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They change their skins four times, from ten days to ten days, or thereabouts; this they call their sickness; for about the time they change their skins they forbear to eat, and therefore they feed them but once a day; but at other times they give them fresh leaves oftener. At the time also of their sickness they change them, taking away the cake of dry leaves and dung that was under them, by removing them with fresh leaves, which they will stick to: but after the fourth sickness is over, they change them every day till they begin to work, which is about ten days after.
The woman of the house where I lay, put her eggs to hatch on Good Friday, April the 3d; they were hatched the Monday following, and they began to work on Tuesday, June the 2d: so that, allowing one day for every sickness, it fell out pretty near according to their reckoning.
When the worms are ripe as they call it, they cull out the ripe ones, i. e. those that are ready to work, from among those that are feeding, and put them upon shelves, where they are to work. They know those that are ripe by their clearness; for if you hold them up against the light with their bellies upwards, you will find them clear about the fore legs, some yellow, some white, according to the several colours of the silk they will spin; and by this clearness one may easily distinguish them from those that are not yet ripe.
The shelves they put them on to work are thus ordered: they place deal shelves one over another, as if they were for books; they make them about thirty inches broad, and the distance between them is about twenty-two inches: betwixt these shelves they set rows of a small brushy plant, somewhat like our heath, which reaching from one shelf to another are at the top turned partly one way, partly the other; so that the tops of the branches of these several rows or partitions reaching to one another touch, so that the whole length of each shelf is by these branches divided as it were into so many little caves, each of about nine or ten inches breadth; for the rows of branches that are set up to make these caves, which are as deep as the shelves are
broad, are set at that distance. Into one of these caves they put the worms that are first ripe, which creeping up the branches find amongst the little twigs places to work in. When one cave has as many of these spinners as it hath well room for, they fill the next, and so on.
They never give them any leaves of the red mulberrytree when they are young, because it being a strong nourishment, will hurt them; but if one give them red mulberry-leaves towards the latter end, they will be the stronger, and mount the branches the better, which when they are weak they cannot do; and the silk of those that thus eat red mulberry-leaves is as good as the other..
About a fortnight after they begin to work, they take the cocons (i. e. the pods of silk they have wrought) out of the branches; if you take them down too soon, they will not have done working, and if you stay too long, they will have eat their way out of the pods, and the silk will be spoiled. It is time to take them down out of the branches as soon as any of the papilions, i. e, the flies that come out of the pods, appear amongst them.
As many of the cocons as they think necessary to keep for a breed for the next year they strip off the loose silk from, and then thread them; but pass the needle warily through the side of the cocon, so as it may be sure not to hurt the worm within. They count that a pound of cocons will yield an ounce of eggs. The cocons, thus threaded, they hang up or lay in a convenient room, that so the papilions may come out, and make love to one another, and then lay their eggs on white paper laid there on purpose.
From the remaining cocons they presently either wind off the silk, or if they cannot do that (for it is not every body can do it) they either with the heat of the sun, or oven, or hot water, kill the worms in the cocons, so that they may keep them without having them spoiled by the worm, till they can get their silk wound.
Eight pounds of cocons usually yield one pound of silk.
The way of winding silk off from the cocons is a thing that cannot be taught without seeing; and there are but
few amongst them that can do it well, it lying in a dexterity not easy to be learnt, as they say: they put the cocons in hot water, and so stirring them about with a kind of rod, the ends of the silk twires of the cocons stick to it, which they laying on upon a turning reel draw off from the cocons, which lie all the while in the hot water; but the great skill is to have such a number of these single twires of the cocons running at a time, as may make the thread of silk which they compose of a due bigness; for in turning (which they do apace) many of the twires of the cocons break, and so by degrees the silk thread, made of sundry of these drawn together, grows too little, and then the woman that is winding stirs her rod or little beesom again with her left hand amongst the cocons, to get new ends of twires to add to the thread, which all this while keeps running. To know when to make this addition of new twires and in what quantity, so as to keep an even thread all along, is the great skill of these winders; for they do it by guess, and keep the real turning and the thread running all the while; for should they, as oft as is occasion, stand still to count the twires or consider the thread, and how many new twires were fit to be added, it would be an endless labour, and they could never make wages.
The engines also that they use for twisting this silk afterwards are too curious to be described, but by a model. I have seen one, where one woman has turned a hundred and thirty-four spindles, and twisted as many threads at a time; and I have seen another, wherein two women going in a wheel, like that of a crane, turned three hundred and sixty.
The mulberry-trees, where they stand near towns, yield them good profit; I have known the leaves of four white mulberrytrees (some whereof were not very large) sold for a pistole, i. e. between sixteen and seventeen shillings sterling.