Friday, November 14, 2008


According to Confucius, in about 3000 B.C. a young girl named Hsi Ling Shi, who also happened to be the empress, was relaxing in her garden while sipping tea. PLOP! Something falls into her tea cup. ‘Oh drat!’ She delicately mutters. She reaches in to fish out the offending missile and pulls out the cocoon of a silk caterpillar. ‘Ewwwwww, well that’s just nasty!’ she exclaims. She daintily tosses the cocoon to the ground and orders a new cup of tea from a palace servant. While patiently awaiting the beverage’s arrival, she glances back down at the cocoon at her feet. It is now soaked and rubbery looking and she notices the end of a thread has unraveled. Carefully she bends and grasps the thread and the cocoon begins to unwind. Being a young woman of ingenuity, and having nothing better to do, she decides to try and weave the thread. ‘Well’, she thinks while admiring her handiwork, ‘this has turned out far better than I thought it would. This cloth I have woven is so soft and, um, silky, yes; 'silky' is such a cute little word.’ She is only fourteen after all, an age when “y”s are added to the ends of most words in a girl’s vocabulary. Recovering from this moment of girly-ness, she begins to study the life cycle of the silk caterpillar and then instructs her gaggle of lady friends in the art of raising them, an art form now referred to as sericulture. And from that point in history she becomes the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology. You go girl!

The resulting industry is wildly popular and an imperial ban was placed on silk worm exportation and sericulture remained a carefully guarded secret in China for nearly 3000 years. Until that is another young princess, who was about to be married to a prince from far away Khotan, refused to go without her luxurious silk fabric and hid a handful of the caterpillars in her hair as she bit fair-thee-well to mom and dad, thus opening the way for trade and the Silk Road as the other teenage girls of the world demand the wondrous fabric.

Again, the Chinese pretty much had a corner on the silk market until in 550 A.D. When the Roman emperor Justinian I (ruling from 527-65 A.D.) sent two Christian monks to China to risk their lives in stealing mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs. They succeeded and secreting their treasure in their bamboo walking sticks, high tailed it to Byzantium. From there sericulture spread through the centuries to the West and into Europe.

Recently, an archaeological find; a small ivory cup carved with a silkworm design, thought to be between 6,000 and 7,000 years old, coupled with other discoveries along the lower Yangzi River reveal the origins of sericulture to be much earlier than originally thought.

While I, daughter #1 and best-friend Pegeen were visiting Beijing, we were taken to the Yuanlong Silk Factory where we were educated on the process of silk making and were able to witness and even participate in parts of this fascinating procedure. Of course, we were also presented with the opportunity to purchase finished wares.

Entering the factory we were first directed to view a display showing the life cycle of the silk worm, or more correctly, the silk caterpillar, which first involves the incubation of the tiny eggs of the blind, flightless moth (Bombyx mori) until they hatch as caterpillars. They are then placed on their favorite food source; mulberry leaves and covered in a layer of gauze (I assume to prevent escape). The little caterpillar packages are kept on woven trays that are stacked on shelves in a climate controlled environment, which not only means controlling the temperature, but also protecting the worms from loud noises, drafts and strong smells. The racket made by a roomful of munching worms sounds much like heavy rain falling on a roof. For six weeks they chomp away almost continuously, by the end of which they are ready to spin their cocoons and they are given the branches of trees on which to attach themselves. They produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which hardens when it comes in contact with air. For eight days they make their cocoons in one continuous thread which measures from 2,000 – 3,000 feet long. It takes 5,500 cocoons to produce about 2 pounds of raw silk. These thousands of cocoons are gathered and the poor little buggers inside are killed by heating them either in ovens or by steaming or boiling. Boiling also dissolves the gummy substance that holds the thread in place. From there the ends of four to eight cocoons are joined and attached to a reel where they are twisted together first with each other, then with other similarly combined fibers resulting in a thread referred to as raw silk that contains 48 individual silk fibers. These fibers are then twisted again with others to make a thread strong enough for weaving. This is called “throwing” and produces four different types of silk thread depending on how many twists are made and in what combination of directions. I began to think about how very complex this process was, but then I realized that the Chinese had several millenniums in order to perfect it.

We were allowed to pick up and even take home a cocoon of our own. They are oval in shape and about an inch and a half in length. The papery cocoons are very light and if you shake one you can feel the dried up caterpillar inside rattling around.

From there we were shown a reel machine. This is where the fiber ends are attached to reels after being soaked in water to loosen the strands and are then unwound. When one cocoon is finished unraveling, another is attached and a continuous thread is produced. You can see the basket in my photo where the dead caterpillars are collected once the fibers are completely unwound. The cocoons that are processed in this way are ones with a single caterpillar in them. Apparently, there are caterpillars that want to share their little abodes and two will get together and spin one cocoon, their fibers becoming hopelessly entangled. Since these are not able to be unwound like the single caterpillar cocoons, they are soaked in water and then a slice is made down one side. The woven cocoon is stretched over a “U” shaped loop (see photo) to make it big enough for four people to grab a corner and the cocoon is stretched to amazing proportions in order to make a delicate, fluffy layer that is added to the pile of other such layers to compose the filling for a quilt. The three of us tried our hand at this stretching and I don’t think that we will be working a silk factory any time soon, the layer we produced was somewhat lopsided. It really was quite interesting though and in true American consumer fashion I really wanted one of these remarkable quilts. And indeed, the factory wanted me to have one as well. I expressed regret that an entire quilt would not be able to fit in my already over-burdened suitcase and was helpfully told: “We make small for you!” And they did, the quilt was folded and all the air was sucked out, it then took up no more space than a travel pillow. Way cool! Though the duvet covers being displayed were truly gorgeous, they were also beyond my budget, and I would have had a very hard time deciding in any case. But oh! the feel of them! The extravagant opulence of contact with this lush textile makes you just want to slip in and wrap yourself up like, well… a silk worm. Perhaps this is why at various times throughout history silk was only allowed to be used by royalty because should the common man sleep upon it he might never want to rise and go to work. Yes, right about now I believe that I will be crawling under my prized silk quilt for a good night's rest. Thank you little caterpillars for working so very hard to keep me comfortable and warm. And thank you too to all of those clever teenage girls thousands of years ago who sought to make themselves useful and not just sit around under trees sipping tea all day long. Your mamas would be proud!

KKW ©2008

No comments: