WHOEVER skirts the shores of the Italian lakes, or follows the fringe of the Alps, where their outposts touch the Italian plain, is sure to come upon evidences of a great industry, which means much to the economic life of the peninsular kingdom.
As we journey from Piedmont through Lombardy to Venetia, and watch the fertile expanses from the windows of a train or a carriage, the picture of trees planted in parallel lines across the fields keeps repeating itself acre by acre, mile after mile. If the season be that of June or early July, men will be detected perched in these trees, care-fully stripping them of their leaves and filling long sacks with them. These are mulberry-trees, and their leaves are for the feeding of the voracious silkworms, which make the cocoons from which in turn the raw silk is reeled off, so that silk stuffs may be woven with the strong lustrous thread.
No sooner have the trees been stripped of their leaves than the bare branches are pruned and trimmed to a nicety and the ground cultivated and fertilized. The farmers give these trees the same care which they would bestow on their choicest orchard trees. Indeed there are regular mulberry-tree nurseries in some parts of Italy, the leaves being available for feeding the silk-worms the fourth year after transplantation. The mulberry-tree is of slow growth and lives to a great age.
If you step into one of the cottages, where the worms are being fed into cocoons, you will find wide shelves filled with the large worms averaging about two inches in length. The mulberry leaves are thrown down upon the worms, and they work their way through, eating and scrunching the crisp green. If you put your ear to the shelf, the sound of the feeding is like that of the gentle pattering of rain upon a tin roof. The worms feed without halt for a certain number of days, then stop for a short interval, and then resume their feeding again. Having passed through these regular periods of activity and inactivity, the worms grow yellowish in colour, and are then ready to climb into the dried branches which are set up at the back of the shelves. This miniature forest is called technically the boscho. Here the worms proceed to fasten themselves to the branches by a network of silk thread, and then to wind the thread about them with a peculiar swaying and turning motion of the head. The result is to form cocoons completely hiding the worms. The colour of the cocoon is generally rich salmon, and as the traveller sees these wares, packed in crates and being carted over country roads, or sorted in great baskets at the silk markets of the cities, they present a peculiar luminous brilliancy which stands out vividly in the recollection. In course of time the worm, wrapped within the cocoon, if left to its own sweet will, would eat its way out again and emerge as a butterfly. But for the purposes of silk culture, this time must not be awaited. The cocoon is placed in water of a temperature above 140° F., and the thread is reeled off into skeins of raw silk. There is but one crop of cocoons a year, and it is collected generally in June and during the first part of July.
The reeling is done by hand labour, sometimes in the cottages, but now generally in large establishments. The unwinding of the single thread from the cocoon demands such manual dexterity and delicacy of touch that the work is done by women and girls only, the men and boys not being employed in this branch of sericulture. At this writing, all attempts to substitute mechanical devices for hand labour in this particular process are said to have failed. It is calculated that it takes from eleven to twelve pounds of fresh cocoons to make one pound of raw silk.
Italy is the third in the list of silk-producing countries, China and Japan alone exceeding her in production. As an indication of the extent to which this industry has grown in Italy, it may be stated that during recent years the annual production has been over twelve million pounds of raw silk, valued at over $46,000,000. About a million and a half of persons are engaged in one way or another in the various branches of silk industry. Piedmont has the reputation of raising the largest numbers of cocoons, but Milan in Lombardy is the centre of the manufacturing side of sericulture, and Como has proved itself to be a mainstay of the industry during times of storm and stress.
The history of sericulture in Italy is full of interest. The industry is as old as the period of Roger II., King of the Two Sicilies. Already in the thirteenth century Italy was able to compete successfully with Spain and the Levant. The industry reached the climax of its perfection and importance during the heyday of civic life in the Italian Republics, but it declined with the conquest of Italy by foreigners. The experts and artisans largely emigrated to other European countries, thus transplanting their knowledge to foreign fields, which soon entered into competition with the Italian producers. As late as 1860 the silk industry of Italy, as a whole, was still at a low ebb and had not yet felt the reviving touch of modern enterprise. But it is interesting to know that from the time of its introduction into Como, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the silk industry was never allowed to die out entirely in that city, but was constantly kept alive through varying vicissitudes of internecine war and foreign con-quest and periods of depression and lassitude. A certain Pietro Boldoni of Bellano on Lake Como was the first to establish the silk industry in the city of Como in the year 1510. Up to that time the woollen industry had flourished there, but after that silk gradually forged ahead. At the exposition, held in Como in 1899 to celebrate Volta’s discovery of the electric pile, the whole of Europe was able to admire the wonderful silks which Como is now able to manufacture.
The country round about is permeated with the various activities demanded by the industry, exemplified from mulberry-trees to finished dress goods. All the intermediate stages are there for inspection. Landowner, peasant, labourer, and manufacturer, men, women, and children, are knit together as closely as one of their own fabrics in a common enterprise of absorbing interest and immense range. The traveller cannot fail to wish for this whole region a just distribution of profits, and is spurred to do his share in furthering the welfare of all by taking a kindly interest in land and people.