While we were in Chiang Mai we visited a silk factory and got to see how silk comes to be from start to finish… First the silk moth lays eggs.
The eggs grow into larvae.
The larvae feed exclusively on the mulberry leaf–which needs a warm, moist climate, which explains why the only silk factory in the UK closed down twenty years ago–their last royal commission was for Princess Diana’s wedding veil. When Di got married her dress designer Norman Hartnell had to quell rumors that the silk was coming from an “enemy state.”
The majority of silk is now grown in China–the industry employs 60 million families.
Princess Di gave each of her bridesmaids a box containing two or three of the silk worms that had made her dress.
Di’s dress totaled 275 yards of silk. Each silk cocoon contains one mile of silk fiber! And its said that each fiber is tougher than a comparable amount of steel, making silk both luxe and durable.
It takes about 35 days from the larvae stage for the moth to start spinning its cocoon. The silkworm has two glands that produce a liquid form of silk which becomes a solid fiber when it comes into contact with air.
The best quality silk now comes from South America; wet weather and floods in China have caused havoc with the harvest, pushing prices to their new high.
Not surprisingly the environmentalists out there have taken issue with silk because the silk worms are gassed or boiled alive in their cocoon.
There are now a few factories that produce “peace silk” by letting the caterpillar live long enough to chew a hole in the cocoon and emerge… but this merely extends their life another dozen days. The sightless, flightless and toothless (it can’t even eat) moth will mate almost immediately after emerging from the cocoon and lay 500 silkworm eggs during their first 4 or 5 days and then die.
I’m not sure getting to live another ten days in such a poor existence really demands the environmental outcry… additionally they have to secrete alkaline to make the hole in the cocoon to escape which breaks the silk fibers and makes it less durable. Either way, it’s still a worm and mulberry leaf intensive product: One pound of silk requires 2600 silkworms and each silkworm eats a ton of leaves.
Silk workers gently dry and brush the outside of the cocoon to find the end of the silk fiber that made the cocoon. The cocoon is carefully unraveled and wound around a spool.
According to Confucius, in 2,640 BC, the Chinese princess Xi Ling Shi was the first to reel a cocoon of silk
Seeing all the ladies weaving made me really want to get a loom!
And there you have it: “With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown” – Ancient Chinese Proverb.