This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Latin, Middle Ages,
French or English,
Arabic and Syraic,
More than three million human beings depend upon the industry of the petty silk worm for their daily bread; and - all the world owes to him much of the splendor of its nightly gayety. "With patience and perseverence," says the Spanish proverb, "the mulberry leaf will become satin," and in the whole gamut of human vanities there is no contrast more strange and no lesson more significant than our dependence upon the patience of a despised worm, and the perseverence of the human toiler, adding thread to thread, for the richest and most splendid fabric known to man. Silk is to textile fabrics what gold is amongst the metals, and what the diamond is amongst the jewels.
The immediate offspring of our first parents having subdued the sheep and learned how to make use of its wool, and another branch of the primordial family, known as the Egyptians, having discovered and been the first to cultivate flax, which they used as a textile material on account of the blossom resembling the etherial blue of the heavens, it remained for the post-diluvian descendants of Noah, the Chinese people, to discover and develop the cultivation of the silk worm. It is in keeping with the eternal fitness of things that the discovery of the utility and excellence of the material derived from the silk worm should be traceable to female genius, in the person of Mistress See-ling-chi, wife of Hoang-ti, emperor of China 2,700 years before the Christian era. According to the written records of China, it was this empress who with her own royal hands first unraveled the cocoons and wove the glossy filaments into a web of glorious sheen. She is now throughout the Mongolian empire worshipped as the " goddess of silk worms," and at her annual festival the reigning empress performs the ceremony of feeding the worms. The Chinese guarded well the secret of their valuable art, and on account of their vigilant jealousy many centuries elapsed before the culture spread beyond the country of its origin. Not only for many ages did this people have a monopoly of the manufacture, but so far as can be learned, they successfully prevented the shipment of silk worms out of the empire, so that the material composing the fabrics imported from thence by the Romans was a matter of curiosity and conjecture; it being supposed that silk was made from fleeces growing upon trees, or from flowers, tales evidently founded on slender facts connected indiscriminately with cotton, wool, and flax. The word "silk" used twice in the Old Testament, is considered by many critics a mistranslation, and the first mention of the word in any historical writings, seems to be that by Aristotle, who credits Pamphilian, a lady of Cos, with the first weaving of a transparent silk gauze, so fine that it was called "woven wind." These tissues according to historians became very fashionable with the people of that early period, but were stigmatized by the moralists as anything but decent for women's wear. Seneca condemns them: "I behold," he says, "silken garments, if garments they can be called, which are a protection neither for the body nor for shame." An echo to the remarks of Seneca are the words of Solinus: "This is silk, in which at first women, but now even men have been led by their craving after luxury, to show rather than clothe their bodies." It is evident from these statements that the importation of raw silk was first brought from China overland through India and Persia to this island of Cos, then under Greek domination. The Greeks knew the silk people as Seres* - there is much dispute as to the real origin of the name - and called the product serikon, whence through Latin sericum, and an intermediate form selic, comes our word silk.
