Sunday, December 13, 2009

Suzhou Silk Factory 3: Silk reeling.

The cocoons, selected for perfection and singularity, and also softened so they start to unravel, are transported to the next part of the process - the unreeling. This is where the silk cocoon is unwound to produce a thread that is around a mile long. It leaves behind the pupa encased in the inner silk which cannot be reeled, but can be used to form wadding while the pupa itself can be eaten - either fried or boiled - and is reputedly nutritious (and is an ingredient of Chinese medicine).

What took the silkworm two or three days to produce is unwound, I'd guess, in close to an hour. The factory where this takes place is also called a filature.

First the cocoons are boiled so the fibroin glue dissolves even more

and then brushed to find the end.

Once the end is found it is draped in readiness and the cocoon transferred to a watery waiting bay.

It is waiting for its moment to be fully unwound with seven of its brethren to form a strand of silk of regular thickness or denier. The woman at the machine (and it always tends to be a woman, in every country, just as every cocoon cooker tends to be a man) watches. Apart from seeing that there are sufficient cocoons in-waiting she also has to ensure the cocoons about to run out are replaced so the silk continues to be of regular thickness.

This is an important quality of silk, and allows it to be sold on an international market.

I tried to have a conversation with one of the workers through my guide but it was difficult. The worker would reply to one of my questions at length (e.g. how long did it take for her to learn what to do?) only for my guide to tell me: 'Three months.'

I would have loved to have found out more about her life. However I did learn that she had been working at the factory for 13 years and the most difficult part of the job was threading the silk through the guide. It was difficult to see exactly how this was done - except that the threads already being fed through catch an additional one and sweep that through too.

The first few at the start of the shift, I'd guess, would be the most difficult.

Even though labour in China is cheap (one of the main reasons for its economic success) the aim of the factory owner is always to reduce it. Which is why the automatic silk reeler has been introduced.

Here the brushing and the transfer to the unwinding part of the process are achieved automatically. The cocoons are brushed and the ends found with the help of sensors.

Another sensor detects when a cocoon is running out and the few employees that are required are there to watch and ensure all is going well.

Watch, brush and transfer, or simply watch. It must be progress because there is less to do. The factory owners make more money, but fewer people are employed. In a country that has a surplus of people modernisation must sometimes be a difficult and unattractive proposal.