Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Voices from the Past: A Tour of Abbey & Imbrie's Fly Factory (1897)

The following description was published in the June 12, 1897 issue of Forest & Stream magazine, and describes as well as anything to date a trip through a fly tying factory in Brooklyn. The fly tying factory was that of Abbey & Imbrie, the well known tackle house of Fulton Street.


While the angler of this country stands far ahead in his expertness in casting the fly, it is very doubtful if many know much about the surroundings of the art of fly-tying, or that there is in New York city the only fly factory in this country, and that it is the largest in the world.

At one time Great Britain held the palm for artificial flies and exported them to this country. Now the American flies are exported to England. The superior system of supervision of every process of manufacture and inspection of the finished product is one reason for this; but, undoubtedly the method of "team working" almost universally employed in England is largely to blame for the loss of their trade. By team working is meant that the fly-tying is done at the tenements of the workers and not in a regular factory. In this way one family will, for example, work for years on a very few patterns, and this work becomes mechanical and the tiers lose all interest in it.

In this factory the workers are recruited from the vast population, and no one is employed who does not seem to bd likely to take an interest in her work and who is not pretty well educated. Add to this, the American (as in most business) is on hand personally looking after every detail in his factory, pulling the loose ends together, active and intent on getting the very best individual work he can out of bis intelligent help.

The factory is on the top floors of a building with the best of light and ventilation, and the first section is the feather storage, where in tin-lined bins are stored feathers from almost every known bird of brilliant plumage, Europe, Asia and Africa not excepted. These are divided in the first instance into skins of seafowl and landfowl. The former are most preferred for flies wherever their colors are right, because of the greater amount of oil contained in them, which renders the fly more serviceable and more durable in the water. These feathers are bought from every available source, and so hard is it to keep an adequate supply of the smaller types that it is necessary to carry a stock for four years at least. There is no known or recognized market for them, no set price; the manufacturers find a supply here, there and everywhere, and fix the price according to the quantity. For instance, the barred feathers vary from a quarter of a cent to four cents each. These bulk feathers have to be carefully selected and sorted by girls trained to the work, and they are sorted first to colors, then to quality, then to size. The quality is determined by the closeness of the bars to each other. The size ranges from "14," which are about 1/2 in. long, to "2," which are about 4 in. long; these numbers representing the size of the fly they are intended for. Very few feathers are died, the bulk are used in their natural colors. It takes a girl about twelve months before she is considered competent, as the eye must be educated to' tell the distinction between the close running numbers at a glance. Roughly speaking, there are every year about 150 girls taken on for the various departments, to eventually become fly tiers, and out of these not more than ten have the requisite delicacy and quickness of eye and hand.

When the girls sit down to tie, there are ten girls to every hundred told off simply to wait on the fly-makers and bring them the various supplies called for; and these ten girls are kept hustling all the time. The hooks with the gut snells attached are taken in hand, and with the low-priced flies the body is first formed by deftly wrapping around the shank a piece of suitable worsted, this being the base, in varying colors, for the majority of that grade; then a strip of feather is taken of the type suitable for that particular fly, and this is wound around the upper part of the body, so that the quill section (if one may so term the film of skin) lies its full length next to the body, while the bars of the feather stand out in every direction direct from and at right angles to the body like the spokes In a wheel. This sounds very easy, but it is quite a trick to do it properly, and on this point depends the ultimate success of the fly. Then the wings are added, these being another strip of feather bars, deftly tied so that it stands up behind the collar-like strip just adjusted, at an angle of about 45°, and this effect is secured by a peculiar twisting, whipping and knotting of the silk which holds the tiny artistic creation together. While the British files have wings lying almost flat on the shank of the hook, the American fly has wings standing well up; this being necessary by reason of the more rapid streams in this country.

In the higher class of fly this process of manufacture is reversed to a great extent. Then the bronzed hook, specially tested for temper and strength, having a full hollow point, is taken, and the wing is at once whipped on to the shank, lying flat forward from the barb; then the body of chenille, etc., is whipped on securely, then the tinsel, or whatever the species calls for, and then, the body completed, the wing is bent backward and whipped in its proper position. Thus each portion is separately whipped, and all doubly whipped by the finish at the head, which is then cemented and varnished.

A girl can tie five or six dozen per day of the high grades, and of the cheaper grades a good worker ties from twelve to sixteen dozen per day. This record varies much according to pattern and minutia.

It is found necessary to take all these precautions of separate tyings, cementings and varnishings to make the fly as strong throughout as possible, for none but a fly manufacturer, possibly, fully appreciates the terrific strain placed upon a fly quickly whipped through water, a pressure to the square inch which nothing but the natural elasticity of the feather enables it to bear.