Towards the beginning of the Christian era raw silk began to form an important and costly item among the prized products of the East which came to Rome, but as yet the Romans possessed no knowledge of how the raw material was produced. Fine silk at this time was worth its weight in gold. Notwithstanding its price and the restraints otherwise put on the use of silk, the trade grew. A monopoly of it was reserved by the Roman government under Justinian, who during a war with the Persians in the 6th century', A. D., endeavored to divert the trade from along the old established Persian overland route by which silk had always been brought to Rome. The result was that the entire supply of raw silk was cut off. Justinian then resorted to a ruse in order to get possession of the secret of producing raw silk. By paying them a larger sum of money, he induced two Nestorian monks who had long resided in China to return thither and learn the whole art and mystery of the business, and to make an attempt to bring back the materials necessary for the cultivation of silk. These intrepid monks traversed on foot the whole of Persia, India and China, and there, amidst their apparently pious occupations, they viewed with a curious eye the common dress of the Chinese, the manufactures of silk, and the myriads of silk worms, whose education, either on trees or in houses, had once been considered the occupation of queens. They soon discovered that it was impracticable to transplant the short-lived insect, but that in the eggs a numerous progeny might be preserved and multiplied in a distant climate. Accordingly they returned with several thousand silk worm eggs hidden in their hollow bamboo pilgrim staffs, and a thorough knowledge of the industry stored in their heads. From the precious contents of these two bamboo canes, brought from China in the year 550, were produced all the races and varieties which have stocked the Western world, and which have given trade, prosperity and untold wealth to great communities for more than thirteen hundred years. Justinian made silk culture an imperial monopoly, in charge of the monks; imported weavers from Tyre and Berytus, raised the selling price of silk 8-fold and that of royal purple 24-fold, and filled his depleted treasury with wealth. It was not until death disposed of him and his monopoly that the Byzantine and Grecian looms fairly began the industry afterward so famous. From Rome the silk culture spread into Greece. A little later conquest carried it into Sicily. From there to Italy it was but a step. On over the border it went into Spain and France, where soil, climate and people exactly suited it. In all these countries the industry took root, grew, throve, and continues to this day.
*Silk was first described as coming from Serica or Sereinda, that part of India which lies beyond the Ganges. Seres is the designation given by the Greeks and Romans to the people who inhabited the6e remote regions, and Sereinda is, apparently, a compound of Seres and India. The latter is a general term applied by the ancients to all distant nations, with as little precision as India is now used by modern Europeans. It is now so generally admitted that the Seres of the ancients are the Chinese of the moderns that it is unnecessary to enter into any discussion in proof of this belief. Se is the name for silk in the Chinese language; this, by a faulty pronunciation, not uncommon in their frontier provinces, acquired the final r, thus changing the word into Ser, the very name adopted by the Greeks. We can, therefore, hardly doubt that these obtained the name, as well as the material itself, first from China.
In the New World silk culture had been a plan of the Spaniards for Mexico, immediately after its discovery. Cortez, in his scheme of government for New Spain (1522), included officers to oversee silk growing; silkworm eggs were sent from Spain; some export of raw silk is recorded, and woven silk goods were made in and exported from Mexico; but the industry did not outlive the century. When King James' plan for silk-making in England was prominent in his mind, he began also to look to his colonies for a supply of silk, and most of the early schemes for developing Virginia included silk culture. Accordingly in 1622 one John Bonell was sent over to Virginia as instructor in silk culture, and with him went the most pre-emptory instructions for the compulsion of any person found "through negligence to omit the planting of vines and mulberry-trees in an orderly and husbandlike manner, as by the Big Booke is prescribed." Twenty pounds of tobacco was the penalty of neglect, and a premium of fifty pounds of tobacco was offered for every pound of reeled silk produced. During Cromwell's time many pious tracts were written to promote silk-culture in the colonies, one inspired fraud arguing that if the native Indians were led "to see this untaught worm spin out his transparent bowels" it might be possible to drive him to acknowledge the power of redemption; while another embellished his tract on "The Reformed Virginia Silk-Worm" with the following curious bit of doggerel:
'Where worms and Food doe naturally abound, A Gallant Silken trade must there be found. Virginia excels the World in both: Envie nor malice can gainsay this troth.. Her worms are huge, whose cocoons dare
With lemons of the largest size compare___
Master William Wright of Nansemond Found cocoons' bove seven inches round."
