Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or Word formats.

Silk-Reeling-art - 7/14/13


"Introduction to Reeling Silk" by Lady Nikolena Martinovna Popriadukhina.


NOTE: See also the files: silk-msg, spinning-msg, textiles-msg, wool-clean-msg, wool-combing-msg, looms-msg, linen-msg, cotton-msg, hemp-cloth-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Introduction to Reeling Silk

by Lady Nikolena Martinovna Popriadukhina


With special thanks to my friend and mentor Michael Cook (www.wormspit.com) who taught me much of what I know and continues to inspire in me a love of silk.


Silk has been reeled from the cocoon of the silkworm for at least 5,000 years, since, according to legend, a cocoon fell into the teacup of a Chinese empress and unwound when she plucked it out.  The fiber of the silkworm has been a symbol of luxury since that day.  It makes a beautiful, delicately-sheened fabric, yet is stronger than steel of the same weight.  Its secrets have been guarded jealously for millenia, even as it moved from China, to Khotan, to Italy, the Middle East, and Spain, then eventually into Northern Europe.  Today, those secrets will be divulged to you.




Following is a list of equipment that will make reeling silk easier.  It is possible to reel silk using nothing more than a stick and a pot of water, but these materials make it easy for you to produce silk that is stronger, shinier, frays less, and is free from slubs.


Pots: You will need three pots - one large stock pot for the initial boiling of the cocoons, a medium-size pot (or a crock pot) with tea-temperature water to reel from, and a pot with a long handle to transfer the cocoons and hold the ones not being used immediately.  The pots should be made of a material that will not affect the dyeing later; stainless steel, enamel, or clay are good options, but aluminum or cast iron could later act as a dye mordant.  The medium-sized pot will need to keep the water at tea temperature; when reeling at home, I often use a crock pot because it keeps such a consistent water temperature.  You'll also need a small bowl to hold the bugs before discarding.


Brush: A bristled dish brush is the ideal modern implement for catching the loosened ends of the silk and begin reeling it off the cocoon.  Our medieval ancestors used small brushes made of broom, but I haven't experimented with that at all yet, so we're sticking with the modern brush.


Tongs: These aren't absolutely necessary, but they do prevent burned fingers quite nicely.  I use bamboo tongs as they are less jarring to the eye than metal ones.


Spoon: This is used for transferring cocoons from the boiling water into the holding pot.  Very handy for avoiding burned fingers.


Croissure:  This is the French term for a device that crosses the silk around itself.  This crossing puts a great deal of pressure on the individual filaments of silk, compressing them together as tightly as possible, sealed together with the sericin (the natural glue coating the silk).  It prevents the silk from fraying during processing.


Winding device:  You will need a device to pull the silk off the cocoons, through the croissure, and onto a bobbin.  The ideal device for this is the Japanese zakuri, because it has an arm which lays the silk back and forth across the bobbin, freeing one of your hands for other necessary tasks, and because the bobbin (called an itomaki) is open and allows the silk to shed some water.  However, it is possible to do this with a ballwinder, though it takes a bit more practice to master.


Re-reeling equipment:  The silk must dry in motion; otherwise it will bind to itself and become a solid mass.  If your zakuri has multiple itomaki, or your ballwinder has a removable bobbin, you can simply remove the current bobbin from your winder and wind onto a fresh bobbin.  You will often need to do this multiple times, until the silk is completely dry. 


Bobbin winder:  Once the silk is dry, you'll want to wind it onto bobbins to make later steps easier.  A bobbin winder is ideal, as bobbins prevent tangles well.  Lacking that, it is possible to use a ballwinder with multiple bobbins.


Spinning device:  The silk filaments will need to be twisted together in steps called throwsting (or throwing) and plying.  You will want a spinning wheel for this.  It is possible to use a drop spindle, but will take a great deal longer.


Degumming chemicals: Once the silk has been turned into thread, the sericin will need to be removed from it.  You will need Orvus paste (or 29% sodium lauryl sulfate) and sodium carbonate.  All Free and Clear laundry detergent is an acceptable alternative to the Orvus, though not quite as good.  Arm & Hammer washing soda is 100% sodium carbonate, and available in many grocery stores.





Set aside the number of cocoons that you wish to reel in this session.  For most uses, you will want between 15 and 25 cocoons to be reeled together at one time, and you'll need to replace cocoons as they "fall off" the filament.  For this session, we're going to reel 20 cocoons at once, so we'll set aside 30 cocoons, so we'll have replacements for any cocoons which aren't up to snuff.


The first thing you need to do is to fill your pots with water and get them heated up.  The large stock pot will need to come to a light boil; the medium pot will need to be about tea temperature, and the small holding pot will need to be a bit cooler than that.