As to the designs of the flies, they are almost all modeled on some insect or bug in nature, the exceptions being certain combinations of colors which have, for some little grasped reason, proved successful in the past. Now a new feature is being taken into consideration, and that is the appearance of the natural fly when wet, and the appearance of the artificial fly when wet. In the water most blues become nearly black, reds become purple, yellow grows several shades lighter, etc., etc., according to the water, and if the insect has, for instance, a pale blue fuzz on a gray skin, and the fly should have a pale blue wing rather long and a slightly darker blue body, in the water it will look to have a body almost black with the wings widely different from the natural insect.

The flies made vary from the tiny "midge" to the great flies which would overlay a dollar; and these are all for trout. The flies for Colorado and Montana are nearly all whipped on double hooks which point out in opposite directions about Jin. apart. The most gaudy and impossible-looking specimens, which go to country sections, where there is a demand for them which must be filled, and which are of little use anywhere else in this country, prove good killers in Maine, where the waters are deep, clear and cold. These are the Silver Doctor, Jenny Lind, etc. The very large flies go mainly to Canada and California, and the Northwestern States, where there is very rapid and deep water, and the fish are plentiful; but an Eastern expert would look askance at any fisherman using them in Long Island waters. In the very high priced flies many designs are special, invented by private individuals, who in Europe would carry their own kit and tie them themselves, but who in this busy country of ours have neither time nor inclination so to do.

Some little idea of the detail in manufacturing flies may be gleaned from the fact that at this factory there are turned out every year about 5,000 flies of different kinds, qualities and sizes, and that each individual one of these is made (with few exceptions) in about 500 varieties, such as sizes of hooks, quality of gut, etc., etc , and that about 10,000 of the more commonly asked for varieties are kept in stock from day to day.

When the flies are completed, each separate one is passed before an inspector and inspected for flawless gut, perfect knotting of snell, perfect whippings of fly, perfect cementing and varnishing, and then goes down stairs into stock with a number which shows who made the inspection; and so, if after the flies have been sold and guaranteed as perfect, anything is found wrong and the customer returns the card, etc., which bears the faulty fly, the poor work can be immediately traced. This system works as a preventative and complaints are very few. This is not done in any European factory.

Eighteen years ago Mr. Imbrie (of Abbey & Imbrie, the proprietors of the company) went to Spain and made arrangements for securing proper and adequate supplies of silkworm gut. This gut on which the fly-hooks are snelled plays an important part in the factory, and is all imported from Europe, being the sac in the silkworm, which nature gave it to generate the silk. These sacs are withdrawn from the insect, and then, tightly held between the thumb and finger of each band, are stretched to about 10 or 12in., in fact, as long as the gut continues round, this being continually tested by the tip of the tongue of the operator, both hands being employed. Quality is roundness rather than weight, and as long as it is round the area of tension is more evenly distributed and the grain of gut uninjured. Thickness only indicates great strength when round, and a flat gut of great width is weaker than a thin round gut as a rule; The quality is judged by appearance, freshness, etc., and it comes ten bundles in a hand, selling by the 10,000. When these are received at the factory each bundle is opened and sorted in sizes as near as possible, and then goes to the knotter, who makes the loops at the opposite end to the hook, drawing them tight over a screw hook in a bench, thus cutting the ends very close, which when the gut (being soaked before tying) dries out, is as hard and tight as if welded. The leaders of various length are no longer lashed in the old way, but by means of a new process are closely whipped and cemented with a waterproof composition which becomes harder with age and more perfect in every way.

It may be remarked that the annoying "snapping" of the fly, breaking it off the line when casting is occasioned, as is well known, by the caster not letting his line get a perfectly straight extension before whipping it forward, but there are also other reasons. One is that the gut is too dry, and that if the gut had been adequately soaked before casting this annoyance would be minimized. Another feature is the new reinforcing of the gut for the higher priced flies, which by bringing the gut back to the free snell, strengthens the snell just where it "snaps," and incidentally gives it a certain stability which makes it "drop" better and straighter. Every piece of gut in this American factory is graded to the hook on which it is to be used, and this is done nowhere else in the world.

Thus the American fly presents almost perfection of art, graded feather, graded gut, graded book, scientific reinforcement of weak parts, waterproof cementing and greater spring to the feathers by reason of their adjustment, rendering the. domestic trout fly, as claimed by the enthusiastic manufacturer, a work of art not ranking behind the paintings of the old masters. In conclusion, the prices of these flies range from 18 cents per dozen to the fisherman, up through the grades of 25, 40, 45, 60, 80 cents, $1, $1.50, $2, $2.50, and salmon flies from $4 to $12 per dozen. Think of the endless detail of the skilled work and then look again at the prices.

-- Dr. Todd

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