Of course the poet exaggerated; no cocoons of such dimensions were >ever grown. An act of parliament in 1749 declared that "Georgia and South Carolina should have the honor of being denominated 'silk Colonies and King George ordered for Georgia a seal on which was the design of the genius of the colony offering a skein of silk to the king." A public garden at Savannah was devoted to vines and mulberry trees, and a filature for reeling the silk was built. Georgia, in fact, made what seemed a fair start; in 1766, 20,000 pounds of cocoons were produced, and in 1768, 1,084 pounds of reeled silk were exported. But the industry was a forced one, the bounties being at one period two or three times the value of the cocoons, and it did not find commercial justification; consequently it languished and waned. Shortly before the Revolution there was a revival of the silk fever, chiefly in the northern colonies of Pennsylvania and Connecticut. A bounty of 10 shillings for every 100 trees kept thrifty was secured, and 3 pence per ounce for all raw silk made from them. But the war came, and the colonists had their hands full with fighting and raising breadstuff, and the silk industry was suspended. After the Revolution silk-making revived literally as a "household industry;" the women and children of Connecticut families raised from 5 to 130 pounds per annum. Sewing-silk was the bridge between silk growing and the present manufacture. The women reeled from the cocoon upon the clumsy hand-reels, spun on the spinning-wheels made for wool, dyed the precious skeins at home, and bartered them for various sorts of merchandise at the country store. In the lack of money skein silk took its place, and the Legislature provided for a fine of $7 against any one convicted of offering for sale "any sewing silk, unless each skein consist of 20 threads each of the length of 2 yards." Twenty-five skeins made a "bunch," and 4 bunches a "package."
About 1838 a speculative mania for the cultivation of silk developed itself with remarkable severity in the United States. It was caused principally through the representations of a man named Whitmarsh as to the capabilities of the South Sea Islands mulberry for feeding silk worms. So intense was the excitement that fruit trees and crops of all kinds were displaced to make room for the wonderful mulberry bushes. In Pennsylvania as much as $300,000 changed hands for the plants in one week, and frequently the young trees were sold three or four times over within a few days at ever-advancing prices. Plants of a single years' growth reached the ridiculous price of 81 each at the height of the fever, which, however, did not last long, for in 1839 the speculation collapsed; the famous mulberry was found to be no golden tree, and the costly plantations were uprooted. One of the most singular features in connection with the history of silk is the sporadic efforts which have been made by monarchs and governments to stimulate silk culture in their respective countries, efforts which continue down to the present time in the United States, England, India, and other British colonies. These efforts, to stimulate by bounties and other artificial means, have in no instance resulted in permanent success. In truth, raw silk can only be profitably brought to market in countries where there is very cheap labor and an abundance of it. This is made plain by the fact that China, Italy and Japan are and always have been the principal silk-producing countries of the world. These countries are 'inex-haustible storehouses of raw silk. They furnish nine-tenths of the world's supply, and could easily double their annual production without materially increasing the price. The silk industry which has become so large an interest in this country is purely a manufacturing one, getting the raw material abroad, duty free. The manufacturers do not expect much result from silk-raising in America, chiefly because they think silk cannot be well reeled here at a satisfactory price. The only field for American silk growing seems to be restricted chiefly to that of a subsidiary industry for women and children, who would otherwise not be employed, and could therefore afford to work cheap, and then the industry would be under the disadvantage of "house-reeling." Whether the production of cocoons, not for reeling, but for the direct use of the "spun silk" manufacture, might be profitable, is very doubtful, in view of the low price paid for cocoons for this purpose - from 50 to 75 cents per pound.
