Saturday, June 7, 2008

China Day 08: The Secrets of Silk

We got off our canal barges, passed through the old city wall,
and headed off to the silk factory! Like the other factories we've visited, this is more like an industrial museum with a gift shop. I've been looking forward to this one; I'm interested in spinning and weaving as well as the knitting, so this factory visit is right up my alley.

After a little lecture, we walked through the factory, observing the multiple steps of silk production. Feeding the silkworms
is pretty self-explanatory. Sorting is a little more interesting; this lady
has to spot all the double cocoons and toss them in the little baskets. Apparently it's not uncommon for two silkworms to build a combined cocoon; their silk strands get so tangled there's no way to separate them.

The single, well-behaved cocoons are then soaked in hot water until the strands come unglued from one another and are reeled off into extraordinarily fine thread. This lady:
is an end-finder. She finds the (one and only) strand end on each of eight cocoons and hooks the ends onto a gadget that does the unreeling. Dad contemplates the magnitude of this task:
eight cocoons bob in the water below each station, and their strands are fed through the gearing to the spools at the top where white silk fiber accumulates. Each eight strands yield just one silk thread.

The next step is the factory's pattern-weaving looms. This factory uses Jacquard looms to weave complex patterned fabrics like brocades:
At the left and above the loom you can see the slew of cards that tell the loom which threads to pull which way to produce each row of the pattern; there are as many cards as the pattern has rows, so you can see that the patterns are complicated!
This looks an awful lot like computer programming, doesn't it? (well maybe not to anyone younger than me - but the first computer I learned to program was an IBM 1130, in high school, which used punch cards.) In fact, these looms are considered to be precursors to true computers!

Once we left the loom room we headed over toward the showroom/sales floor. The product they seem to be pushing the most is a silk comforter. I had never heard of these, but apparently they've been making them for awhile, and they are the answer to the problem of what to do with the silk from all those double cocoons:
first they soak them to remove the wormspit
and then they open the cocoon and spread the silk out flat (revealing the too-friendly worms, who are discarded.)
The cocoon is pulled over a horseshoe shaped implement to stretch it:
Silk "caps" produced this way (which contain many cocoons' worth of silk) are easy to get in the states; handspinners buy them online or at supply stores, and dye them and spin them up. The yarn you spin this way is nothing like as smooth as the reeled silk they make here, but it's pretty nifty; I've made some myself. In this case, though, they are using the caps another way.
They have a bunch of people gather around a table and each grab onto the edge of a silk cap.
At a signal, everybody PULLS
and stretches the silk into a gossamer layer the size of a bed; I think we were making a queen-size. It's surprising how much muscle power this takes; silk fibers have a tremendous tensile strength. They build up 50, 75, or 100 layers of silk depending on how fluffy you want your duvet and how much money you want to spend! They they encase the filling in a duvet cover (silk of course) and sell it to you. I was really tempted to buy one of these, but then I remembered that I have an elderly dog who sleeps on the bed. There's a reason I bought that mattress protector.

We had a wonderful time in the sales area, browsing around and inspecting the silk stuff for sale. For some odd reason Dad decided not to buy some silk pajamas to swan around his condo in. He bought fans for me and my sister in law instead. I wanted a brocade jacket, but sadly the Chinese do not tailor for buxom women; even their largest sizes failed to close over The Girls. However, I did get a yard of gorgeous, heavy, fabric - red with gold brocaded dragons - to line the purse I plan to knit with my recycled sari silk yarn!

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