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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre


 

 

WOOL

[25]

"W
E live," continued Uncle Paul, "on the life of our domestic animals. The ox gives us his strength, his flesh, his hide; the cow gives us her milk besides. The horse, the ass, the mule work for us; and when death overtakes them they leave us their skin for leather with which to make our footwear. The hen gives us her eggs, and the dog places his intelligence at our disposal. But if there is one animal that, more than another, comes to us from the good God above, it is surely the sheep, the gentle creature that yields us its fleece for our garments, its skin for our warm coats, its flesh and its milk for our nourishment. But its most precious gift is its wool.

"From wool are made mattresses, and it is also woven into cloth such as merino, flannel, serge, cashmere, and in short, all the various fabrics best fitted for protecting us from the cold. It is by far the most desirable material for wearing apparel, cotton, notwithstanding its importance, coming only second, and silk, valuable though it is, being very inferior in respect to serviceability. More than with anything else we clothe ourselves with what we strip from the innocent sheep; our finery comes for the most part from its fleece."

[26] "But wool is very far from beautiful on the creature's back," commented Claire; "it is all matted and dirty, often fairly covered with filth." "It must take a good many processes," remarked Marie, "to change that foul and tangled fleece into the beautiful skeins of all colors with which we embroider such pretty flowers on canvas."

"Yes, indeed, very many," rejoined Uncle Paul. "I have already told you how sheep are washed and sheared, and how the washing leaves the fleece white or brown or black according to the color given to it by nature. White wool can be dyed in all possible tints and shades, from the lightest to the darkest, whereas brown or black wool can take only somber hues. White wool, therefore, is always preferable to any other; but, beautiful as it is when freshly washed and relieved of all impurity, it is still far from having the snowy whiteness so desirable if it is to remain undyed. It is bleached by a very curious process which I will now describe to you.

"You have all doubtless observed that when sulphur burns, with a blue-violet flame, it gives forth a pungent odor that irritates the mucous membranes of the nose and throat and causes a fit of coughing."

"That must be what we smell when we light a match," Claire interposed. "If you breathe in the least little whiff of it, it is perfectly horrid."

"Often enough it has me coughing unless I was on my guard," remarked Emile.

"Yes, that is it," their uncle replied. "Sulphur, [27] in burning, becomes an invisible substance which is dissipated in the atmosphere and betrays its presence only by a detestable odor of the most pungent quality. Invisible, impalpable, like the air itself, this something that we know merely as a disagreeable smell constitutes nevertheless a real substance the existence of which cannot be doubted by any one who has once been thrown into a fit of coughing by inhaling it. It is called sulphurous oxide, a new name to you and one to be kept in mind. It will be worth your while to remember it, as you will presently see."

"Sulphurous oxide, then," said Marie, "is burnt sulphur; and it is something that can be neither seen nor felt, but that nevertheless does really exist. Whoever breathes it is immediately convinced of its existence by the penetrating odor and by the fit of coughing that follows."

"To what possible use," continued Uncle Paul, "can we turn this disagreeable gas, this invisible substance that makes you cough worse than if you had the whooping-cough? I will tell you. Despite its repulsive qualities, it is what we have to depend upon for giving wool the whiteness of snow. An example will demonstrate its efficacy to you. Go down to the meadow and pick me a bunch of violets."

The violets were soon gathered from under the hedge bordering the meadow. Then Uncle Paul put a little sulphur on a brick, set it afire, and held the bunch of violets, which he had slightly sprinkled with water, over the fumes. In a few moments the flowers, attacked by the sumptuous gas ascend- [28] ing from the blue flame, lost their color and turned perfectly white. The change from violet to white was plainly visible to the eye.

"How curious that is!" exclaimed Jules. "Just see how the violets whiten as soon as they come over the flame and feel the sulphurous dioxide, as you call it. Some were half white and half blue; but the blue has disappeared and now the bunch is all white, without having lost any of its freshness to speak of."

"Let us now," suggested Uncle Paul, "try one of the red roses there on the mantelpiece."

Accordingly the rose was held over the burning sulphur, and its red color faded away just as the blue of the violets had faded, giving place to white, much to the wonder of the children, who watched with breathless interest this marvelous transformation.

"That will suffice for the present," Uncle Paul resumed. "What I have just shown you with violets and roses might be demonstrated with innumerable other flowers, especially red and blue ones: all would turn white on being exposed to the sulphur fumes. You will understand, then, that these fumes, which we call sulphurous dioxide, have the peculiar property of being able to destroy certain colors and hence to act as a bleaching agent.

"If, therefore, you wish to bleach wool, to remove the slight natural discoloration that stains its whiteness, you proceed exactly as you have just seen me do with the violets and roses. In a room with all its doors and windows carefully closed the wool in [29] its natural condition —that is, before it has been spun into yarn—is hung up and a good handful or two of sulphur is set on fire in an earthen bowl. The room then becomes filled with sulphurous oxide and the wool turns a beautiful white."

"Would wool that is naturally brown or black turn in that room full of sulphur smoke?" asked Marie.

"No," was the reply; "its color is too fast to yield to the action of sulphurous oxide. Only white wool is subject to this action, under which it becomes immaculate. By the same process the straw of which hats are made is bleached, also skins used for gloves, and silk.

"Wool varies in value according to the different kinds of sheep that have produced it, some being coarse, some fine and silky, some made of long hairs, and some of short. The most highly esteemed, that which is used in weaving fine fabrics, comes from a breed of sheep raised chiefly Spain and known as merino sheep. Finally, a goat native to the mountainous countries of central Asia, the goat of Cashmere, furnishes a downy fleece of extreme [30] fineness, an incomparable wool from which the most costly stuffs are manufactured. This goat wears, under a thick fur of long hair, and abundant down which shields it from the rigors of winter and is shed every spring. At that season the animal is combed and the down is thus detached separate from the rest of the hairy coat."


[Illustration]

HEAD OF MERINO RAM


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