The reel is now put into movement, and winds the thread formed by the union of the filaments. It is at this moment that the real difficulties of the reeler begin. She has now to maintain the size and regularity of the thread as nearly as possible by adding new filaments at the proper moment. The operation of adding an end of a filament consists of throwing it in a peculiar manner on the other filaments already being reeled, so that it sticks to them, and is carried up with them. We may mention here that this process of silk reeling can be seen in operation at the Manchester exhibition.
It is only after a long apprenticeship that a reeler succeeds in throwing the end properly. The thread produced by the several filaments is itself so fine that its size cannot readily be judged by the eye, and the speed with which it is being wound renders this even more difficult. But, in order to have an idea of the size, the reeler watches the cocoons as they unwind, counts them, and, on the hypothesis that the filament of one cocoon is of the same diameter as that of another, gets an approximate idea of the size of the thread that she is reeling. But this hypothesis is not exact, and the filament being largest at the end which is first unwound, and tapering throughout its whole length, the result is that the reeler has not only to keep going a certain number of cocoons, but also to appreciate how much has been unwound from each.
If the cocoons are but slightly unwound, there must be fewer than if a certain quantity of silk has been unwound from them. Consequently their number must be constantly varying in accordance with their condition. These facts show that the difficulty of maintaining regularity in a thread is very great. Nevertheless, this regularity is one of the principal factors of the value of a thread of "grege," and this to such an extent that badly reeled silks are sold at from twenty to twenty-five francs a kilogramme less than those which are satisfactorily regular.
The difficulty of this hand labor can be still better understood if it be remembered that the reeler being obliged to watch at every moment the unwinding of each cocoon, in order to obtain one pound of well reeled silk, she must incessantly watch, and without a moment of distraction, the unwinding of about two thousand seven hundred miles of silk filaments. For nine pounds of silk, she reels a length of filament sufficient to girdle the earth. The manufacturer, therefore, cannot and must not depend only on the constant attention that each reeler should give to the work confided to her care. He is obliged to have overseers who constantly watch the reelers, so that the defects in the work of any single reeler, who otherwise might not give the attention required by her work, will not greatly diminish the value either of her own work or that of several other reelers whose silk is often combined to form a single lot. In addition to the ordinary hand labor, considerable expense is thus necessitated for the watching of the reelers.
Enough has now been said, we think, to give a good idea of silk reeling, as usually practiced, and to show how much it is behind other textile arts from a mechanical point of view. To any one at all familiar with industrial work, or possessing the least power of analysis or calculation, it is evident that a process carried on in so primitive a manner is entirely unsuitable for use in any country in which the conditions of labor are such as to demand its most advantageous employment. In the United States, for instance, or in England, silk reeling, as a great national industry, would be out of the question unless more mechanical means for doing it could be devised. The English climate is not suitable for the raising of cocoons, and in consequence the matter has not attracted very much attention in this country. But America is very differently situated. Previous to 1876 it had been abundantly demonstrated that cocoons could be raised to great advantage in many parts of that country. The only question was whether they could be reeled.
In fact, it was stated at the time that the question of reeling silk presented a striking analogy to the question of cotton before the invention of the "gin." It will be remembered that cotton raising was several times tried in the United States, and abandoned because the fiber could not be profitably prepared for the market. The impossibility of competing with India and other cheap labor countries in this work became at least a fact fully demonstrated, and any hope that cotton would ever be produced in America was confined to the breasts of a few enthusiasts.
As soon, however, as it was shown that the machine invented by Eli Whitney would make it possible to do this work mechanically, the conditions were changed; cotton raising become not only possible, but the staple industry of a great part of the country; the population was rapidly increased, the value of real estate multiplied, and within a comparatively short time the United States became the leading cotton country of the world. For many years much more cotton has been grown in America than in all the other countries of the world combined; and it is interesting to note that both the immense agricultural wealth of America and the supply required for the cotton industry of England flow directly from the invention of the cotton gin.
Attention was turned in 1876 to silk raising, and it was found that all the conditions for producing cocoons of good quality and at low cost were most favorable. It was, however, useless to raise cocoons unless they could be utilized; in a word, it was seen that the country needed silk-reeling machinery in 1876, as it had needed cotton-ginning machinery in 1790. Under these conditions, Mr. Edward W. Serrell, Jr., an engineer of New York, undertook the study of the matter, and soon became convinced that the production of such machinery was feasible. He devoted his time to this work, and by 1880 had pushed his investigations as far as was possible in a country where silk reeling was not commercially carried on. He then went to France, where he has since been incessantly engaged in the heart of the silk-reeling district in perfecting, reducing to practice, and applying his improvements and inventions. The success obtained was such that Mr. Serrell has been enabled to interest many of the principal silk producers of the Continent in his work, and a revolution in silk reeling is being gradually brought about, for, strangely enough, he found that the work which he had undertaken solely for America was of equal importance for all silk-producing countries.