Next, assemble your croissure, and get your zakuri or ballwinder ready for action.  If you need instructions for setting up the croissure, please see Appendix A.


While you're waiting for your water to heat up, remove the blaze from the outside of the cocoons.  The blaze is the fuzzy outer layer of waste silk all around the cocoon.  Peel off as much of that as you can, and set it aside for your favorite spinner, as it can be degummed and spun either by itself or in a blend with other fibers.  If you've purchased your cocoons, there may not be a tremendous amount of blaze left to be removed, but home-grown cocoons can have rather a lot.


Once the blaze is removed and the large stock pot is at a low boil, put a few of the cocoons into the water.  Begin dunking them with your brush, rather briskly, for about 30 seconds.  You want the loosened ends of the silk to catch on the brush so that you can pull them off.  You'll get a nice snarl of silk on the end of your brush.  Pull the silk off your brush, and continue pulling it off the cocoons, sliding it through the tongs to keep the cocoons in the pot and the boiling water off your fingers.  This is more blaze - waste silk that the caterpillar laid down as a support structure for the cocoon.  It is not in a continuous filament, and so is not useful for reeling.  You will pull about seven or eight yards of this waste silk off of each cocoon.  Often, this is broken, and the cocoon will fall back into the water.  This is fine, just jostle it with the brush again, and you'll snag the silk once more.  Eventually, you will find the One True Thread.  It's a bit thicker than the waste silk, and is unbroken.  Use the spoon (or the tongs, or anything else handy) to lift the cocoon out of the boiling water and put it in the holding pot.  Wrap the filament for that cocoon around the handle of the holding pot so you may easily find it again.  Keep doing this until all of your cocoons have been put in the holding pot.


A quick note: I've not had you put all your cocoons into the boiling water at once, simply because this is the first time you're doing this.  If the cocoons are in the boiling water for too long, the silk becomes denatured and turns into an unusable, globby mess.  When you've become more deft at this step, feel free to put as many cocoons in at once as you feel you can handle!


Now that all your cocoons are prepared for reeling, turn the heat off the large pot, move the medium-sized pot onto the base of the croissure, then move 20 of the cocoons into the pot.  Remove their filaments from the handle of the holding pot, and press them together into a single filament.  Wind this composite filament onto the croissure, going from the pot, through the bottom guide, over the top wheel from the inside to the outside, down around the bottom wheel, coming up to loop the silk around itself 10 or so times, then through the top guide and to the zakuri.  (See the threading diagram below.)




Attach the silk filament to the zakuri.  You're just about ready to reel!  However, before you begin turning the crank, an important step: re-wet the silk filament anywhere it's touching the croissure.  In the few moments that it's taken you to thread the croissure and attach the silk to the croissure, it's possible that the sericin coating the silk has had enough time to bond to whatever it's touching.  If this has happened and you begin to reel, the silk will snap.  Get your fingers a little wet from the tea-temp water, and dampen the silk anywhere it's touching anything, including itself.  Any time you pause in reeling, dampen the silk again before resuming, even if it's just been for a minute or two.


Now, begin reeling.  Note the direction that you're turning the crank, because if you begin turning it in another direction, it will make an awful tangle that is very difficult to get out.  If you hand over the reeling to anyone else, make sure to inform them of which way you're turning the crank. 


If you're using a zakuri, you'll notice that the itomaki has a wide space in the middle.  As it turns, air is circulated throughout, which helps keep too much moisture from building up on the silk.  If you're using a ballwinder, however, your reeled silk will begin to become very damp.  You'll want to have a towel handy to gently press excess moisture out of the silk as you go.  You'll also notice that the silk is laid down in a zigzag pattern, rather than in straight lines.  This is extremely important.  If the silk is laid down in straight lines, the sericin is allowed to bond the separate layers of silk together into a giant band of silk.  The zigzag pattern only allows the separate layers to touch at the smallest possible intersections, reducing the size and strength of the bonds that the sericin can make.


As you're reeling, you can notice that the cocoons are pulled across the pot toward the croissure.  Every so often, pull the cocoons gently and slowly away from the croissure, and you'll see them move back toward it.  Any that are not pulled back toward it are no longer attached to the filament - they've "fallen off".  Put those cocoons back in the large pot so their ends can be found again, and get a replacement cocoon out of the holding pot.  Grasp the silk between your thumb and forefinger, and flip the cocoon over the back of your hand, into the reeling pot.  Hold the silk strand near and slightly above the other cocoons' filaments going into the lower guide.  When the silk strand you're holding touches one of the other strands, it will get snagged and pulled up into the filament for you.  Make sure you keep ahold of your end of the silk until the loose end you're holding snaps off, preventing a slub from forming.  Every time a cocoon falls off, simply replace it with another from your holding pot in this same manner, keeping the number of cocoons you're reeling consistent.  If you're reeling with a friend, you can even take turns returning fallen off cocoons to the holding pot.


