Adventures in medieval silkworm rearing, with emphasis on the joy of the insects rather than the silk they produce.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Reeling Silk with the Piedmont Reel
Last night Jeff delivered the Piedmont Silk Reel that he made for me. It is based off of a woodcut found in a silkworm rearing manual from the late 1500's. He got the measurements from a later document, since the first woodcut didn't come with any instructions on how to build it.
Here is the woodcut of the Piedmont Reel. It's from "The Perfect Vse of Silk-Wormes: and their benefit." by Olivier De Serres, translated by Nicholas Geffe in 1607.
The legs of the reel come off for easier transport, and it goes together really easily. Here is how it looks all set up.
Here you can see the part of the reel where the silk enters the reel. Below the reel, on the ground, there is a pot of hot water containing the cocoons. Between 14 and 20 filaments from cocoons are gathered together into one silk thread. The silk thread goes through a small copper wire spring, called a drop guide, which ensures that if a cocoon jumps up out of the water it will hit the drop guide and drop back into the water.
After the drop guide the silk thread is placed around two rollers. These help to gather all the filaments together and make the thread more cohesive. After the rollers the thread goes through a guide in the casting arm. The casting arm is attached to a wheel which is turned by twine attached to the bobbin crank. The casting arm moves the silk thread from one side of the bobbin to the other so that wet silk is not laid directly on top of other wet silk. Wet silk will stick to itself and then be impossible to remove from the bobbin.
The bobbin is large, which facilitates the silk drying before more silk thread is laid upon thread that are already there.
The best way to see how the reel works is to see it in action. Here is a video from one angle -
And here's a different angle -
This video shows the drop guide in action. Twice in this video you can see a cocoon that gets pulled up out of the pot of water, hits the drop guide, and drops back into the water. Worked perfectly!
Here is the silk once it was reeled onto the bobbin. It took probably 25 minutes to completely reel the silk from 14 cocoons. Each turn of the bobbin collects 60 feet of silk. I didn't count how many turns of the bobbin we did, but this is what the bobbin looked like when we were done. It was fast and easy, and everything worked out great!
The silk felt very dry on the bobbins, so I didn't bother to re-reel onto another bobbin. I still need to do that and I hope that I haven't made a mistake by allowing the silk to stay on the bobbin. I hope it doesn't stick to itself. That wouldn't be good!
It's a fantastic system and it's amazing that they came up with such a great machine in the 1500's. I love my reel. Thanks Jeff! :)
This is my first attempt at silk reeling, and I used two websites heavily for this setup - Wormspit and Silkewerk. Both of the authors of these pages have tons more experience than I do at this, so I was happy for the help that their pages provided. I used a combination of both techniques and setups to make my own.
The setup consisted of a Crock Pot, a twisted copper wire guide, a metal bobbin, a wooden bobbin, and a simple hand crank silk reel. I used 40 cocoons for this first attempt.
The Crock Pot is used to keep the cocoons hot so the sericin (the glue that holds the silk together to form the cocoon) is soft and the silk can be reeled. The twisted copper wire guide is set up in such a way that there are two loops that look like corkscrews. This is so it's easy to add new filaments to the reeled thread as a cocoon runs out of silk or a filament breaks. If I used a guide that was a solid ring it would be more difficult to add new filaments. This copper corkscrew type of guide is actually from the medieval period, which I like. I used a clamp to affix the guide to the side of the pot. The bottom loop helps keep the cocoons together and the top loop incorporates the filaments into one thread.
Then I needed to set up a bobbin someplace away from the pot so that the silk had some distance to travel between the pot and the reel. This is to help the silk dry before it gets laid down on the bobbin. If the silk is still very wet when it is reeled onto the final bobbin then the sericin will re-glue the silk back onto itself and the thread will never come off of the bobbin. The medieval reeling machines are larger than my reel and had some space between the pot and the reel. I decided I wanted as much space as possible, so I used a metal sewing bobbin on a nail driven through a board. I clamped this to the counter on the other side of the kitchen.
Since I would need to reel and tend to the cocoons at the same time, I set up the reel on the same table as the pot. The reel is just a simple hand crank reel, with no gearing of any kind. It was made by Farthegn (the same guy who made my awesome bug room in the basement) and the side comes off to replace the bobbin. I clamped this to the table and then I was all set to go.
I started off by soaking the cocoons in hot tap water in a mason jar (these jars were recommended because they are tough enough to handle extreme temperature changes, as you'll see in a minute). I put a glass on top that fit inside the jar to hold the cocoons under the water. I left it like this for five minutes.
