accomplished by the use of appliances which differ only in detail from those in use many centuries ago, and which can scarcely be called machines, being rather of the nature of apparatus depending entirely upon the skill and knowledge of the operative for the results produced. In fact, even the most perfect of French and Italian reels bear about the same relation to automatic machinery that an old-fashioned spinning wheel does to our modern spinning machines.
Since the date of my previous dispatch upon this subject, the new reeling machine of Mr. E. W. Serrell, jr., of New York (who still continues in Lyons), has been undergoing improvement and development, and it is with the hope of facilitating the introduction and culture of silk, and of enabling our people to adopt the best means to that end, and to avoid errors which have been disastrous in the past and are likely to be extremely expensive in the near future, that I now communicate with the department, which is equally interested in securing new sources of industry and wealth for our people at home as for the promotion and extension of their commerce abroad.
It will be recollected that from about 1834 to 1839 there raged a great speculation in mulberry trees of a certain species (Morus multicaulis) destined for feeding silk worms. This speculation led to a total loss of all the time and money devoted to it, partly because of its wild and utterly unsound character, and partly because the little silk which was actually produced could not be reeled to advantage. As a result, silk culture fell into utter disrepute and for nearly a generation was scarcely thought of as a practical thing in the United States. Time, however, showed clearly where the great obstacle lay, and although many may have imagined that other difficulties led to its abandonment in 1839-40, those who have studied the matter are unanimously of the opinion that the want of reeling machinery has alone prevented the success of sericulture in those parts of the Union which are suitable for it. Believing this obstacle to be removed, it remains to set forth in a brief manner some of the points upon which, it appears to me, the successful introduction of silk raising will depend.
For the success of silk culture in our country two things are now requisite--the acquisition on the part of those about to engage in it of sound knowledge of its processes and requirements, and proper organization.
The details of the work of silk culture are of such a nature that they may be readily understood, and I apprehend that there will be little difficulty found by those who engage in it in mastering them, after some little experience. The point at which it seems to me that there is the most danger is at the very beginning.
In order to avoid delays and losses, the person who begins silk culture should have a pretty clear idea of the scale of operations which are likely to be most profitable; of the trees, or rather shrubs, which must be obtained; of the apparatus and fixtures necessary, and of the results which may be reasonably expected from the labor and expense required. All of these items will be found to vary in different parts of the country, and I fear that general rules, broad deductions, and such information as would apply under all circumstances and in all places would be extremely difficult to formulate, and too vague for practical use at any given point.
In fact, as far as information which may be considered perfectly general is concerned, I have, for the time being, only one point to put forward in addition to what has already been published in the United States, which is to repeat and show as emphatically as possible that the use of the reels at present employed for the filature of silk is entirely impracticable in our country, and that the raiser must sell his cocoons.
This has been so often said and so clearly shown that I should consider it unnecessary to repeat it had not my attention been called to the fact that the success of several people and associations in the United States in raising cocoons has again made it a temptation to endeavor to reel silk, and during the past year I have received applications from people in different States for information as to the kind of silk reel employed here which would be most suitable for use by them.
I am aware, also, that estimates have been made and published by some eminent authorities tending to show that this work could be done on a paying basis in some places in America. So far as I have seen them, however, these estimates are fatally defective in that they do not allow for differences in quality of silk reeled by competent or incompetent people, and under circumstances favorable or otherwise, but seem to assume that any silk reeled in our country would be a first rate article, and paid for accordingly.
While this might be true in isolated cases, it could not be true in general, as with present appliances the art of reeling good silk is only to be acquired and retained by years of apprenticeship and constant practice joined to a natural talent for the work. So true is this, that even in districts where the work has been largely carried on for many generations, quite a large proportion of women who try for years find it impossible to become good reelers.
Now, there is a considerable difference in price between well reeled and poorly reeled silk--a difference so great that silk not well reeled in every way is not worth as much as the cocoons from which it is derived. It is, therefore, quite a hopeless task to reel silk unless the reeler is skilled. Even if it could be done to advantage--which I do not think it could--there exists in America no means of training reelers. In Europe they are taught by degrees in the filatures, working first at the easier stages of the operations, and afterward being helped forward under the eyes and guidance of experienced operatives.