After a while, you'll notice that some of the fallen off cocoons have become transparent, and the silk coming off of them is very thin.  You've gotten down to the "cradle" silk at this point; the last of the silk that the caterpillar creates right before pupation.  As it is very thin and fragile, it is not suitable for reeling; those cocoons go into the bug bowl to be discarded (or, if you're brave, the bugs can be cooked and eaten).  Replace those cocoons with one of the extra cocoons you have waiting in your holding pot.


Replacing a fallen off cocoon demonstrates why the use of a zakuri or a ballwinder is crucial.  It is possible to turn the crank with one hand, and create the zigzag pattern by moving the other hand back and forth across a bobbin.  However, you'd need a third hand to do both those things and add a replacement cocoon.  In period, every reel that I've seen was designed for at least two people to be working together; one to turn the crank and lay the diagonal pattern, and one to add the cocoons.  A device that lays the silk in the necessary pattern frees up one hand, allowing a silk worker to reel alone.


If your silk snaps at any point while you're reeling, don't despair.  You can simply "piece up", or tie an overhand knot with both ends of the silk, trim the ends close to the knot, and continue reeling.  The filament is so fine that it will be barely detectable in your finished product.  If you develop a slub, or detect a weak spot in the filament, don't hesitate to remove that section and piece up the two ends outside the flawed section.


As you're reeling, you'll want to occasionally feel the reeled silk and test it for dryness.  The amount of time that it takes the silk to dry out varies greatly depending on whether you're reeling inside or out, the ambient temperature and humidity, and dozens of other factors.  If your silk begins to dry out and you still have a lot of silk left on your cocoons, you may want to use a mister to keep it slightly damp.


Once you've reeled all your silk, it is time to re-reel.  The silk must dry in motion, or the sericin will bond it to itself and create a huge, tangled mess.  Remove the itomaki from the zakuri (or the bobbin from the ballwinder) and replace it with a fresh itomaki.  You're going to reel the silk off the one itomaki and onto another.  You'll keep doing this, back and forth, until the silk is dry.  If you are working the silk with a partner, one of you can hold the silk and turn it for the other, to speed re-reeling and decrease the tension put on the filament, but it's not required.  The distance the silk travels is dependent upon the conditions of the space you're working in; drier air helps the silk dry quickly, but can make it more fragile.  In my kitchen, made humid by all the boiling pots of water, I often turn a fan on and reel the silk past the fan to aid in the drying.  If you're having problems with the filament snapping, move the two itomaki closer together.


A word of caution: silk is extremely strong.  As you are winding, it is possible for the silk to cut your fingers and hands in the same manner as a papercut.  Right before it cuts you, it'll feel like a lot of heat is coming off the yarn; this is your cue to let go.  This is most likely to happen when you are attempting to grip the silk; your hands should only be used to guide the filament.  Never try to hold on.


Throwsting and Plying:


The next step is to throwst the silk (modernly called throwing instead of throwsting): plying the filaments together with a high degree of twist.  The first thing to do is to decide for what use you want your finished silk yarn.


Michael Cook, in his handout titled "Six Slick Silks" given at his silk reeling workshop in Calontir, defines these different types of yarns (used with permission of the author):


Tram - 4 filaments per ply, 1 ply, 10 twists per inch (very lustrous but not very strong, and frays easily; used for embroidery, brocade, and filling weft)


Low Twist Organzine - 4 filaments per ply, 2 plies, 10 twists per inch (lustrous but stronger than tram; used for all of the above, plus tassels)


High Twist Organzine - 4 filaments per ply, 2 plies, 20 twists per inch (a bit less shiny, but much stronger; used for all the above, plus warps, braiding, and lace)


Sewing thread - 3 filaments per ply, 3 plies, 20 twists per inch (less shiny, but extremely strong; used for all the above plus handsewing, minus lace)


Knitting yarn - 10 filaments per ply, 2 plies, 8 twists per inch (adjustable depending on the end-weight yarn desired; advanced throwsters only).


Because it has the most uses, we are going to make sewing thread.  You'll need three bobbins.  Wind a third of your silk onto each bobbin.


Next we must throwst the filaments to make a single strand of yarn.  The easiest ways to do this are with a spinning wheel, or a quill spindle or charkha, but it can be done with a drop spindle.  There are numerous machines that were invented in period to handle this step of the process; spend fifteen minutes throwsting with a drop spindle, and you'll soon see why!