There are two distinct departments of industry that go to making silk textiles: Seri-culture or silk raising, which consists in the raising of mulberry trees and the rearing of the silk worms; and silk manufacture proper, by which the silk fiber is worked into thread and fabric. These industries are seldom, and never necessarily, associated together, and the commercial interests of the grower and of the manufacturer sometimes seem to clash, yet most silk countries pursue both. The excellence of silk in its raw state depends upon the properties of the mulberry leaves, which often are considerably diversified. The white mulberry is regarded as being the best, though there are several varieties, each of which in some degree depends upon the locality and climate. Trees which are 3 years old yield about 7 pounds of leaves apiece. An ounce of silk worms (when born) will consume during their life about 1,500 pounds of leaves. The consumption at the beginning is very .small, but becomes quite large toward the end of his existence. A very tiny object is the egg of a silk worm, not bigger than an ordinary pin's head, and yet an enormous trade is carried on in rearing them. Each moth lays from 200 to 300 eggs, and it takes about 34,000 eggs to weigh an ounce. Some years ago, when there was a disease in the European silk worm, it was deemed necessary to import fresh "grain" or "seed," as it is technically termed, from Japan. The importance of the trade may be estimated from the fact that there was introduced in the ten years ending with 1872 about 4,000,000 ounces of silk worms' eggs to Italy and France, the aggregate cost of which was $80,000,-000. When the silk worm is fully mature it proceeds to spin its cocoon, in which operation it ejects from two little glands simultaneously a line of thread about 400 yards in length. The worm in forming the cocoon moves its head round and round in regular order for 3 days, at the end of which time it is completely enveloped. This forms the cocoon of commerce. They are dried for a few days and then immersed in boiling water to kill the worm within, after which they are ready to be sent to market to be reeled. To produce sufficient silk to make a dress pattern requires more time and capital than is generally supposed. If we take 1 1/2 pounds as the weight of pure silk required, this would equal 2 pounds of raw silk, because in extracting the gum from raw silk it loses 25 per cent. of its weight. To produce 2 pounds of raw silk requires the entire silk obtained from 7,000 to 8,000 worms, allowing a percentage for death by disease and other casualties. It may be interesting to state that these 7,000 or 8,000 worms when newly hatched would scarcely weigh one-quarter of an ounce, yet in the course of their life, which only lasts from 30 to 35 days, they will consume about 400 pounds of leaves and increase in weight 9,000 times. Purchasers of silk will not wonder at its high price when they consider that to raise two pounds of raw silk so much time and money is required. Besides the original cost of the eggs or young worms, they require feeding several times daily with leaves. This is a large item of expense if the cultivator does not grow and gather his own leaves, but is compelled to purchase them. Then follow the various processes of gathering the cocoons and reeling off the silk, throwing, scouring, dyeing and weaving.
The good cocoons are fuzzy oval balls, about the size of pigeon eggs, containing a long continuous thread of fiber, and the body of the dead worm. The fuzz or "floss" is a rough impure silk, which is taken off as "waste." This done the problem is to reel off the fiber without breaking it, and by combing a number of fibers together into a stronger thread, to make the "raw silk" of commerce. This makes the reeled silk goods. Here we must distinguish between the reel silk and the spun silk manufactures. The former embraces the operations peculiar to silk, dealing as they do with continuous fibers of great length; whereas in the spun silk industry the raw material is treated by methods similar to those of cotton and wool. It is only injured and unreelable cocoons, the husks of reeled cocoons, and other waste from reeling which are treated by the spun silk processes, and the silk produced in this manner loses much of its beauty and brilliance, qualities which are characteristic of reeled silk. Previous to the modern improvements in spinning machinery, the floss and all damaged and unreelable cocoons, were almost worthless. Now, however, all are carded and spun into yarn like wool and cotton, and made into " spun silk" fabrics, not so lustrous as reeled silk fabrics, but much cheaper. The waste from the manufacture of spun silk is, in turn, left as a rough furry yarn, called noil, which is woven into those fabrics sold by upholsterers for portieres and furniture coverings. Each of these classes of silk have their own usefulness, and now there is almost no waste in silk cocoons.
