Special Feature:
Silkworm Gut


o what was this material, that revolutionised the face of fly fishing? The Chinese discovered it, and they were using it as early as the fourth century BC:

By making a line of cocoon silk, a hook of a sharp needle, a rod of a branch or bramble or dwarf bamboo, and using a grain of cooked rice as bait, one can catch a whole cartload of fish.

According to legend, the Chinese have cultivated silk since before 3000 BC, when the emperor Fo Xi taught his people how to raise silkworms on mulberry trees. By 1000 BC the Chinese were exporting some silk, and Europeans were familiar with it as a material, although the process was kept highly secret, and no-one but the Chinese knew how silk was made. Exports to the West started in earnest in about 200 BC, with the opening of the 'Silk Road,' a caravan route that linked the great civilisations of Rome and China. Although the emphasis was on trade, with wool, gold and silver going east, while silk came west, the route was used for the export and import of everything from inventions to armies.
Four thousand miles long, the Silk Road began in Sian, in Northern China. swung northwest to hug the Great Wall, split into two around the desert of Takla Makan, then climbed into the Pamir mountains, crossed Afghanistan, before finishing in the Levant, from where goods were shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Because of the route's length, few people travelled it in its entirety, and goods were passed in relays from one caravan to another. The decline of Rome and the rise of Arabian power made the road increasingly unsafe and it fell into disuse for thousands of years before being revived in the 13th century by the Mongols. It is still possible to travel part of the road today using a highway connecting Pakistan with the Sinkiang Uighur region of China.

Silk was so useful and so expensive that it was inevitable that Western civilisations made determined attempts to steal the Chinese' secrets, and it wasn't long before they were successful. No-one knows exactly how sericulture reached Europe, although there are numerous legends to fill the gap. My favourite tale tells of two priests who smuggled silkworms out of China in hollow bamboo walking sticks, after they had been sent to China by the emperor Justinian in an attempt to find out how silk was made. They brought their precious find back to Anatolia in the fifth century AD. There is some logic to the story, because it is set exactly at the time when brigandage on the Silk Road began to make it difficult for the West to obtain supplies easily.

The Chinese were the first to discover how to prepare silkworm gut, some centuries before Kirby placed an advert in 1722, stating that the material was "newly come over." The uptake of gut was slow to begin with, but by the mid nineteenth century it was in fairly common use. Part of the reason for the failure of anglers to take to gut was that early natural gut was quite thick compared to horse hair. Thin gut remained expensive and difficult to obtain until good quality drawn gut became widely available in the late nineteenth century. On the other hand, once it gained general acceptance, gut knew no rivals until the 1930's when Nylon was invented . The greatest selling point of the new material was that it was much easier to get good quality gut than it was to get good quality horsehair.

By the mid-nineteenth century, gut was big business. Spain, Portugal, Italy and Sicily all had their own industries, and gut could even be had from Syria. Spanish gut was generally agreed to be the best, and was supplied in hanks, which measured between ten and twenty inches (usually fourteen or fifteen inches) long. Gut had a nomenclature all of its own. The thickest gut was called "Hebra", the second thickest "Imperial", and there followed "Marana 1st", "Marana 2nd", "Padron 1st", "Padron 2nd", "Regular", "Fina", "Refina" and "Refinucha" - the thinnest. Within each thickness of gut, there were three qualities, the best being "Selecto", the second best "Superior" and the worst, "Estriada". Click here for diameters of gut.

Gut wasn't a perfect material and it had many drawbacks; as I have already mentioned, it required soaking, but it also had a tendency to rot, and its lack of longitudinal stiffness meant that a gut dropper was much more likely to spin around the cast than its horsehair counterpart. Neither did gut fall as lightly as horsehair, and it lacked as much 'stretch,' which meant that it was more likely to break on the strike. On the other hand, gut did allow the presentation of the fly on a nearly transparent point, was resistant to damage, and didn't share the tendency of horsehair casts to 'pink' - that is to spring slack loops of hair out of the side of a twisted cast. But the greatest selling point of the new material was that with time it became far easier to get good quality gut than it was to get good quality horsehair.

Needless to say, the very thick gut used for salmon fishing and fine long Refina used for trout fishing were in the shortest supply. Market forces led to the development of methods of making gut thinner, a process known as "drawing". Drawn gut was inclined to be rougher in texture and less transparent than natural gut, but it was also more expensive. Gut was the basis of an important peasant industry in the some areas, and this rather sanitised account doesn't quite do the process justice. The business of breaking the vinegar-soaked worms open, extracting the glands and stretching them to their full extent before hanging them out to dry was incredibly messy, and houses where it was done must have stunk to high heaven in mid-summer. The next stage was quite disgusting, with the female members of the family drawing the gut through their teeth and spitting the residue onto the floor. After that the glutinous skin which covered the gut was removed by boiling it in soap and water and finally the gut was bleached, hand polished and sorted. It was highly seasonal labour. In Spain, production of gut was compressed into the period between June and August, the Italian crop reaching fruition about a month later. Despite the high price of the end product, the peasant labourers made relatively little, the proceeds instead enriching the inevitable series of middle men.

By the end of the nineteenth century, natural or "undrawn" gut had had its day, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to find it. Undrawn gut was almost impossible to find by the beginning of the Second World War, at which time most gut was being sourced from Spain, and the familiar "x" system of grading drawn gut was well established.

Gut was swept away by nylon, which inherited the same sizing system . The origin of the "X" system is interesting, because it is about two hundred and fifty years old, and is based on an international system used for sizing watch parts. When gut first began to be drawn, by sharpening the end of the strand, and pulling it through the bored centre of a jewel, the manufacturers cast around for a common measurement system, and settled on the watchmakers' favourite. The X system was adequate for sizing gut, but it is gradually falling into disuse; the very wide variation in diameter that nylon makes possible means that measurements frequently fall outside the range of the old scale.


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