Richard Brawer writes mystery, suspense and historical fiction. When not writing, he spends his time exploring local history. Today he stops by to tell us a little about silk manufacturing and Silk Legacy, a novel set in the tumultuous era of the American silk trade. Read more about Richard and his books at his website.
The silk industry in the United States began when John Ryle immigrated from Macclesfield, Cheshire, England in the 1840s and brought the plans for a silk mill with him. He constructed his mill in Paterson, NJ because the Passaic River provided the vast amount of water needed to process silk, and the river’s great waterfall provided the energy to run the mill. By 1900 there were three hundred mills in Paterson processing the fabric of shimmering beauty to adorn the bodies and homes of America’s rich.
How was silk manufactured?
Silk-worms make their cocoons by extruding two, five-one-thousandth inch thick filaments from holes in their heads in unbroken lengths that can stretch up to three thousand feet. The worms stick the filaments together with a gummy secretion. The secretion dries so hard it can scratch polished steel.
When the cocoons reaches the mill the raw silk skeins (cocoon) are washed in big vats for up to five hours to remove the gummy stuff and separate the two filaments. Then the skeins are rung out and hung up to dry. After the skeins are washed and dried, the filaments are wound onto octagonal reels called swifts. From the swift the yarn is rewound a second time on a spool.
The spools from the winding room are then stacked on pegged racks where the yarn is doubled and twisted. For filling yarn, the horizontal yarn in a fabric, two or more yarns are doubled (combined) then given two or three twists to the inch. For warp yarn, the vertical yarn, that has to be stronger than the filling yarn, depending on the end use, the yarn is given up to twelve twists to the inch, then doubled and twisted again. The more twists, the stronger the yarn becomes. This twisting process is call “throwing.”
The yarn is then put back on skeins and dyed. After dyeing the yarn is put back on spools, then put on bobbins for filling yarn and metal, cylindrical beams for warp yarns and sent to the weaving mills. Narrow beams, three to four inches wide, are for weaving ribbons. The 36” - 48” wide beams go to broad silk weavers.
Note: The silk worm gave the scientist the idea how to make synthetic fibers―nylon, polyester, rayon. A chemical solution is extruded through a spinneret, a piece of equipment with tiny holes that turns the solution into threads. Think creating your own spaghetti only with much smaller holes. (Remember how silk worms pushed the raw silk through holes in their heads.) The yarn immediately goes into a vat with a hardening solution.
One thing the silk worm cannot do is make different sized yarns. However, by adjusting the size of the holes in the spinneret, synthetic yarn can be created in various thicknesses. The thickness of a yarn is called a denier. The thicker the yarn the higher the denier number.
Silk yarn being a natural fiber is yarn-dyed, dyed after the yarn is formed. This can create skeins with slightly varied dye lots thath can be a problem for weavers. Synthetic yarn can be solution dyed. That means the dye is mixed into the chemical solution that is used to create the yarn. Solution dying greatly reduces the chances of varying dye lots.
Also, synthetic yarn can be made bright or dull depending on the composition of the solution. For example, Rayon was originally called synthetic silk and was shiny. Today because of tinkering with the solution, Rayon is more like cotton because, like cotton, it is made from a cellulose solution. However, unlike cotton, it can still be made bright and shimmery like silk.
In early twentieth century Paterson, New Jersey, dashing twenty-nine-year-old Abraham Bressler charms naïve nineteen-year-old Sarah Singer into marriage by making her believe he feels the same way she does about the new calling of a modern woman. He then turns around and gives her little more respect than he would a servant, demanding she stay home to care for “his” house and “his” children.
Feeling betrayed Sarah defies him and joins women's groups, actively participating in rallies for woman suffrage, child welfare and reproductive freedom. For a while she succeeds in treading delicately between the demands of her husband and her desire to be an independent woman. Her balancing act falters when a strike shuts down Paterson’s 300 silk mills. With many friends working in the mills, Sarah is forced to choose sides in the battle between her Capitalist husband and his Socialist brother, a union leader who happens to be her best friend’s husband.
Jealousy, infidelity, arrogance, greed—the characters’ titanic struggles will catapult you into the heights of their euphoria and the depths of their despair. Who will triumph and who will be humbled is not certain until the last page.