Silk Reeling. - The object of reeling is to bring together the filaments of 2 or more (generally 4 or 5, but sometimes up to 20 - according to the size of thread to be made) cocoons, and to form them into one continuous, uniform and regular strand, which constitutes the "raw silk" of commerce. In reeling the operative has before her - for this is mostly women's work - a vessel of water, kept so heated as to dissolve the gum with which the silk worm has stuck the thread together to make the cocoon. A score or so of cocoons are thrown into the kettle, and as the gum softens, a whisk broom with which the woman gently stirs the cocoons, presently detaches the end of the silk worm's thread. She attaches together several ends, and fastens them to a reel, which consists of a light 6-armed wooden frame worked with a treadle. As the reel revolves the fiber from each cocoon is rapidly unwound. Five " ends" make the usual thickness of "raw silk." Reeling, though properly a process of manufacture, is done mostly in connection with silk-growing. Commerce makes a distinction in price between country silk and filature silk, which is reeled at factories; for professional work is always better than amateur, and poor reeling is costly to the weaver in the end. Manufacturers in this country use mostly silk of the best reeling, as our high-speed machines require the most even thread. Chinese and Japanese silk is mostly " country " reeled, and is consequently not so smooth and free from knots and bunches as the filature-reeled Italian silk. The raw silk from the two former countries is technically termed re-reel silk, and usually fetches from 20 to 50 cents per pound less than filature. Filatures are generally used for making warps, and re-reels for wefts. Italian raw silk runs one unvaried tint throughout the whole bale, every skein matching all others perfectly. In Japanese and Chinese hand-reeled silk the color is not uniform, having a streaky appearance caused by using multi-colored cocoons in the same kettle. Filature silk is also free from nibs and knots, while re-reels are full of small rough places. These interfere greatly when it comes to be thrown, and also in weaving. France takes the greater portion of Italy's filature silk, which in part accounts for the excellence of her fine fabrics. The average prices of these two classes of silk for 1890-91 are as follows:
French Filature, Cevennes .............................
Italian Filature. Extra classical .................................
Italian Filature. Classical ......................
Italian Filature. No.1 ................
Italian Filature. No.2 ...................................
China Filature, extra classical .........................
China Filature, No.1.................
China Filature, No. 2..................................................................................................
Japan Filature, Extra classical ...................
Japan Filature, No.1 ...........................................
Japan Filature, No.1 1/2 ....................
Japan Filature, No.2 ......................
Japan Re-reel, No.1.................................
Japan Re-reel, No. 1 1/2........................
Japan Re-reel, No.2 ...............................
Japan Re-reel (Kakedas). No.1 .................
Japan Re-reel (Kakedas). No.2 ...................
Japan Re-reel (Kakedas). No.3 ..................................
China Re-reel, No.1................................
China Re-reel No. 2.........................................
China Re-reel No.3....................
China Re-reel Common ....................................
Canton Re-reel, No.1 ........................
Canton Re-reel, No.2...........................
Canton Re-reel, No.3.............................
Raw silk pays a freight of 6 1/2 cents per pound from Asiatic ports to New York City, over the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The freight via San Francisco is 8 cents per pound. The ocean freight on raw silk from France and Italy to New York is 4 cents. The raw silk which is used in our factories is drawn wholly from foreign sources, the domestic output being too small to have any influence whatever. Italy, France, China and Japan are the principal sources of supply. Our imports of raw silk, in pounds, from 1886 to 1891, inclusive, with average price per pound for each year, were as follows:
The following table gives the average value per pound of the raw silk imported from four countries for five years:
Our receipts in pounds from the same countries for the years 1887 to 1890 were as under:
Silk Throwing. - Raw silk, being still too fine and delicate for ordinary use, undergoes a series of operations called throwing, the object of which is to twist and double it into more substantial yarn. According to the quality of raw silk used and the throwing operations undergone, the principal classes of thrown silk are: (1) Tram or weft thread, consisting of two or three strands of raw silk not twisted before doubling and only lightly spun (this is soft, flossy and comparatively weak); (2) Organzine, the thread used for warps, made from two twisted strands spun in the contrary direction to that in which they are separately twisted; (3) Singles, which consist of a single strand of hard-twisted raw silk, made up of the filaments of eight to ten cocoons (this is always quoted under the head of organzine). The average prices per pound paid for these two classes of thrown silk for the years 1890-91, are as follows:
French and Italian Organzine .......................
French and Italian Trams................................