In the meantime I heated up the Crock Pot and boiled some water. I filled the Crock Pot with the boiling water. Then it was time to empty the hot water from off of the cocoons and to fill the jar with cold water. Then I drained the cold water and put the cocoons in the Crock Pot. This change in temperature is supposed to help make it easier to find the end of the silk filament on the cocoons.
When the cocoons go in the hot water they will bubble and sizzle as they take in the water. The cocoons will fill up with water about 70% of the way. Since they don't completely fill with water they will float. I stirred them with a wooden skewer and poked each one under the water until they stopped bubbling and sizzling.
When the cocoons are done making noise then they are ready to reel. The first thing that has to be done is to find the "one true filament", meaning the one filament that is continuous, unbroken, and that makes up most of the silk in the cocoon. I decided that I wanted to work with around 10 filaments per thread, so I started by just stirring the pot with the skewer and lifting the cocoons out of the pot. Then I starting pulling off silk ends until I found the one filament on each of ten cocoons.
The cocoons have silk on the outside of them that is not part of the "one true filament". When the worm makes it's cocoon it lays down short filaments of silk as a foundation on which to build the cocoon. Before the worm makes the continuous filament the outside of the cocoon is already well started, but this silk on the outside has the short filaments and can't be reeled in one piece. So this silk must be removed in order to find the desired filament.
Once the selected filaments have been threaded through both loops, around the metal bobbin, and wound onto the wooden bobbin then reeling can begin in earnest!
Here you can see the cocoons in the pot jumping around. The jumping ones are being unreeled and as the silk comes off of them they jerk around. The reeling also makes a slight hissing sound, which you can't hear because the metal bobbin and the reel makes such a racket.
Here is the noisy metal bobbin at work.
When a filament would break or a cocoon ran out of filament I had to add another filament to replace it. You want there to be a consistent thickness of thread so you want to make sure you keep the number of filaments as consistent as possible. So I did a lot of pausing to count filaments and make sure I kept between 10 and 12 filaments going. Sometimes I got down to eight, and at times I was as high as 14. But for the most part I think my thread is pretty even.
Here is how I replaced a filament. Experienced reelers can replace a filament without stopping the reel. There was no way I could do this, and when I noticed a broken filament all reeling came the a screeching halt so I could add a new one.
I also had the whole thread break a few times, so I just tied the broken ends together. The knot was so small you couldn't even see it, and I snipped the free ends short so I shouldn't be an issue. At least I hope it won't be. During the reeling process I also had to watch out for stray, slubby silk that would sometimes get sucked up off of a cocoon and get incorporated into the thread. This makes a big ugly mess in the thread so I would have to pick that part out as gently as possible without disturbing the main thread.
As the cocoons are reeled they get thinner and more transparent. You can see some in this picture that are starting to get transparent and thin. They are towards the back of the group of cocoons.
Eventually the cocoon will run out of usable silk and will just drop off of the thread. Here is a picture of a cocoon that is done being reeled, and you can see the pupa inside. It's the dark looking thing in the upper left corner all by itself.
When I got to the point where I couldn't incorporate any more filaments into the thread, and I dropped down to eight threads per filament, I broke the filaments and stopped reeling. In this next picure you see what is left - a bunch of thin cocoons with pupae in them and the waste silk from the outside of the cocoons.
When it was all done, here is what the wooden bobbin looked like.
At this point the silk needed to be reeled off of the wooden bobbin and onto another bobbin to make sure that the silk is dry and is not sticking together. Unfortunately I didn't plan ahead and have extra bobbins on hand so I had to rig something up so I could reel from the bobbin onto a cardboard tube. Here is how that setup went.
I set up the wooden bobbin so it hung on a wooden dowel and would turn easily. I stuffed the cardboard tube with tissue paper and secured it with a rubber band to the reeler. Then I put the thread around the metal bobbin and onto the tube and started re-reeling.
My plan was to re-reel the whole wooden bobbin, but my arm got tired so I stopped for the night. I want to re-reel equal amounts onto two tubes so that I can more easily double the thread later, but it's going to be a guessing game as to when to stop with one tube and start the next. I just hope that when I continue re-reeling tomorrow that I don't find my silk stuck to the bobbin.
Next thing I have to do is double the thread, and I need either a drop spindle or a spinning wheel to make this happen. I have no experience with either, so I need to find one or the other and hope I don't screw it up!
Today I reeled silk for the first time. I took some photos and video that I'll be posting as soon as I can, but I think it was a success.
I reeled 40 Bombyx mori cocoons. It was pretty easy once I got the hang of incorporating new filaments into the main thread when a cocoon ran out of silk or when a filament broke. That was the only tricky part, besides figuring out the setup.