If you have a spinning device, you will determine the ratio of twist your device can introduce per crank/treadle.  For example, with a spinning wheel, you will put a piece of tape on the flyer and another on the wheel.  You will turn the wheel slowly one full revolution, meanwhile counting the number of revolutions the flyer has made.  This is the ratio.  On my Lendrum wheel which has the standard flyer on it, the fastest setting has a ratio of 9 to 1.  To get 20 twists per inch will require approximately 2 full treadles (both left and right) per inch of silk.  You can quickly see the draw of something like a charkha, which can have a ratio of up to 100:1 (five inches of silk throwsted per crank).  If you're using a drop spindle, you'll have to gauge the twist by eye.


Set your three bobbins on the floor near your twisting device, standing up.  Directly above them, you will want a wire loop.  Passing the filaments through this wire loop takes all the tension off the silk as you're throwsting, preventing breakages.  After passing through the loop, attach the filaments to your twisting device.  Feel free to tie them onto your leader string or bobbin.


This is the one time you will grip the silk, but you won't allow it to move through your fingers, so it won't cut you.  One hand will hold the silk firmly between thumb and forefinger, near the orifice of your twisting device, and the other hand will draw the silk through the loop, measuring as you go.  You can twist multiple inches at a time, if you desire; for instance, on my wheel I might treadle eight times every four inches.  Once you've put the twist into the silk, allow the twisted section to be drawn onto the bobbin, grasp the next section of filaments, and continue twisting.


When all of your silk has been throwsted, it is time to ply the yarn.  Sewing thread requires three-ply yarn, so we will again divide the silk in equal parts amongst the three bobbins, and we will again introduce 20 twists per inch for the plying, twisted in the opposite direction as the throwsting.




After you're done plying, you need to decide whether you want to degum your silk.  Some fabrics are woven in the gum, which keeps the fiber stiff and strong.  These fabrics obviously won't be washable, as doing so would remove the gum.  Removing the gum makes the silk much softer and shinier.  To do so, first skein up the yarn you've made.  At Michael Cook's advice, I tie my skeins with figure-8s on both ends and both sides, to help prevent tangles.  I then prepare a solution of 1/4 cup of Orvis paste (or 29% sodium lauryl sulfate) and 1/4 cup of washing soda (sodium carbonate) to a gallon of water, and set it to a gentle boil.  I then turn down the heat til it's no longer bubbling.  I put a stick through my skein, and lower the silk into the water; balancing the stick atop my pot  (rotate the skein a few times during degumming so the silk that's not in the water also gets degummed).  Full degumming takes a little less than an hour, but if you want to retain some of the gum, you can pull the silk out earlier.  After the time is up, rinse the silk in water until all the solution is washed away, and then rinse with a mildly acidic solution (I use a tablespoon of citric acid to a gallon of water, but you can also use a quarter cup of vinegar).


Once your silk has dried, it's ready to be used!


Though this is a labor-intensive process, it can be a lot of fun.  I hope that I've been able to share the joy and the beauty of the art with you as well.  I've included some additional information to help you get started researching, and help you continue reeling silk.  There are a number of resources readily available to help you, and should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.






Michael Cook's website, with information on both reeling and raising silkworms


(also, see his collection of pdf books at http://www.wormspit.com/library.htm)


Silk Reelers Yahoo Group



Silkworm Breeders Yahoo Group:



Treenway Silks (great source for cocoons):



Period references:


The Perfect Use of Silke-Worms and Their Benefit

1598, Oliver de Serres, translated to English in 1608 by Nicholas Geffe


The Silkworm: a Poem in Two Books

Marcus Heironymous Vida aka Marco Girolamo Vida

written in 1527, English translation published in 1750


Il Vermicello dalla Seta

Giovanni A Corcucci, 1581

(I haven't read this yet as I don't speak Italian, but am including it in case you do!)

Available for free on Google Books


The Life and Works of Arcimboldo

Diana Craig, 1996

Period line drawings of silk reeling


Discussion of the silk industry in period:


Consuming Splendor

Linda Levy Peck, 2005


The Silk Industry of Renaissance Venice

Luca Mola, 2000


The Silk Industry of the United Kingdom: Its Origin and Development

Sir Frank Warner KBE, 1911



Post-period references:


Silk Throwing and Waste Silk Spinning

Hollins Rayner, 1903 (available on Google Books)


A Treatise on the Origin, Progressive Improvement, and Present State of the Silk Manufacture
George Richardson Porter, 1831


The American Silk Growers Guide

William Kenrick, 1839


A Treatise on the Mulberry and Silkworm

John Clark, 1832


Copyright 2010 by Michele Berg. <silkworm.lady at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org